Take a walk on River Street. Listen to the blues-crooning buskers rasp twelve-bar tunes over the pat-pat-pat of a riverboat’s wheel. Thick wafts of hot sugar and nuts sweep across you and settle deep in your bones. The effortless beauty that attracts people from all over the world to Savannah is also what makes collective progress difficult. I mean, the city is celebrated for not changing, even in the midst of Sherman’s March to the Sea. In the oldest city in Georgia, people like things just so, and that’s not a bad thing. Abiding change is gradual and resolute. At PERC Coffee Roasters, we try to facilitate a change between people and their relationships with coffee.
I’ve been drinking coffee a long time, but the first cup I remember—the first cup I experienced—was a washed Guatemalan from PERC. Finca el Limonar. I got it on the way to my nightshift at a downtown coffee shop. When I described the cup—sweet, lemon, milk chocolate—my shift leader laughed. “It’s just coffee.” The next day, I asked Philip, PERC’s owner, for a job.
My favorite thing in the world to hear is a surprised, “This is good black.”
When Philip Brown left his band and roasting gig at Jittery Joe’s in Athens to bring PERC to town, there were two beloved coffee shops in Savannah. They were great places to spend an afternoon, but both were comfortable serving yesterday’s drip on ice. Philip recognized the need for shops like these. He also knew he could offer something different from super-autos and second crack to those who would trust him. He opened PERC in 2010 on DeSoto Row, a strip of cramped spaces in West Savannah that’s now known for incubating successful businesses. Successful, indeed.
Today, we work six days a week in a brick-and–I-beam warehouse on the east side of town. You’ll know us by the hand-painted factory banner. Turn the handle and push hard. Beside our weekend project, The Shop, we’re not a coffeehouse, but saddle up next to our GB/5 at the restored carpenter’s bench and we’ll make you a cup anyhow. Listen carefully and you might distinguish the jet-engine whirr of our slick Diedrich CR-24 from the cog-and-chain roar of our dusty, darling IR-12 as the packing team sling boxes of bulk through the glass roll-up. Welcome.
Working in Savannah’s developing coffee scene puts us in a unique position. We take cues from emerging trends and evolving theories, then weigh them against our own ethos. Ideas that make the cut are put to work for us and our community. Friday mornings the warehouse is open for free public tastings. Usually, the coffee is served in cupping bowls, but last week we brewed this dynamite Kenyan five different ways. To have newcomers show up and get vocal about the differences between a V60 and a coffee shot is a beautiful thing. It’s sublime.
Since Savannah’s coffee scene is still small—though it’s exploding—our community isn’t susceptible to the influence of industry trends in the way big-city scenes are. That means PERC, a roaster without a café, can play with unconventional coffee service. We can do things like run this Saturday menu: “This week at The Shop – V60/ Wave – Tanzania Kiboko/Colombia Tolima – Pick three.” But a menu like that only works when two other elements are present: graciousness and education.
My favorite thing in the world to hear is a surprised, “This is good black.” There is so much going on in a moment like that. Once, a new face found us brewing filtercones of a Sulawesi. When the woman found out we didn’t keep cream or sugar, she turned for the door. “Just try it,” I said. “I like a lot of cream,” she said. “I’ve tried.” Her cup was on me, I said. She took it outside and puckered and sipped. Then she stopped talking to the kid selling wire-wrapped crystals in the courtyard and focused on her cup and drained it there in the yellow noonday haze. Savannah is getting it.
We often start off new customers with a natural Ethiopian. Roast and brew it right and you’ll blow people’s minds every time. It’s a rare opportunity to give somebody an enriching experience, especially when it comes to something as common as coffee, which many Savannahians take for granted. It’s not their fault. They don’t know any better and there was a time when we didn’t either. None of us knew anything about coffee, and then we had a moment. For some, the moment comes and goes. In others, a seed is planted. The pursuit of the perfect cup is an endless journey and the key to community is nurturing that curiosity, however fresh it may be. No need to rush.
—Spencer Perez is a writer in Savannah. He’s PERC’s quality control and education manager.