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Monday, April 13, 2009

A guide to Atlanta coffee

click to enlarge DOH! The secret beans revealed
  • DOH! The secret beans revealed

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.

Continue reading "A guide to Atlanta coffee"

(Photo by Jennifer Zyman)

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