They look tired from their long haul from the high elevations of Colombia, Brazil, Nicaragua, and Honduras to this stately old masonry building that once was an infamous Charleston bordello.
Beyond the thick and heady scent of coffee, though, there’s the sound. It’s coming from the second floor of this three-story headquarters of Balzac Brothers and Company, a loud chorus of fiercely intentional slurps, followed by pitch-perfect quick spits. Echoes of a baseball dugout, or maybe ten-year-old boys in a playground contest. Slurp, spit. Slurp, spit. This room full of slurpers and spitters is a motley crew of stringy beards and tattoos, burley dudes in tank tops, and some in more typically Charleston button-down shirts and khakis, all also sporting Rainforest Alliance aprons. They’ve got silver spoons and spittoons in one hand and iPads or iPhones in the other, and their five senses are fully honed in on one thing—coffee.
Since 2003, the Rainforest Alliance has hosted twice-annual Cupping for Quality events that bring together international coffee experts to systematically evaluate samples from Rainforest Alliance Certified™ growers. The goal is to ensure that coffee producers who meet the Alliance’s rigorous standards for sustainability also meet the high quality standards.
“We believe it’s important to promote Rainforest Alliance coffee. When it comes to ethically sourced coffee, the Alliance is the way to go. They cover all the bases—social, environmental, economic—ensuring the farmers get a better price and the customer gets a better quality coffee,” says Ray Keane, president of Balzac Brothers. Keane had the honor of hosting this cupping, the first ever that the Alliance has held outside of their New York headquarters.
Leading the charge among the Charleston cuppers is Marty Curtis, a Harley rider from Arkansas who has a penchant for nicknames and a palate for coffee. Besides being a world-renowned rebuilder of antique roasters, he knows beans. He pulls back his beard as he bows before a tray of five samples, planting his nose deep into a cup holding precisely 12.4 grams of freshly roasted grinds, then inhales deeply. “Hey, Fatso, what do you smell?” he interrogates John, a Vancouver roaster who oversees the World Barista Championships. “Blueberry, definitely, in the Ethiopian sample,” John answers. These guys could double for Click and Clack the Tappet Brothers, but don’t be fooled. They’re as focused as scientists, as reverent as priests. Cupping is a serious ritual.
The group of twelve esteemed coffee pros will sample and score 1,245 cups over three days, bringing caffeine-fueled concentration, astute sensory awareness, decisiveness, and no shortage of adjectives to the endeavor. They genuflect around tall stainless steel tables set with five trays of five flights each, bowing first to smell the dry grounds, then, after 250 milliliters of water (at an exact 80/40 hardness-to-alkalinity ratio and 195–205 degrees Fahrenheit) is poured into each cup to steep for four minutes, they dip silver cupping spoons (silver dissipates heat well) to “break” the coffee, then smell the fragrance again, before tasting it with that whooshing, robust slurp.
“Taste buds can only distinguish four tastes—salty, sweet, sour, and bitter—everything else is olfactory,” John explains. “The olfactory bulb is in the back of the throat; slurping gets the air back there.”
Ray and his daughter Samantha (dubbed “Blondie” by Marty) slurp from engraved antique cupping spoons that belonged to Samantha’s great, great grandfather Ralph P. Balzac, a New Yorker of Puerto Rican descent who founded the family import business in 1917. At one time, Balzac Brothers was the number one importer of Dominican and Colombian beans in the world. In 1995, Ralph’s son Richard moved the company from Manhattan to Charleston, where today Samantha and her twin brothers, Ricky and Brendan, represent the fourth generation of Balzacs to import select green coffee beans from premier growers around the globe. Containers loaded with 52,000 pounds of coffee come into Charleston’s port and ports around the country, then the Balzac Brothers team assures the bean quality before selling it to roasters throughout the US and Canada.
The coffee-colored heart pine floorboards of this former brothel are now steeped in the sweet, tawny perfume of the arabica fruit. On the window sill there’s an eight-inch-thick ledger, one of many from the company’s archives, that records every Balzac Brothers transaction from 1936–1941 in the elegant penmanship of days gone by. It’s highly likely that world leaders shaping the events surrounding World War II sipped coffee from beans entered somewhere on these pages, en route from Colombian coffee trees to Washington, DC, coffee cups.
After the cuppers finish sniffing, slurping, and sampling each flight, they enter their scores and notes on various attributes of the coffee (fragrance, taste, aftertaste) on their electronic devices. Coffee may be an old-world commodity, but quality assurance tracking is decidedly twenty-first century.
“That one finished nicely,” says Ray, who spent a year in Brazil refining his cupping palate and once won a World Cupping Contest in Costa Rica. The group has gathered in a conference room to share their scorings. “I tasted a buttery caramel creaminess in all the Hondos,” says John, referring to beans from Honduras. “Go ahead, Blondie, tell us what ya got,” Marty encourages Samantha, a first-time Rainforest Alliance cupper. “There’s no being wrong in cupping, just some people are more right than others.”
“We’re thrilled to host the Rainforest Alliance Cupping,” Ray says. “It’s a way for us to give back to this organization that does so much to improve not only the environment but also the quality of the product and the social and economic well-being of the farmers and producers.” Ray’s commitment to sustainability has been at the forefront of the coffee industry. In 2001, Balzac Brothers was the first in the United States to import a full container of Rainforest Alliance Certified™ coffee. “We lost a lot of money on it, because none of the roasters were yet willing to pay a higher price for sustainably grown coffee. But we believed then, as we do now, that it was the way to go. Fortunately most roasters now agree,” notes Ray. In 2003, Balzac Brothers received the Rainforest Alliance’s Corporate Green Globe Award for their groundbreaking efforts.
To cap off three days of tasting and tallying, the cuppers celebrate with an evening sailboat cruise on the Charleston Harbor. Barbeque and local shrimp take care of any
lingering bitter aftertaste. As if on cue, a full moon rises over the Holy City. And after it sets again hours later, coffee
pots all over the Lowcountry will begin brewing their morning blend. — s.h.