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    The Young and the Restless: Atlanta’s Burgeoning Coffee Scene

    by Deanna Dong with Antoinette Bruno
    Antoinette Bruno Antoinette Bruno
    May 2012

    It may not be a pioneer of the coffee frontier like Portland or San Francisco, but Atlanta is home to a growing number of baristas and roasters with a passion for the bean and love of the (caffeinated) brew. During our culinary adventures in the city, we tasted with creative coffee venues boasting impeccable technique and drinks rivaling more coffee-forward metropolises.

    Case in point, the Cascara of Finca Tanzania, a "coffee-tea" brewed by Empire State South Barista Emily Letia. Letia takes dehydrated cherries (usually discarded after the beans are harvested) and, by steeping them in hot water, creates a fruity, cinnamon-y hybrid beverage, lighter than coffee but more potent than tea. We also got a kick out of Octane Coffee's espresso, which uses a three-bean blend (Brazil, Guatemala, and Ethiopia) roasted in house at their plant in Alabama. The combo delivers balanced drinks full of brightness and acidity, with notes of chocolate and nuts.

    While innovation is at the heart of Atlanta's coffee scene, accessibility and education are also key, as the market is still very much in its adolescence. As Letia puts it, the public must learn that "coffee is not just a simple espresso button." As a result, coffee professionals are pulling double duty, slinging orders behind the bar while spreading the gospel of the java bean. There may be challenges to pushing the culture forward (Rev Coffee's Barista Aajay Murphy and Roaster Daniel Riggins told us some shops in Atlanta have tried to serve only manual pours, but were eventually pushed to include automatic drip as well), but Atlanta's coffee scene is most definitely perking up.

    Empire State South

    Empire State South
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    Empire State South

    At Empire State South, 2007 Atlanta Rising Star Chef Hugh Acheson's temple to Southern cuisine, the food may shine but the coffee bar is creating a buzz all its own. Barista Emily Letia got her coffee feet wet at a shop in Roswell, Georgia, and spent countless hours geeking out about roasting and brewing ("it's something me and my friends do all the time: free time, work time"). After completing the Counter Culture Coffee Counter Intelligence program, she headed to ESS to run the coffee bar program. Speaking to Letia, it's obvious that her thirst for coffee knowledge runs deep. Already a master of brewing and pouring, her eyes light up when talking about her plans to learn more about farming and roasting.

    Letia's passion translates into the drinks she serves. For those who want to keep it simple, she offers individual brewed-to-order cups of coffee using quality seasonal beans and the manual pour-over method. If you're craving more bells and whistles, Letia pours traditional cups of espresso, macchiato, cappuccino, and latte. The Cortado is a favorite among customers (Acheson's coffee drink of choice as well), balancing equal parts espresso and milk and capturing the creaminess of a latte with the strength of a shot. Our favorite, however, had to be the Georgia Coffee, an iced coffee mixed with Georgia's Johnson Dairy milk, local chai, and house-made vanilla syrup. This ode to the Peach State is spicy, sweet, and creamy, like a liquid ginger snap in a Mason jar. It requires all your self control not to chug in a single gulp.

    Octane Coffee

    Octane Coffee
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    Octane Coffee

    The newest location of Octane Coffee, in Grant Park, serves premium caffeinated fuel for the weary in its airy, exposed brick, industrial vibe café. The open space and spacious tables encourage visitors to sit down, open their laptops, and enjoy a cup of joe. And sit down and stay awhile you will. Octane's commitment to their product is obvious; they roast their own beans in Birmingham, Alabama, and serve Chemex and French press-style brews. "Atlanta is growing as a coffee-consuming town and Octane has been successful in serving a higher quality product because we put such an emphasis on training," explains Barista Dustin Mattson.

    Mattson's foray into coffee began a few years ago when living in South Carolina. A friend left for a trip to India and Mattson was charged with running his coffee shop despite having no prior experience. The stint was hectic, but it also marked the beginning of his career in coffee. He now oversees Octane's menu, which is stocked with standards such as macchiato, cappuccino, mochas, and carmelatto. Our cup of mocha was especially memorable; the house-made chocolate sauce of semisweet morsels, cocoa, and brown sugar played off the complexity of the café's signature three-bean espresso blend in a balanced, smooth coffee.

    Steady Hand Pour House

    Steady Hand Pour House
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    Steady Hand Pour House

    If you wanted to write the book on Steady Hand Pour House, possible titles could be Road Warriors to Shop Owners, The Marriage of Science and Coffee, or The Little Coffee Shop That Could. Barista-Owners Dale Donchey and Jordan Chambers first worked together at the now defunct Method Coffee Bar and Tea Lounge. When the owners abruptly left the shop, Donchey and Chambers were the only employees remaining, and the two toughed out a few last weeks together, struggling to use tip money to buy beans. Despite these dire conditions, the duo chose to persevere rather than bolt from the business.

