By James D. McCallister
Photography by John Wrightenberry
Upon entering Drip, the senses are steeped in an array of enticements. The cinnamon-sweet scent of fresh baked scones wafts through the air. The sizzle of the Panini press induces hunger pangs. Then there’s the pervasive grinding of the beans. But most of all, the smell of the coffee – not brewing per se, but rather dripping, one delicious drop at a time, into a clear glass decanter that looks as though it might be more at home in a lab than in Columbia’s newest and most progressive of coffee shops. This is the face of ‘third wave’ coffee; this is the ambience at Drip, located at 729 Saluda Avenue, in the bustling commercial corridor near the University of South Carolina.
Sensing what he perceived as a ‘culture void’ left by the 2009 closing of longtime fixture Adriana’s, Drip owner Sean McCrossin put his business experience and taste for fine dining to good use in realizing what many in town have found to be the most intense and satisfying coffee they’ve ever tasted. At Drip, his vision of a community-centered gourmet coffee bar and cafe has come to fruition.
McCrossin’s inspirations include coffee shops on these shores as well as in Europe, specifically Italy – the marble bar, for instance, is sourced from an Italian quarry – but its most direct influence may be found at San Francisco’s famous Caffe Trieste, a North Beach cornerstone of the Beat and coffee shop culture that endures to the present time, and that provided the idea of the long wooden bench and movable tables at Drip, which allow customers to mingle and interact as they enjoy their coffee.
“I wanted a mix of Italian and bohemian coffee shop tradition,” McCrossin explains, “with a touch of the slow-foods movement thrown in for good measure. We’re a nation that’s on the run, and I wanted to emulate the European culture that’s about coming in and ordering a coffee or espresso, and then taking a few moments to relax and appreciate it – we should take time to enjoy what we consume.”
McCrossin defines the ‘waves’ of coffee consumption as follows: first wave includes the introduction of coffee to the west from Africa, specifically Ethiopia, through to the time of the early 20th century, when coffee was most often brewed in stovetop percolators. The second wave may be defined by the introduction of easy-to-use countertop coffee machines through the rise of mass-market coffee shops like Starbucks, which still dominates the coffee shop business today.
Third wave, however, marries well to the slow-foods movement McCrossin cited – it’s not only about making what he calls “a damn fine cup of coffee,” it’s about the personal touch of coffee importers doing direct, fair-trade business with small farmers, and the roasting process itself, all of which is conducted in terms of close relationships with both growers and end users. The vanguard of this business model may be found in the Counter Culture brand, which Drip trusts as its principal supplier of coffee beans.
What third wave comes down to at Drip, however, is the attention-to-detail science of the pour-over method, in which servings, temperatures, and even methods of pouring the water over the ground coffee – it’s all in the wrist, in a series of circular motions – produce a consistent but hand-crafted ‘cuppa joe’ each time a customer orders.
As for the flavors one may expect from this exacting method of preparation, look no further than the chalk-written menu board, featuring descriptions of the house blend and six other available beans, which are described like an oenophile’s guide to fine wine. For example, Ethiopian offers ‘honey, lemon, cream, and sweet black tea’ flavor notes, while the more bold Sumatra leans toward ‘caramel and dark chocolate,’ and the house blend (a customer favorite) is described as evoking ‘sweet grapes, lemongrass, and toasted nuts.’ With all this in mind, it’s clear that third wave coffee, as served by Drip, is far from your grandmother’s Mr. Coffee on the kitchen counter gurgling out the morning pot of Maxwell House.
McCrossin reports that even as a child he possessed an entrepreneurial spirit: “I was the kid ordering the box of candy bars and selling them door to door, running a paper route for many years, and going around the neighborhood asking folks if they needed their lawns mowed.” He got his feet wet in the retail trade by spending fourteen years as a record store owner, initially while living on the Outer Banks of North Carolina and then expanding to nearby Wilmington. His first employment out of school had been in the restaurant business, but with music as a primary passion, he found himself moved to enter the CD trade, which at that time the Outer Banks did not offer to its seasonal and permanent residents.
After selling his successful CD stores in the mid-2000s and relocating to Charleston with his wife, USC classics professor Hunter Gardner, the time finally felt right to try his hand at the coffee trade, which had been on his mind since opening his store in Wilmington. “At first I considered again going to work in a restaurant to get more experience, but once you’ve been in business for yourself, it’s hard to go back to being someone else’s employee.”
McCrossin located his initial foray into coffee culture, City Lights, in the heart of Charleston’s tourist district, where it still operates under a new owner. Named to explicitly evoke that bohemian coffee-shop culture associated with the Beat movement and writers like Jack Kerouac, City Lights, for all its charm and success, did not fully embrace the ‘third wave’ attitude now exemplified by Drip, instead occupying a more traditional slice of the air-pot, coffee-on-the-run expectations of the average consumer.
Once McCrossin sampled coffee made with what’s called the pour-over method, however, he knew he’d found what felt like a fresh angle to try in his new home, Columbia, to which his family moved after Gardner became employed at USC. He opened Drip in June 2011 to instantaneous praise and devotion from the coffee-loving community.
Drip’s approach to cuisine mirrors the care McCrossin applies to the selection and preparation of coffee. The menu, principally gourmet sandwiches and baked goods, changes seasonally, but there are a number of items, such as the customer-favorite turkey and brie and a panini-grilled peanut butter and jelly sandwich, that are considered staples. “Being that we’re trying to make the next cup of coffee better than the last cup, we approach the food menu in the same way: always trying to do what we do well even better.”
He attributes much of his quick success to a loyal and hardworking staff, some of whom come in as early as five in the morning to get the baking and other prep underway. “I’m really lucky – everyone who works for me here has very high standards.”
Drip also fulfills its coffee shop mandate by featuring Mind Gravy, an open-mic poetry night, and on alternate Sundays rock documentaries are screened, which enables McCrossin to stay true to his personal roots and interests.
And while McCrossin has no interest in turning Drip into a chain of cookie-cutter cafes, a favorable Main Street economic environment has persuaded him to expand the concept to the downtown business district. To better reflect that area, he’s going for a different feel from the Five Points location – stainless steel counters and more modernist touches versus Italian marble and benches, with a similar menu and, of course, the pour-over method of coffee preparation. McCrossin plans to offer siphon coffee as well, a method similar to the iconic stovetop pots once a fixture of the espresso-lover’s kitchen.
Drip on Main Street opens in January 2013, but for now, diners and coffee lovers may visit the original location, to mingle with students, professionals, and neighborhood regulars who provide the other part of McCrossin’s equation – those who’ve responded to, and love, what he set out to achieve.
Home chefs take a coffee break. Whether you’re out doing your holiday shopping, visiting friends and family, or indeed taking a break, stop by Drip on Saluda for a boost. Relax with a newspaper or magazine, or just hang out and people-watch. Don’t forget Drip on Main Street opening in January – sure to be the perfect place to re-fuel during a stroll down Columbia’s burgeoning promenade.