A Unique Experience of Art, Coffee, and Community at Docent Coffee in Atlanta

One of the most interesting and unique coffee shops in the Atlanta area is Docent Coffee, located in the Old Fourth Ward / Sweet Auburn neighborhood of Atlanta. This coffee shop has a unique mission in making coffee and art accessible, without being snobby or pretentious. The coffee shop—which also does an incredible job roasting coffee beans in-house—partners with local artists and puts their artwork on every coffee bag they sell in store and online.

The co-founders of Docent Coffee have a diverse set of experiences in coffee and art, bringing their passions, knowledge, social networks, and synergies into one coherent space, branding, and mission. As they explain:

We think specialty coffee should be more approachable, which is why we have taken it upon ourselves to make great coffee, and the community it has traditionally been associated with fostering, accessible again...to everyone. We at Docent feel that you can roast and serve seriously amazing craft coffee, without taking yourself, and the entire endeavor, too seriously. After all, the hip branding, the carefully curated social media content, and all the other already well-trodden 'coffee cliches' relating to specialty coffee aren't going to make that coffee you're drinking taste any better or worse...so why hang your hat on that stuff? 

So we just try to be ourselves. This simply involves roasting the best coffee we can, forging personal relationships with coffee farmers from around the world, sourcing the best teas available, seeking out/promoting great local art, and doing our part to support the communities we feel passionate about. 

Similar to how a docent at a museum is there to guide you, the team at Docent Coffee aims to do so for both coffee and art—they are there to helpfully navigate you in discovering something new in coffee and in art. It’s an amazing concept that is truly unique not just in the city of Atlanta but in the greater United States.

I visited Docent Coffee in February and had multiple interactions and discussions with the co-founders. As a result, this blog post is the lengthiest I’ve published to date, but it is because there is so much to cover. Those of you who appreciate both the technical and the artistic/creative will enjoy how the co-founders’ vision meshes together at Docent Coffee.

For your convenience, this blog post is organized into the following sections (hitting the links below will navigate you directly to the corresponding section in this blog post):

Please enjoy!

The Space

Docent Coffee is located in the Old Fourth Ward / Sweet Auburn neighborhood of Atlanta at 381 Edgewood Ave SE, Atlanta, GA 30312. The space was previously occupied by Cafe Velo. The coffee shop features ample seating inside, and there is a wonderful patio/courtyard adjacent to the shop that offers plenty of seating as well and is pet-friendly. There is also a covered patio on the second floor, accessible via back stairs.

The front of Docent Coffee on Edgewood Avenue. Photo courtesy of Docent Coffee and used with permission.

Interior at Docent Coffee looking toward the Edgewood Avenue front entrance.

Interior of Docent Coffee. The view through the window is toward the outdoor courtyard (patio) of Docent Coffee.

Interior of Docent Coffee.

A view of the courtyard at Docent Coffee. There is plenty of outdoor seating and the space is pet-friendly! Note the stairs on the left leading to the second-floor patio with a covered roof.

The patio at Docent Coffee captured during summer. Photo courtesy of Docent Coffee and used with permission.

The covered patio on the second floor at Docent Coffee.

The interior of Docent Coffee. There is a full espresso bar. Docent Coffee also offers various sandwiches which are all named for famous artists.

Interior design of Docent Coffee. The coffees seen on the two shelves are profiled in this section.

Interior of Docent Coffee. That is Andy Warhol drinking a cup of coffee seen on the back wall.

Interior coffee vibes at Docent Coffee.

Another view of the interior of Docent Coffee.

Wide-angle view of the interior of Docent Coffee. The coffees on the two rows are profiled in this section.

The blue accents work well inside Docent Coffee.

The Menu

The menu at Docent Coffee features pour-over coffee, drip coffee, cold brew, and the classic espresso drinks like a cappuccino or a cortado (see the full list of coffees in this section). There are also loose leaf teas (from Rishi Tea) on the menu. Light snacks/meals include bowls, toasts, and various pastries (such as croissants, cookies, and muffins that are baked fresh daily).

The menu at Docent Coffee.

Most interestingly, Docent Coffee also has sandwiches on the menu which are all named after famous artists: Warhol, O’Keefe, Banksy, Twombly, Kahlo, de Kooning, and Rothko are currently on the menu. A selection of rotating/season specials (such as the lavender latte and the tomato soup) rounds out the menu (PDF).

The Coffees

The following are the coffees that are currently available at Docent Coffee. Because Docent Coffee is both a coffee shop and a roaster, each of the coffees profiled below is roasted in-house (Docent Coffee is closed on Mondays for roasting).

