By Molly Dickinson

There are coffee drinkers, and then there are coffee people. Atlanta has been home to the former almost from its beginning; not 30 years after the city’s founding, the Civil War transformed the brew from ration staple to daily ritual. But it’s only in the past handful of years that the city has given rise to the kind of community that not only drinks coffee – it lives and breathes it.

If you ask coffee people like Ben Helfen, Atlanta customer representative for coffee wholesaler and educator Counter Culture, and Jordan Chambers, barista/owner of Steady Hand Pour House, Atlanta’s coffee scene started simmering back around 2003, the same year Tony and Diane Riffel debuted Octane on the Westside.

Like Helfen and Chambers, many of Atlanta’s baristas can trace their careers back through or to the flagship shop. Helfen’s relationship with Durham-based Counter Culture began when he brewed and poured their coffees at Octane. “As far as the specialty coffee world goes,” he says, “Octane was kind of the first shop in Atlanta to take coffee to the next level.”

Now a local chain with shops in Grant Park and Midtown, Octane’s original, free wifi-wired location became a second office and social hub for neighborhood students and professionals, and its coffee, championed by the passionate people behind the counter, caught on. Customers liked choosing their beans by origin and flavor profile, and watching them ground and brewed by hand with French presses, Chemexes and pour-overs by a trained and knowledgeable barista – terms that were as new to many Atlantan tongues as that first sip of expertly frothed, foam-art-topped latte.

The craft approach to coffee brewing percolated through the city over the next several years, fueled by word of mouth (and laptop), by local coffee gurus like the Riffels, Melissa and Chris Owens, who taught many an Atlanta barista how to pull a proper espresso, and Dave LaMont, now Counter Culture’s regional representative, whom Chambers calls “one of most influential people in coffee in Atlanta.”

The establishment of Counter Culture’s Atlanta Training Center at King Plow in 2006, then only the third of eight such centers run by the organization, seemed to affirm that the craft coffee industry – like craft beer, craft cocktails and the broader farm-to-table movement – had found fertile ground in Atlanta. And as the numbers of cuppings (or tastings), labs, competitions and coffee education programs, many free and open to the public, swelled with the rising tide of interest in craft coffee, so did the ranks of baristas and future shop owners eager to put their stamp on the Atlanta scene.

Chambers was one of them. Along with co-owner Dale Donchey, he trained at Counter Culture, then worked at Method Coffee & Tea Lounge through its reincarnation as an Octane satellite before opening Steady Hand in the same Emory Village location in 2010. Today, his shop is often quoted in the same breath as Octane, Condessa, Park Grounds, Dancing Goats, Java Vino and the coffee programs at Empire State South and Cakes and Ale (an argument in itself for the increasing importance of craft coffee in Atlanta’s culinary repertoire), as a site of some of the city’s best brewing. The key ingredient, Chambers and Helfen agree, is care. “It starts at the top,” Chambers says. “If you have owners that care, that’s what breeds baristas that care.”

“My biggest fear for coffee in Atlanta would be, not so much the consumers, but if the baristas and the coffee community started to get lazy and stopped caring as much as they do. I want to see coffee continue to be pushed forward,” Helfen says.

For his part, Chambers hopes his own story will not be a unique one. He’d like to see more local baristas boldly opening their own shops in under-caffeinated corners of Atlanta. “Get it out there,” he says. Coffee is made to be shared.

Historically, coffee has always served as the liquid center of its respective community. One of coffee’s earliest applications, the traditional Ethiopian coffee ceremony, Helfen explains, “involves the whole community getting together around coffee, and coffee being prepared and served, and this communal, interpersonal relationship happening over coffee. That’s coffee’s heritage, and I think that, more and more, we’re getting back to that now.”

On that front, Atlantans have an advantage and an opportunity. We’re a big city that behaves like a small town – word travels quickly, folks gather easily and our coffee scene is still buzzing. As more people discover and seek out new ways to appreciate that next cup, more shops with more baristas will be there to brew it, pour it and foam it, just the way we like it. And, thankfully, pretension is still the exception, not the rule (though most baristas will admit, a dash of it does tend to come with the territory); Atlanta still possesses a sense of accessible, malleable, up-and-coming-ness you won’t find in New York or Seattle. For now, our city’s unique blend of coffee, culture and community is still brewing.

Can we interest you in a taste?

Collin Kelley

Collin Kelley has been the editor of Atlanta Intown for two decades and has been a journalist and freelance writer for 35 years. He’s also an award-winning poet and novelist.

2 replies on “Gaining Grounds: Atlanta’s coffee scene gets stronger”

  1. It’s exciting to read about some of the key players and history of specialty coffee in Atlanta. Over the years a lot of people have put in the time, blood, sweat and tears to brew the best cup of coffee/espresso for customers, friends and family alike. Many shops have provided the right environment and resources to allow Baristas in the city to train, grow in the craft and deliver not only awesome product, but incredible service to match. Coffee isn’t as much about the beverage as it is about the community it serves. I look forward to more coffee drinkers and dedicated coffee people right here in Atlanta so that we all may continue “this communal, interpersonal relationship … over coffee.”

  2. It’s exciting to read about some of the key players and history of specialty coffee in Atlanta. Over the years a lot of people have put in the time, blood, sweat and tears to brew the best cup of coffee/espresso for customers, friends and family alike. Many shops have provided the right environment and resources to allow Baristas in the city to train, grow in the craft and deliver not only awesome product, but incredible service to match. Coffee isn’t as much about the beverage as it is about the community it serves. I look forward to more coffee drinkers and dedicated coffee people right here in Atlanta so that we all may continue “this communal, interpersonal relationship … over coffee.”

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