My first food industry job was as a barista. I grew up cooking and enjoying eating, but that job, at a coffeehouse in suburban New York, was the start of my culinary obsession. In the weeks before the coffeehouse opened, my boss and trainer had me pull thousands of shots of espresso and steam hundreds of pitchers of milk. Everyone fixated on the flavor, mouthfeel and balance of each drink. This ritual, of aiming for perfection over and over, delighted my detail- and pleasure-loving nature. I didn't know it at the time, but that job was the true beginning of my career.
America's enthusiasm for coffee runs on parallel tracks with its growing foodie culture. Coffee is, for many, the gateway drug — the first step toward heightened standards when it comes to matters of taste. Good coffee, or at least better coffee, was available to the masses long before many cities had decent gourmet markets.
In the last five to 10 years, coffee's made huge leaps in quality thanks mainly to roasters and baristas. A competitive barista culture has emerged in Atlanta out of the Westside coffee shop Octane, where baristas face-off during its Thursday Night Smackdowns. This weekend Atlanta hosts the World Barista Championship, where 49 baristas representing their countries will compete. While latte art and sugary drinks still make up a portion of such events, more emphasis is being placed on extracting perfect espresso, and the complex flavor profiles of different origins and roasts.
At Octane and at Decatur’s new coffee shop Method, you'll find baristas so passionate, hearing them discuss coffee is like listening to a star sommelier.
We also have roasters and growers to thank for the coffee revolution. There are now a number of local roasters in Atlanta, as well as access to a selection of highly specialized national brands. Roasters are becoming active players in everything from educating the public to advocating for the farmers whose coffee they buy. Counter Culture, a relatively new company to enter the Atlanta market, is making huge changes to the lives of farmers they buy from in South and Central America, says Octane’s owner, Tony Riffel. “They are getting these farmers to taste their own coffee, for the first time ever,” Riffel says. “That’s huge.”
So what makes good coffee good? And what's available in Atlanta? In an effort to guide folks, Atlanta photographer and coffee aficionado Joel Silverman offered to host a CL blind coffee tasting panel. Silverman set the whole thing up, buying the beans, making the espresso, and establishing parameters for the tasting. I invited Riffel, Greg Best, mixologist at Holeman & Finch (who, in my opinion, has one of the best palates in the city), and Jennifer Zyman, CL Cheap Eats writer and food blogger extraordinaire to take part.
Silverman set up the six brands ahead of time, giving them "Simpsons" monikers to hide their true identities. He then ground and served the espresso using his KitchenAid Pro Line Burr Coffee Grinder and Rancilio Silvia espresso machine, grinding rice between coffees to clear the grinder of residue. We judged based on a number of qualities, including aroma, mouthfeel, acidity, flavor and finish. Here are the results, starting with the overwhelming favorite and moving down the line:
Intelligentsia Black Cat espresso, aka Bart
Based in Chicago with outposts in New York and Los Angeles, Intelligentsia has a cultish following. The company actively works with coffee growers, having a hand in the production during the growing rather than simply buying the beans. Everyone but me picked this as the favorite (and I chose it as my second favorite), citing floral aromas, medium acidity, great balance and a nice, full mouthfeel. “I really enjoyed that,” came Riffel’s satisfied sigh after a first taste. It should also be noted that this is the most expensive of the coffees we tasted, at around $16 a pound. All the others were around $12 or under. Served at Method Coffee.
Batdorf & Bronson Dancing Goats, aka Maggie
Dancing Goats began in Olympia, Wash., in 1988, and two years later the owners purchased a coffee roaster called Batdorf & Bronson. The company opened a roastery in Atlanta in 1994. The coffee is well-known to Atlantans, as it's served at Aurora Coffee, thought of by many as the city's first great coffee bar. Zyman and Best had the coffee tied for second favorite, citing a nice mid-range acidity with some bitter almond flavor notes.
Counter Culture La Forza, aka Lisa
Started in North Carolina and now with roasting facilities in Atlanta, Counter Culture also places a strong emphasis on fair trade and single-origin coffees. La Forza is a Southern Italian-style espresso. Tasters got a lot of blueberry fruit up front (Riffel described it as "Jolly Rancher"), with a pleasingly balanced bitter finish. Counter Culture is the brand used at Octane.
Starbucks, aka Marge
Silverman included Starbucks as the control coffee, since it's the espresso most consumed in America. It was the only coffee he bought that didn't have a roasting date (all the others were roasted within a week of the tasting). Zyman and Riffel picked up on the bitter notes, but everyone agreed that it was a well-balanced shot. I, dear readers, picked it as my favorite of the bunch, with a velvety mouthfeel and high but bright acidity. Didn't believe us this was a blind tasting? Now you do. Best picked it as his second favorite.
Java Vino, aka Grandpa
Java Vino, a coffeehouse in Poncey-Highland, uses coffee grown by co-owner Heddy Kuhl's family in Nicaragua. The coffee is roasted on-site. We all agreed it was a nice shot but some of us found it a little weak. I got a lot of grassy/chemical flavors and smells. Riffel, however, picked this as his second favorite.
San Francisco Coffee, aka Homer
Started in Vinings in 1992 by a local couple, San Francisco Coffee now has three Atlanta locations and roasts coffee at the Virginia-Highland location. Generally, the retail espresso isn't the same blend used in the store machine, but Silverman was able to procure the same beans usually used for in-house espresso drinks. Unfortunately, this was the one coffee that got no love from any of the tasters. We assumed it was Starbucks because of its overwhelming bitterness.