Click through the links to go to the individual pages on the Docent Coffee website for additional details.

  • Jaguar is a Costa Rican single origin, honey-processed coffee with notes of pomegranate, roasted almond, and cane sugar; it is a light to medium roast. I have personally tried the Jaguar in my espresso machine at home and highly recommend it. The artist featured for this coffee is Kelly McBride (Etsy | Instagram).

  • Conceit is an Ethiopian single origin, naturally processed coffee with notes of honey, concord grape, blueberry, and pineapple; it is a light roast. The artist featured for this coffee is John Tindel (Web | Instagram).

  • Miscreant is a Zambian single origin, wash-processed coffee with notes of watermelon, apricot, and lime; it is a light roast. This coffee would be excellent for a pour-over. The artist featured for this coffee is Sarah Emerson (Web | Instagram).

  • Cloud Walker is a Papua New Guinean single origin, peaberry-wash processed coffee with notes of chocolate, honey, and fig; it is a light roast. The artist featured for this coffee is Craig Dongoski (Web | Instagram).

  • It’s Classified is a Kenyan single origin, wash-processed coffee with notes of mango, red berry, burnt sugar, and meyer lemon; it is a light to medium roast. This coffee is also excellent for a pour-over. The artist featured for this coffee is Craig Dongoski (Web | Instagram).

  • Snarf Snarf is an Ugandan single origin, wash-processed coffee with notes of red apple, black tea, caramel, and fig; it is a medium roast. The artist featured for this coffee is Amelia Carley (Web | Instagram).

  • Ayahuasca is a Peruvian single origin, wash-processed coffee with notes of chocolate, walnut, and apple; it is a medium roast. The artist featured for this coffee is Kyle Brooks, aka BlackCatTips (Web | Instagram).

  • Cream + Sugar is a Brazilian and Guatemalan blend coffee (natural and wash-processed, respectively) with notes of cocoa, burnt sugar, strawberry, and rose; it is a medium to dark roast. The artist featured for this coffee is Trendz (no link to social media presence as he is private/anonymous).

  • Meander is a triple blend coffee from Tanzania, Peru, and Indonesia (wash-processed from all three origins) with notes of berries, chocolate, and raisin; this coffee blend is a dark roast. This blend is great for both espresso and drip coffee. The artist featured for this coffee is Jeff Demetriou (Web).

  • Inconceivable is an Ugandan and Colombian blend coffee (wash-processed for both origins) with notes of brown sugar, caramel, and dried cherry; this blend is medium to dark roast. (Editor’s note: pay attention to the Inconceivable link; I hope the reference makes sense). The artist featured for this coffee is R. Land (Web | Instagram).

  • Counterfeit is a Colombian single origin decaf coffee with notes of cherry, citrus, and cane sugar; it is a medium roast. The artist featured for this coffee is Miya Outlaw (Web | Instagram).

  • Epiphany is a Colombian single origin wash-processed coffee with notes of chocolate, cherry jam, and plum; it is a medium roast. The artist featured for this coffee is Angie Jerez (Web | Instagram).

  • Abstract is a Guatemalan single origin wash-processed coffee with notes of strawberry, honey, and cream; it is a light to medium roast. (The artist featured for this coffee has chosen to remain anonymous)

A selection of coffees at Docent Coffee. From left to right: Cloud Walker, It’s Classified, Miscreant, Abstract, and Snarf Snarf.

The coffee bags available for purchase at Docent Coffee. In focus at the far left: Epiphany.

A selection of coffees at Docent Coffee. From left to right: Counterfeit, Cream+Sugar, Meander, and Inconceivable.

The Espresso at Docent

The espresso at Docent Coffee is the Meander: a triple blend of coffee beans from Tanzania, Peru, and Indonesia (in a 40/30/30 ratio by weight). Hailing from the Kilimanjaro, Amazonas, and Sumatra regions, respectively, this dark roast blend allows for an incredible tasting cappuccino, cortado, or other espresso-based drinks that Docent Coffee offers. I had the chance to try the cappuccino, and I was blown away by the quality and taste. For more about why Docent uses a triple blend of beans for its espresso (rather than a single origin coffee), read the Q&A with Nolan below.

A video of the cappuccino being prepared by Nolan from Docent Coffee is below, followed by a few photos.

The cappuccino from Docent Coffee.

The cappuccino from Docent Coffee.

The cappuccino from Docent Coffee, next to the Meander triple blend (Tanzania, Peru, Indonesia) coffee bag.

