The sun barely scraps the horizon before the "Open" sign blinks on at the Leopard Forest Coffee Company. A soothing aroma soon fills the chilly morning air, luring still-sleepy customers into the café for a steaming, eye-opening mug of freshly-brewed coffee.
The morning brightens as staffers tackle piles of burlap bags, plump with coffee beans, which line the cafe walls and crowd the counters. When the last 100-pound bag thumps into place beside the humming drum roaster, Ildi Revi Brown turns to her assistants and says, "Let's get roasting."
A World of Coffees
Twice a year trucks come to Travelers Rest until the narrow building on South Main Street holds nearly 20 tons of coffee beans. "We roast almost every day," says Ildi, who owns Leopard Forest.
Most of the beans come from a 1,000-acre farm owned by husband Robert Boswell Brown's family in eastern Zimbabwe. Another 2 tons or so arrive from Kenya, Nicaragua, Ethiopia, Sumatra, and Colombia. "Much of the coffee from our farm is shade-grown," Ildi explains. "That means the plants grow in the shade of indigenous trees, which results in wonderful coffee and also provides habitats for native birds and animals."
After the bags are stacked and sorted, the roasting begins. "A coffee's taste depends on the type of bean, where it's grown, and how long it's roasted," Ildi says. "The moisture content in each bean is different, so we adjust the roasting time. We grow six different types on our farm. Some beans produce better light coffee, while others make a better espresso."
Ildi and her staff process up to 600 pounds a day, filling the back room that houses the roaster with the sound of cracking beans and the scents of an early-morning kitchen. This yields 23 kinds of coffee ranging from Colombia Supremo Huila to Zimbabwean Peaberry. Add 1 of 20 flavorings--such as maple walnut or white chocolate--to those basic beans, and the cafe baristas can whip up more kinds of specialty drinks than a leopard has spots.
From West to East
Ildi and Robert's java journey started in 1989 when a mutual friend introduced the girl from Chicago to a guy from Zimbabwe. "I was teaching in Mozambique when we met. We dated for a while, and then he asked me to marry him," Ildi says. "I called my supervisor back in the States and asked what I should do. She told me I'd be useless if I came back wondering 'What might have happened if. . ..' "
The couple stayed in Zimbabwe and had two daughters. They planned to remain in Africa, but local political concerns brought Ildi and the girls back to America. "We had friends in Montana, so we originally thought about moving out West," Ildi says. "But Seattle had such a glut of coffeehouses in that region, we decided to come East. I'd always been fascinated by the Carolinas, so I visited Travelers Rest and fell in love with it. Rob was happy with the location as well, despite having to bear the brunt of the 9,000-mile commute three times a year."
Prizes and Poets
The business started percolating as soon as it opened in 2004. Its Zimbabwean beans have won the Eastern African Fine Coffees Association's top awards three years in a row, and a leading industry guide that ranks coffees from around the world gave this year's Pinnacle roast 90 out of a possible 100 points. Still, the Browns know that an independently owned coffeehouse has to offer more than award-winning beverages.
That's why Leopard Forest also serves homemade sandwiches, salads, and soups, as well as freshly baked breads and cakes with its coffees and teas. "We get a lot of students from Furman University, North Greenville University, and other nearby schools," Ildi says. "They're one reason we started serving food and put in Wi-Fi service. They can get something to eat, check their e-mail, and maybe hear some music or poetry."
The songs and sonnets started three years ago when the Browns premiered Open Mike Tuesdays. Now singers and songwriters from as far away as Columbia and Asheville beat a path to Travelers Rest every week for 15 minutes of fame in front of a coffee-fueled crowd. The musical evenings proved so popular that Ildi later added spoken-word events she called the Poets in the Forest series.
"We made the right choice coming to Travelers Rest. The community has been so supportive," Ildi says, taking a break from roasting. "Some months we sell almost 1,000 pounds of coffee out of the shop, one bag at a time, not counting the wholesale business. That's a lot of beans."
Leopard Forest Coffee Company: 26 South Main Street, Travelers Rest, SC 29690; www.leopardforestcoffee.com or  834-5500. Hours: 7 a.m.-8:30 p.m. Monday-Saturday. Open Mike Tuesdays start at 7 p.m. (free admission); Poets in the Forest starts at 6:30 p.m. the second Friday of every month ($5 admission goes to the Travelers Rest Arts Mission).
Exfoliating With Espresso
Leopard Forest offers their own espresso body scrub for people who take their coffee externally. Working with Bidwell Botanicals, a bath-and-body products company, Ildi created a unique exfoliant that combines natural ingredients including sugar, shea butter, and espresso beans. "They already made a body scrub with Brazilian coffee, so I asked them what they could do with our beans," she says. "I still haven't told Rob that I did this, but our customers love it."
"Resting in a Leopard Forest" is from the February 2008 issue of South Carolina: People & Places, a special section in Southern Living for our subscribers who live in South Carolina.