    After working 10 months as baristas at Octane Coffee (which took over the Method space) and completing a consulting job for Wolff Coffee Roasters in Australia, the two were ready to run their own venture. First came Rattletrap, where Donchey and Chambers equipped a 1982 Volkswagen with two Groove espresso machines and took brews to the street. A few months later, Donchey and Chambers went full circle by taking over the original Method-turned-Octane space, opening Steady Hand Pour, their own technique forward coffee shop.

    Steady Hand Pour exudes reverence for brewing methods that look like they belong in science labs rather than a kitchen. Not only do patrons have the option to enjoy Chemex-brew, they also have the rare chance (at least in the Southeast) to try a Siphon. "One of the cool things we like to say [is that] Chemex is like the half-marathon and Siphon is the full-marathon. What is cooler than watching something get lit on fire?" poses Donchey. (The Siphon apparatus consists of two chambers: Water is heated in the lower vessel until it expands and moves into the upper vessel, which contains the coffee grounds. When the coffee has finished brewing in the upper vessel, heat is removed and the pressure change causes the liquid to return to the lower vessel, through a strainer that keeps grounds in the top chamber.) Not only is it visually exciting, the Siphon-brewed coffee is delicious and distinct on the tongue as well. Our cup of their Intelligentsia Finca La Soledad, Itzamna, and Guatamala blend was clean, grassy, and sweet, with a noticeable sheen of coffee oil from the Siphon method. Although technique reigns mighty here, there's no holding back on creativity either. Behold the Cola Cocktail, an icy and delightful nod to the Atlanta-based soda, made with espresso, Mexican Coca-Cola, and house-made vanilla syrup.

    Rev Coffee

    Rev Coffee
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    Rev Coffee

    While Atlanta might be the hub of coffee culture in Georgia, 16 miles outside of the city is Smyrna, where Rev Coffee is roasting its own beans, developing inspired drinks, and creating a unique community space all at once. Located in an old Mercedes Benz shop, the café is filled with eclectic assortment of chairs and couches, offering up space to local writers, musicians, and artists. Barista Aajay Murphy and Roaster Daniel Riggins provide a home to bible study groups and open mic nights, striving to make this a comfortable space that meets the needs of the neighborhood.

    While the coffee-shop-as-common-space trend has been popular since "Friends", what makes Rev Coffee more than just another Central Perk is its drinks menu. Roasting their beans in house, the Rev boys buy quality beans from reputable importers, changing the lineup of eight offerings with the best seasonal varietals. While Murphy may have had his start in the coffee industry at Starbucks, his drinks are far from commercial recipes. The cappuccinos here are the traditional 6-ounce cup (rather than the 14-ounces customers have come to prefer), striking a careful balance between sweetness of the milk and chocolate bitterness of the espresso. The Soy Con, blended with cold-brewed Brazil Cerrado, is Rev's version of a vanilla soy iced coffee, inspired by the night roaster who made a similar concoction to survive late shifts. This drink is creamy and refreshing, with an earthy tone from the soy milk. "We use a toddy grinder and soak the coffee for 16 to 24 hours. It produces an insane thick concentrate that's great for iced coffee and drinks like this," says Murphy.

    Jittery Joe's

    Jittery Joe's

    Jittery Joe's

    While baristas might be physically closer to the average coffee drinker than their roasters, they can't brew a good cup without quality beans. Jittery Joe's Coffee, a roaster based in Athens, Georgia, exemplifies the dedication to coffee that is necessary for true market domination. The company offers over a dozen varietals hailing from 18 different countries, all micro-roasted (roasted in small batches) to ensure that the best flavor and richness is retained in the product. Cleverly-named house-made blends are also available for order such as the Terrapin Wake-n-Bake (blend of beans from Zimbabwe, Costa Rica, and Nicaragua with notes of acidity and earthiness) and Whoop-Ass In a Can (South American and Central American beans with medium body and medium roast). Jittery Joe's also sources more nonstandard varietals, including a Nicaraguan Selva Negra bean that is naturally aged in the cherry until it dries into raisin for four to six months.

    A big contributor to the success of Jittery Joe's java is the man behind the beans, Roast Master Charlie Mustard. While writing his masters thesis at University of Georgia, Mustard frequented a Jittery Joe's café in Athens and found he did his most productive work while sipping a caffeinated brew. Around this time, the owners bought a Diedrich IR-12 commercial coffee roaster and needed someone to work the machine. "I had a good science background," says Mustard. "So I went to the UGA science library, looked it up, and I thought 'Man, I'd be interested in doing this.' " From there, Mustard never looked back. He puts tremendous heart into his product, from working intimately with coffee farmers to overseeing each batch of roasting. Despite a national distribution, the operation still manages canning needs by hand. While quality is at the forefront of Jittery Joe's business mission, successfully meeting the needs of customers is a close second in terms of priorities. "We roast a coffee that goes with our philosophy," says Mustard. "We don't have one set window [in] how we roast coffee. We roast for the people." And the requests range all across the spectrum, and Mustard always manages to serve up something up to snuff.