Another view of the cappuccino next to the Meander.

Events and Partnerships at Docent Coffee

Docent Coffee is currently partnered with the Museum of Design Atlanta which has an ongoing exhibition called Passione Italiana, chronicling the evolution of the espresso machine. This exhibition, which opened on February 24, runs through June 9, 2019.

Passione  Italiana  chronicles the  evolution of the espresso machine and documents technological and industrial design developments.  The  exhibit   showcases  espresso  makers  used  in  Italy  during  the  mid-twentieth century—alongside inventive coffee sets and unique crockery—and traverses through  the  decades,  highlighting  the  influence  designers  such  as  Aldo  Rossi,  Toyo  Ito,  Richard Sapper and Massimiliano Fuksas have had on classic and contemporary models.

Appealing to both design lovers and coffee enthusiasts alike, the exhibition surveys the social and historical impact coffee and coffeehouses have had around the world,  including  the  role  of  cafés  as incubators in social justice  movements and how they  have helped fuel everything from literary and musical achievements to political revolutions.

There are some incredible items on display at this exhibit at MODA, including an espresso machine made of concrete!

Docent Coffee will work with MODA to bring coffee cupping/tasting events both at MODA and at their coffee shop throughout the months of March and April; check the MODA calendar for details. The joint event with MODA and Docent Coffee that was held on March 9 was at full capacity.

Finally, Docent Coffee will soon unveil monthly cuppings and brew classes (tentatively scheduled to begin in April 2019). As spring brings warmer temperatures, there will also be pop-ups and other events hosted on the patio of Docent Coffee. Best way to keep track is to follow the Docent Coffee Instagram account or check the Atlanta Coffee Shops events page.

Coffee Roasting at Docent

Docent Coffee is closed on Mondays as this is the day of the week when they roast the coffee. I had a chance to visit Docent Coffee on one of their roast days and spoke with Nolan, the master roaster at Docent Coffee, about the roasting operation. At the heart of the roasting operation at Docent Coffee is a Diedrich Roaster; Nolan has complemented the hardware (the roaster) with an open-source software to precisely monitor the temperature profile of the beans as they are roasted. For those curious, there are a few open-source roasting applications available on GitHub.

During my visit, I saw the Cream + Sugar (Brazil and Guatemala) blend and Miscreant (Zambia) being roasted. For the coffee blends, Nolan uses a simple 50/50 split by weight to combine the beans after roasting.

During my extensive conversation with Nolan, I was really impressed with Nolan’s technical background (he has a mechanical degree from Georgia Tech) and his passion for roasting coffee. On the (very?) nerdy side, as we discussed the technical details of coffee roasting (the science aspect of roasting compared to the art aspect of roasting), topics such as concavity and differential equations came up in our conversation. I was thrilled to have this conversation because, as someone with a technical background as well, I could relate to what Nolan was discussing. As you read through the Q&A with Nolan about his experience, you’ll learn how Nolan built his own coffee roaster during his time at Georgia Tech and how his experience has ultimately shaped him to become the master roaster at Docent Coffee.

A few photos from the coffee roasting day at Docent Coffee are below.

Nolan getting ready to put some coffee beans sourced from Brazil into the hopper for roasting.

First batch of coffee beans is roasted!

Nolan getting ready to start roasting the Guatemalan coffee beans.

Nolan getting ready to start roasting the Guatemalan coffee beans.

Freshly roasted! The coffee roasting software is seen running on the laptop in the background.

Freshly roasted! Look at that smoke!

Macro detail of the freshly roasted beans.

Detail from the beans getting cooled.

Final step before mixing the beans and packaging—collecting the cooled beans.

Q&A with the Docent Coffee Co-Founders

Following is a Q&A with Docent Coffee co-founders: Mr. Docent and Nolan Hall. The first set of questions is for both Mr. Docent and Nolan, the second set of questions is with Mr. Docent (aka, artist-in-residence), and the final set of questions is with Nolan. [Editor’s note: I made some minor spelling/grammatical changes during the transcription of this Q&A]

Q: Can you tell me more about how Docent Coffee came to be founded and how you two met each other? Did you have any connections to the owners/team at Cafe Velo as you transitioned into their space?

Docent Coffee: We met each other through a mutual friend (who was also in coffee) after we both expressed an interest into putting together a different kind of coffee roasting business and shop. We each brought different things to the table, and those different things happen to mesh very nicely to form a very cohesive and solid brand/concept. Nolan’s focus would be all things coffee, while mine was more in the branding, creative, and outreach departments. We often use the Apple analogy of Nolan being the Steve Wozniak component of Docent and myself being the Steve Jobs component.

