A brief history of coffee culture in Atlanta
Do you remember a time before lattes that are adorned with frothy hearts? Before single-origin pour-overs that take 15 minutes to brew? When iced coffee was simply a tray of cubes dumped into a pot of Folgers? Even as caramel macchiatos were proliferating in cities like Seattle and Portland, coffee culture was slow to migrate to Atlanta. The first Starbucks opened in 1994; before that, the only place making a decent espresso was Aurora, says Mike Ferguson, Batdorf & Bronson’s business development director.
You can partly chalk it up to simple geography. For one, the South is ground zero for American tea culture; sweetened iced tea is basically Southern culture in a glass. Ferguson also points to the region’s warm climate, which for years made coffee a winter-only staple.
In the mid-1990s, that began to change, albeit slowly. The Olympia, Washington–based Batdorf moved to town the same year as Starbucks, opening a local roasting plant in 1994. Eventually they were followed by independent coffee houses like Cool Beans in Marietta, which Kevin Langill opened in 2001. “At the time, 15 years ago, you would be lucky to get a good cappuccino with a nice foam on it,” Langill says.
But the real coffeehouse boom began with Octane. Tony Riffel and his wife, Diane, opened the first branch of Octane on the Westside in 2003. To train the staff, they brought in M’lissa Muckerman from New York, who wouldn’t let employees work the espresso machine until they’d received a barista certification. Ben Helfen, now at Counter Culture, remembers those early days: “I didn’t even like coffee that much, but I came in for my shift one day, and M’lissa made me this amazing cappuccino,” Helfen says. “That started my career in coffee.” Helfen and Muckerman went on to spearhead Thursday Night Throwdown, a monthly latte art competition, which has since spread across the country. Today he teaches local baristas about everything from executing the perfect pour to the importance of water quality.
Metro Atlanta is now home to 50-plus Starbucks outposts and more than 30 independent coffee shops. At least 13 started brewing in the past year alone. It’s no longer enough to know how to pour a nice tulip. Some coffee shops boast a grander purpose: Land of a Thousand Hills benefits Rwandan farmers; Octavian Stan and his partners bought Condesa Coffee in 2012 in hopes of rejuvenating Auburn Avenue. Others focus on hyperspecialized menu items: pour-overs said to taste like watermelon candy (Rev Coffee) or espresso drinks that are distinguished by ounces of milk (Revelator). “We’ve swung over to super-super specialty, where each individual person gets their own cup with a story behind it and a lot of hype about flavor,” Langill says.
Where’s it all heading? Batdorf’s Ferguson envisions a day when each metro neighborhood has its own high-quality local shop. “The more people are drinking good coffee,” says Helfen, “the better it is for all of us.” —Tess Malone
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“We’re one of the only completely vertically integrated companies I know. We have our own farms; purchase coffee from 2,500 other farmers; wash, export, roast beans. It’s from bean to barista. One of my goals is we’re going deeper into Rwanda. We’re starting a micro entrepreneurship program in Rwanda for our famers to launch into businesses to supplement our coffee.”
—Jonathan Golden, founder of Land of a Thousand Hills
“I remember how different neighborhoods looked in 1996, when I came here. I saw the frustrations that many people see when they come from outside, when it’s mostly suburban with no places to walk.
I’d been toying with opening something for community reasons. You can make more difference with a coffee shop than a restaurant. It’s a place where the community meets and revolutions are started.
Now we’re bringing jobs in these neighborhoods; both of our locations are making a difference.”
—Octavian Stan, co-owner of Condesa Coffee
“In 2008, [fellow barista] M’lissa Muckerman and I went to Washington, D.C., to volunteer at regional barista competition. They had a [latte art] throwdown. It really got me excited about the coffee community, when coffee people get together and nerd out and learn from each other. When I got back, I told M’lissa we should do throwdowns at Octane on a regular basis. In March 2008, we had our first TNT (Thursday Night Throwdown). We started doing them weekly then monthly, and over time that concept of TNTs spread all over the country and the world. In the specialty coffee world, we joke it’s a giant high school; everyone knows everyone.”
—Ben Helfen, wholesale technical services at Counter Culture
“We opened in Atlanta because we were picking up a lot of business on the East Coast. We were concerned about the freshness of our coffee, so it was really just responding to where our business was going. In retrospect, it looks a lot more strategic than it was.
When we first came to town, Aurora was only place, so we stood out. People referred to our coffee as Seattle-style because traditionally at that time Southern coffee tended to be a lighter roast and brewed at a lighter strength.”
—Mike Ferguson, business development director at Batdorf & Bronson Coffee Roasters
“The Westside Octane historically has been Monday to Friday crowd; people work on Westside but live on the eastside. But in Grant Park, weekends are the busiest or busy early in the weekday morning with people grabbing coffee on the way to work. As more people live on the Westside, it’s definitely balanced out.
Atlanta is a food destination, and coffee comes with that. I think we’re going to see a lot more coffee coming to Atlanta; a lot of developments are coming, and they all want a coffee shop in there. I hope Atlanta will become a coffee destination like New York City.”
—Tony Riffel, cofounder Octane Coffee
“In the 1980s, I was drinking construction worker coffee. But when I first got into college in 1990, I went down to Key West’s Baby’s Coffee, and I took a sip of this coffee and could not believe how good it was. It’s like the day I drank fresh squeezed orange juice for the first time—so this is what it’s supposed to taste like. I started ordering good coffee in college. I also took a lot of management courses, so I had to write to business plan, and I decided I am opening a coffee shop.
It is extremely hard to be profitable in a coffee shop. You have to sell a ton of coffee. If you’re in a good area, the rent is usually very high. A lot of mistakes that are made are because a lot of people come in with a passion for great coffee but they don’t understand business, so you see a lot of turnover.”
—Kevin Langill, co-owner of Cool Beans Coffee Roasters