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PERC yourself up
Philip Brown is Savannah's coffee guru
"For me it's a cool intersection of art and science," says Savannah coffee guru Philip Brown. (photo Rachel Raab)

Think of the coolest restaurants in Savannah, especially the ones that have opened in the past year or so. Odds are that the coffee they serve is provided by PERC Coffee, all roasted fresh in the Starland District in a humble but stylish storefront.

You may even have seen PERC owner Philip Brown making his wholesale deliveries around town on his sturdy bike (provided by Perry Rubber in trade for a special blend for their shop).

Indeed, you could make the case that the energetic and passionate Brown is in some ways at the absolute center of the local foodie movement, his perfectly roasted coffee the tie that binds a burgeoning corps of forward–looking restaurateurs together in mutual aspiration.

Brown came by his synergistic, holistic business–and–bean philosophy the old–fashioned way: By working his way up. All told, he spent 16 years associated with the Jittery Joe’s coffee chain in Athens, Ga., first as barista and roaster, then as assistant manager, then manager, and then as owner of his own location.

“One of the things that’s helped me is I’ve worked every job in the industry,” Brown says. “When I go on sales calls, before I show up at your door I’ve decided that if I’m you I say yes. I don’t go places where I don’t think it would be a good fit.”

Brown is more than just a wholesale purveyor of coffee. He is positively evangelistic about sound business practices, and considers himself as much of a consultant as a roaster.

“The coffee I bring you weekly is the tip of what I want to do for companies,” he says.

“I want to bring 16 years of experience to figure out how we can lower labor, how we can lower waste, how we can increase profit, how we can make the process of how you do coffee more efficient so you can serve customers quicker. The stronger and more profitable I can make their business, it’s great for me, because they’ll buy more coffee.”

But as always with Brown, there’s a larger picture.

“I want to make sure cool places stay in business!” he says. “If I meet someone growing lettuce for the Savannah Food Co–op, I try to hook those guys up with someone who cooks and sells food. It does nothing for me, but the next time I go to that place my salad might be a little bit better. That kind of stuff somehow in the end always comes back to you.”

We spent a couple of hours with Brown at PERC in Starland the other day. Here’s a sampling of his collected wisdom:

On Savannah’s growing foodie movement:

I thought a lot about where to open. I considered Asheville, Nashville, Charleston. But Savannah grabbed me a lot more. I felt like I can be part of a movement here. Other places have established roasters, and the movement seems a little further along. Here it’s definitely happened but hasn’t really reached Main Street yet. It seemed like a no–brainer that people here would be into it, and that turned out to be true.

I’m realizing how many things got started the same week or same month as me. Green Truck, Butterhead Greens, places like that. We were all part of a wave. What I’m seeing is that everybody not only started when I did, but like me they also worked every job in their industry.

It’s not like they had a bunch of money and were tired of selling cars, which was the case 15 years ago. Also, with the economy like it is, finding a job isn’t so easy, but finding a space is actually relatively easy.

On the roasting process:

Time, temperature and pressure. Those are really the only things I can control other than how much coffee I put in the roaster. Consistency is actually something I’m not so much after. That’s kind of surprising to some people, but my approach is that I want to roast the absolute best batch of coffee I can during that time.

If I were a painter, would I say, gee, I just want to make a painting that’s exactly as good as last time? That’s starting off in a bad head space.

For me it’s a cool intersection of art and science. The art is something I definitely appreciate going into it. The science is something I’m always trying to learn, because the science can help you do the art better.

Organic/Fair Trade coffee or not?

I bring in the best coffees I can find. Flavor is first. Has to be.

A lot of my coffee is estate coffee, which can’t be fair trade because it’s too big an operation. Besides, let’s face it: who’s really down there in Latin America checking on what’s actually fair trade and what’s not? It’s a lot easier said than done.

As for organic, to be certified organic costs a lot of money paid to the government each year. You even pay the gas for the inspectors to come inspect you! If customers demanded organic coffee more and were willing to pay more for it, we’d all do it. But by no means is the coffee always better.

The global coffee trade

Coffee is the second-most traded commodity after oil. This is a really important commodity — it’s huge for these countries that sell it. It’s usually their number one or two export.

It’s amazing to think that before it ever gets to me or to you, up to 50 people have been employed in order to get it here. Another thing that’s really interesting and almost exclusive to coffee is that up until the second you put it in your mouth, you’re a willing participant in that whole process.

Somebody planted that tree and then it grows, and then every one of these Arabica beans has to be hand-picked. There are three different methods of processing. They spread them out on concrete or put them on raised drying beds. They have to be raked two or three times a day. All the bad beans get sorted out, and the beans are screened for quality. Then they get taken either to a co-op, or if it’s estate coffee, sold directly. Then the beans get hulled.

It’s not over when I roast it and you buy it. You can screw it up several different ways! (laughs) You can put it in the fridge or the freezer, which ruins it. Then you add it to your morning ritual. The ritual is part of what makes coffee so special.

Savannah’s potential

Ultimately of course I want my business to succeed and I want other businesses to succeed. But the bigger thing is, Savannah’s where I live. I want to see Savannah become better and better and cooler and cooler.

I would really love to see Savannah keep these young and really bright people. In Athens we would a lot of times see kids who’d just graduated SCAD and moved to Athens. It seems like people graduate SCAD and they’re just outta here. It would be great if we could keep some of them, because they’re really bright kids. I meet more and more of them and I’ve been more and more impressed.

Philip Brown must drink a lot of coffee

Actually I don’t drink that much coffee! I have a cup in the morning, maybe one more cup during the day and then a shot of espresso in the afternoon. I like to test espresso — I’m always blending and testing. 

PERC Coffee is at 2424 DeSoto Ave. Call them at 912/209-0025.

Find PERC Coffee by the cup at Sol, Leoci’s, Butterhead Greens, Green Truck Pub, Local 11 Ten, Cha–Bella, Kayak Kafe, Circa 1875, Lulu’s Chocolate Bar, Smooth, Rogue Water, Brasserie 529, Tybee Island Social Club, Cafe Zeum, and The Starland Cafe.

Get it by the bag at: FORM, Brighter Day Grocery, Perry Rubber Shop, Butterhead Greens, Savannah Co–op, Cha–Bella Farm Box, and Hostel in the Forest.