Aside from providing Cafe + Velo with their coffee the last several months they were open, we did not have a connection with them.

Q: In my conversation with Nolan, one highlight was that the staff that used to work at Cafe Velo is still employed at Docent Coffee. Can you comment more on this detail?

Docent Coffee: Yes. Initially the most of the original staff came onboard with us; however, a couple of our employees moved out of state a couple of months after we opened, so now we have one remaining Velo employee.



Q: What are your favorite coffee drinks? 

Docent Coffee: Black coffee is our number 1 of course, but I think it’s safe to assume cortados and cappuccinos would be our 'espresso-based drink’ favorites.

Q: Can you talk more about your membership plan for coffee? It sounds like a really great deal. What was the impetus for this decision and was this something you've wanted to do from the start?

Docent Coffee: It is a really great deal if you’re even an average coffee drinker. We just figured it would be a better way to get more people engaged with better coffee at a fraction of the price they would pay elsewhere piece-meal.

Q: Do you have any events that you are hosting on a regular or semi-regular basis? If so, what are they? If not, do you have any plans?

Docent Coffee: We plan on offering monthly cuppings and home brew classes very soon. Probably starting in April. March—April we will be doing this type of programming with MODA and their current Passione Italiane espresso design show (both at MODA and at Docent).

Lots of pop-ups on the patio are in the pipeline as well.


Q: What have been some of your biggest challenges in running Docent since opening up your coffee shop?

Docent Coffee: Probably the biggest is just getting out there enough so that people know you exist, and where you are. After that hurdle is overcome, you’ve got to get them to taste the coffee. When you have a coffee scene so dominated by convenience and style, it can be difficult for carefully crafted premium coffees like our own to get the recognition and reception we feel they deserve.

Q&A with Mr. Docent

Q: Can you briefly talk about your experience with art and how you envisioned incorporating coffee and art into a coffee shop? Who are your favorite artists/inspirations? Do you follow any art blogs?

Mr. Docent: I’ve been a career artist for over 20 years, and I noticed very similar parallels with regard to how both art and specialty coffee are perceived, presented, and approached by the general public. In my opinion, they both suffer from the same 'perception problem’ and/or cliches often associated with the two that prevent a large majority of the population from even considering in learning more and/or having deeper experiences of the two. Quite simply, the pretense, and the air of exclusivity surrounding both, creates an unnecessary ‘barrier-to-entry’ for a lot of people; something that an analogous industry like, say, craft beer doesn’t have. We are both very passionate about coffee and art, so I thought Docent would be the perfect vehicle to utilize in bringing what we felt are enjoyable and expansive experiences to more people in more places…without the pretense.



Q: Do you have a strategy for finding local artists whose work goes on the coffee bags? Is it personal connections you've made over the years, strolling through Instagram looking for inspiration, or something else?


Mr. Docent: I have a strong network of local artists I know to whom I initially reached out to be involved, but we also receive submissions as well. It’s combination of our own discoveries, submissions, and suggestions that all get filtered through a curatorial process.


Q: Is it correct that the only non-local (Atlanta-based) artist featured on your coffee bags is a South-Carolina based artist Kelly McBride with the Jaguar design?

Mr. Docent: Yes. Given that we felt the subject matter for that coffee/bag needed to be more literal, we sought out artists we felt would work well for the label.

Q: Who are your favorite artists?

Mr. Docent: My favorite artists are Cy Twombly, Marcel Duchamp, Robert Motherwell, Robert Rauschenberg, Mark Rothko, and Janet Echelman.

Q: Is there anything else that you'd like to share about the art + coffee theme that others reading this Q&A would appreciate?

Mr. Docent: We encourage people to check out more different kinds of art and our more different kinds of coffee. Getting more engaged in either community is very rewarding and eye-opening. You don’t need to ‘know anything about art (or coffee)’ to appreciate or like it. Picasso once remarked that he didn’t need to understand a sunrise for it to move him. In my opinion, this view captures the essence of appreciation for really anything. At its core, it’s the visceral experience of person that’s the most pure, powerful, and honest one. It’s when you start passing it through the filter of your mind and unrelated qualifications that you can convince yourself its something entirely different.

Q&A with Nolan

Q: We spoke about your coffee experience during your days at Georgia Tech, how you came up with your own coffee roaster, which led to some seed money to begin TopTime Coffee. Did you foresee yourself going in the direction where you currently are (co-owner / head roaster) compared to the degree you received? Was there a moment where you knew for certain that one day you'd open up a coffee shop of your own?

