In City on the Verge, Mark Pendergrast wrote about the “cool Dancing Goats coffeehouse” in Ponce City Market, as part of his walk along the Eastside Trail. I have known Mark for many years from the coffee world as the author of Uncommon Grounds, his history of coffee, and we have talked about the importance of coffeehouses in providing a place for people to meet in a culture that is increasingly fragmented and isolated. In a way, coffeehouses are like the BeltLine, a place that brings people together. So Mark asked me to write a piece about the history of specialty coffee in Atlanta.
Twenty-five years ago, specialty coffee in Atlanta was dominated by J. Martinez & Company, Coffee Merchants. Restaurants and cafes considered it a mark of excellence if they served coffee from J. Martinez. They were not wrong. John Martinez was a specialty coffee pioneer, and in the South this was not an easy trail to cut.
If you were looking for a coffeehouse, you choices were more limited. The first Starbucks would not arrive until 1994. Fortunately, your choices included Aurora Coffee, which had several locations back in the old days. Today, the one remaining location in Little Five Points is thriving and remains true to its heritage and the days when spending time at a coffeehouse was still viewed as an alternative lifestyle.
Back then, Aurora coffee was referred to as “Seattle style,” in no small part because Aurora’s coffee roaster was located just south of Seattle. Batdorf & Bronson Coffee Roasters still roasts coffee for Aurora today, the difference being the coffee is now roasted in Atlanta, and has been for over twenty years. Based in Olympia, Washington, Batdorf & Bronson Coffee Roasters opened a coffee roasting facility in Atlanta around the same time Starbucks opened their first coffeehouse in the city.
After roasting coffee in Atlanta for more than a decade, Batdorf & Bronson opened its first retail location, Dancing Goats Coffee Bar, in Decatur. In 2012, Larry and Cherie Challain, the owners of Batdorf & Bronson, were touring a hulking and dilapidated brick eyesore east of midtown, once and long ago the southeast distribution warehouse for Sears and Roebuck. Their tour guide told them that the near ruin would soon be transformed into a multi-use retail, office, and housing site. The Challains’ caught the vision and became the first retailers to sign a lease for what would become Ponce City Market.
When Ponce City Market opened its leasing office in an old Sears auto repair building on the corner of Glen Iris and North Ave., a Dancing Goats Coffee Bar opened adjacent to the office soon after, where it remains, and with its large outdoor deck is regularly listed as one of the best coffeehouses in Atlanta.
Today, unlike twenty-five years ago, being listed as one of Atlanta’s best coffeehouses takes more than serving “Seattle style” coffee. Just a few years before Batdorf & Bronson opened Dancing Goats in Decatur, Octane opened a coffeehouse on the other side of town, long before the “Westside” was cool, and it is often named one of the best coffeehouses in Atlanta. Now, Octane has six locations in the city and roasts its own coffee. Octane introduced the coffeehouse-by-day, bar-by-night concept to Atlanta.
The competition for Best Coffee in Atlanta is tough these days. In addition to Dancing Goats (soon adding a mid-town location), Aurora, and Octane, there’s Hodgepodge, Condesa, West Egg, Rev Coffee, Café Intermezzo, Land of a Thousand Hills, Revelator, Brash, Spiller Park, and Tap Room. This is, admittedly, an abridged list.
It’s not Seattle, but coffee culture in Atlanta can now stand up proudly to anything on the east coast.
Mike Ferguson is an eighteen year coffee industry veteran, formerly with Batdorf and Bronson, and currently owner of Fresh Ground Consulting (www.freshgroundconsulting.com), helping organizations define their brand voice, brand story, and brand strategy.