I have three basic priorities when I travel: coffee, food, booze, and in that order. This trinity has served me well, and so on a recent trip to Charleston, South Carolina with my girlfriend, we found all three in ready abundance. With local dining institutions like Husk and Minero from chef Sean Brock and a whole slew of Southern and Southern-inspired food options, we knew we'd be in good hands. And let's face it, where there's good food there will be good drinks—many of Charleston's best restaurants have killer bar programs. But what about coffee?
Through a combination of research, wandering, and happy accidents, Savannah (my girlfriend, not the Southern city) and I spent a fine few days drinking coffee throughout Charleston. What I found was a diverse range of shops and a coffee scene just beginning to come into its own, offering some truly great and unique offerings. This is a short, personal, and admittedly incomplete guide to some of the best and brightest coffee offerings in Charleston proper. Food and drink recommendations are peppered throughout (it's that kind of town).
Kudu Coffee & Craft Beer
The first stop on our trek about town (and talk about a trek, you can walk this city or ride a bike with ease, just bring the right shoes) was about a mile away from where we were staying at the NotSo Hostel, which I highly recommend for budget travelers. Our destination was a shop called Kudu Coffee & Craft Beer. Fresh off a grueling day's travels, coffee was a necessity and beer was icing on the cake. What we found was an inviting cafe right around the corner from King Street, a major artery of downtown Charleston.
Opened in 2005, Kudu was originally a shop focusing exclusively on African coffees and goods. In 2010, brothers Josh and Jason Bell bought Kudu from the original ownership and began to expand their coffee program. As two of the pioneers of Charleston's specialty coffee scene, the Bell brothers have found themselves putting a lot of extra legwork into the business, first becoming La Marzocco trained technicians, then joining the local roasting scene by acquiring a Diedrich IR12.
Kudu offers all of the standard coffee and espresso beverages you'd expect, prepared on batch FETCO brewers and a La Marzocco FB80, respectively. They serve a variety of muffins, croissants, and sandwiches. Kudu also features a small beer bar component where they have been offering 20 beers on tap, mostly local or regional. The space itself offers a large amount of indoor seating as well as a large beautiful outdoor patio complete with a running fountain.
Black Tap Coffee
On our way out, the guys at Kudu suggested we check out Black Tap Coffee, another coffee shop within walking distance. Savannah and I began to head south several blocks toward Charleston's Battery, a historic district lined with mansions, cemeteries, and no shortage of churches (Charleston is The Holy City, after all).
We arrived at Black Tap in Charleston's Harleston Village neighborhood in the humid heat of the afternoon, thankful to find some air-conditioning. Black Tap opened in February 2012, and is charmingly minimal, a bright and modest space uncrowded by beautiful natural wooden furnishings, black and white vintage photos, and small potted succulents. The espresso bar consists of a nice matte black La Marzocco GB5 paired with a Mazzer grinder. Pour-over coffees are made using the Kalita 185 ceramic dripper and the Mahlkönig EK 43 grinder. Black Tap has also recently begun their foray into roasting, with a production facility off-site that includes a 15-kilo Loring Falcon Smart Roaster.
Given the heat of the day, it didn't take long to arrive at our drink order—we went straight for the coffee cocktails (non-alcoholic) section and ordered two Black Juleps, a specialty beverage consisting of espresso, honey, and mint shaken in a cocktail shaker with ice and poured over freshly crushed ice. It hit the spot and, even better, felt exactly like what one should be drinking at a contemporary Charleston coffee bar. Sense of place just makes everything taste better.
From Black Tap, we were sent a couple of miles north on King Street to a new shop in town called Saint Alban. On our way there, we had to make a little pit stop about a block away at Saint Alban's sister restaurant, Leon's Fine Poultry and Oysters, where we had my personal favorite meal consumed on the trip (get the shrimp roll and the hushpuppies, you won't regret it).
Upon arriving at Saint Alban, I had recalled being told that the shop had only been open for about 6 months, which didn't seem at all possible. The place was beautifully finished and decorated in detail. Upon further inquiry, I found out that the shop had indeed only been open for 6 months and that the space had previously been occupied by an audio equipment rental facility, or somesuch. The flooring was freshly laid using wood from old stock cars; everything adorning the bar and restaurant had been carefully curated and was consistent with what owners Brooks Reitz and Tim Mink had exhibited at Leon's Fine Poultry and Oysters. I could go on, but highlights include the vintage tap towers behind the bar and really beautiful illustrations of various coffee drinks and cocktail offerings adorning many of the numerous mirrors throughout the cafe, completed by an unnamed regular customer.
The overall feel of Saint Alban is best compared to a French bistro, inspired by the theme of the Book of Saint Albans, a 15th-century book which was “a compilation of matters relating to the interests of the time of a gentleman.” But this cafe is no antique; evoking antiquity allows Saint Albans to function as a gathering place where people can keep conversation alive in a digital age. It's a neat parlor trick, and it works.
Saint Alban proudly serves coffee from La Colombe Workshop. Espresso beverages are prepared using a La Marzocco GB5 and a Mythos grinder. Drip coffees are prepared on FETCO batch brewers. The coffee menu consists of the traditional offerings as well as a few signature beverages like the espresso and tonic, and Mexican mocha. Saint Alban also serves a full food and alcohol menu, all of which looked absolutely delicious, and if Leon's was any indication as to the taste then the looks did not lie.
Our last stop on the way out of town was to another shop on King Street, The Daily, sister restaurant to the widely acclaimed Butcher & Bee, whose fresh-baked bread is served at fine establishments across Charleston.
The Daily turned out to be an aptly named excellent day-starter. The space itself is open and inviting, with seating and products encircling an open kitchen and bar workspace in the middle of the floor plan. Most of the seating consists of stools at window tables that look out over busy King Street.
A Stumptown account, The Daily churns out Hairbender espresso on a sea-foam blue La Marzocco GB5. Drip coffees are batch brewed and served diner-style. The drink options consist of all the standard fare, but allow me to recommend the Seasonal Espresso Tonic. This is a layered beverage, with espresso floated on top of a grapefruit soda and ice, garnished with an orange peel. The end result is refreshing, and a perfect way to start your Charleston day. The breakfast items were fantastic as well, especially the avocado toast and the breakfast BLT—those Southern heirloom tomatoes are no joke.
The Daily also offers fresh-baked pastries, smoothies, beer, wine, and all kinds of dry goods and snacks in a market environment. It's truly a one-stop shop and a great launching point for a busy day. And as launching points go, this was the perfect one to send us packing out of Charleston and up to Sunset Beach to marinate in the sun for a few more days on the coast.