Nolan: I definitely didn't see myself roasting coffee when I started school. Like many of my friends at Tech, I thought I would end up with an engineering job at a lab somewhere. As I got further into my education, I realized my love of building machines. During my second year, I received some grant money to invent a product that would solve a problem, so I 'solved' the problem of home coffee roasting by building a prototype roaster. I turned this project into a year of research about the coffee roasting process to improve my designs. This project sparked a fascination with the coffee industry, building roasters, and eventually led me to start Docent with Mr. Docent.


Q: TopTime Coffee, your coffee start-up/cart at Georgia Tech, is going to open a second location soon. How passionate is the coffee community at Georgia Tech? Do you foresee expanding to other parts of Georgia Tech or perhaps to other universities?

Nolan: From four years of personal experience and now running two shops on campus, I can say with certainty that those students live on coffee. The coffee community at Tech is fairly large and well-versed, so I've always been surprised at the lack of good, accessible coffee to students/faculty. One of my goals when I graduated was to open a shop on campus so I could solve that problem, and we are now opening our second one a year after the first. 

Editor’s note: TopTime Coffee launched its second location in the Van Leer Electrical & Computer Engineering Building on March 4, 2019.


Q: I think we are in agreement that the coffee roasting process can be both an art and a science. Can you comment on how your engineering degree has informed your views on the technical/science part of it?

Nolan: Absolutely—and for me more of a science than an art (but don't tell Mr. Docent!!). Studying heat transfer and thermodynamics in school really helped open my eyes about potential problems with roasters on the market and how changing your roasting parameters can alter the chemistry inside the beans dramatically. I think that with any craft such as this, the person in control should fundamentally understand every process which takes place and why it occurs. Of course there is also an art in creating a beautiful temperature curve and cupping a delicious end result—I'm just better at speaking nerd language.


Q: For the coffee aficionados of the world, you mentioned that coffee beans used in espresso should not be single origin but a blend. Can you elaborate more on your stance?

Nolan: Some roasters will hate me for this, but I believe that espresso should always be a blend. In my experience with single origin espresso, I find that the flavor profile tends to be too one-dimensional. If a coffee has a bright, fruity profile, I don't want that to be the only thing I can taste. To me, espresso should tell a story. I blend three different coffees in our espresso that offer a wide variety of flavors. When dialed in correctly, the shot should come in three phases: floral, chocolate, and berry. I am the type of person that can't appreciate a good steak without a side of potatoes and green beans. I don't think espresso should be treated any differently.


Q: Is there anything else that you'd like to share with a wider audience about coffee, favorite coffee shops, your interests, etc.?

Nolan: I think naturally processed coffees are underrated and deserve a chance. I love coffee from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Uganda, and Guatemala (Ethiopians and Kenyans are great too but those already get too much love). My favorite coffee shops are ones that I make friends at. My girlfriend and I foster pit bulls from Fulton County Animal Shelter. We have adopted two of them so far. 

Conclusion

Docent Coffee has an amazing concept and vision. The coffee is some of the best I’ve tasted in Atlanta. The partnerships that Docent Coffee has forged with artists are wonderful; Docent Coffee embodies how a local business can and does support other locals in creative fields.

If you haven’t already, put Docent Coffee on your must-visit itinerary for a one-of-a-kind experience. If you like what you see (and taste), you can become a patron of Docent Coffee for $50/month for unlimited espresso coffee drinks and teas (there is also a yearly patron option if you’re seriously committed). In my opinion, Docent Coffee in Atlanta is a coffee shop that deserves much more awareness and recognition than it has garnered so far—I hope you visit, taste the coffee (and view or talk about art), and hopefully agree with this assessment.

Docent Coffee: helping you discover something new about coffee and art, without pretense. In the wise words of Steve Jobs: that’s who they are—that’s what they are about.

I can’t wait to see what the future holds in store for Docent Coffee, and I hope you do too.


Docent Coffee
Web | Facebook | Instagram | Twitter

Location:
Sweet Auburn/Old Fourth Ward ☕ Atlanta ☕ ITP

Address:
381 Edgewood Ave SE
Atlanta, GA 30312
Google Maps link
ph: 404-254-3267

Hours of operation:
Monday: closed (roasting day)
Tuesday-Friday: 8AM to 3PM
Saturday-Sunday: 9AM to 3PM

Coffee Roaster / Roasting Partner:
Docent Coffee (themselves)