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Gilly Brew Bar Is Reimagining Coffee Culture

Like many American cities of the 1800s, the city of Stone Mountain, Georgia has a complicated past. In the late 1850’s it was called a tourist destination, and in 1989 Walt Disney gave the city a commemorative stamp, featuring a set of jolly-looking cartoon characters marching under Stone Mountain Park’s famous granite monument of three confederate officers on horseback: Stonewall Jackson, Robert E. Lee, and Jefferson Davis. At 90 feet by 190 feet tall, it’s the largest carving celebrating the confederacy in the United States, etched into the rock in 1972. 

But look deeper into its records and you’ll see that in 1860, there were more enslaved people in Stone Mountain than non-enslaved, and in 1915 the city was where the second wave of the Klu Klux Klan re-emerged from the shadows. Dr. Martin Luther King called for freedom to ring from its peak in his 1963 I Have a Dream speech, and as recently as 2017 the Klan petitioned to burn crosses at the base of the monument. It’s a place where the roots of slavery and racism run deep, a place fighting for a rewrite and renewal today as the city recently recognized its first official Juneteenth while activists continue to fight for the removal of the controversial imagery the city’s biggest park is most famous for. 

At the heart of the historic district sits what is now known as The Mayor’s House, a beautiful two-story Civil War-era building that was originally built by enslaved people for the city’s first mayor, Andrew Johnson, in 1834. During the Civil War, the building served as a hospital for injured Confederate and Union soldiers, and in more recent history it was operated as a restaurant called the Sycamore Grill, named for the stately tree that grows near the building, before sitting vacant for a lengthy spell. In 2015, Daniel Brown’s family purchased the building, a move that would eventually lead the entrepreneur to transform the place into a multi-use space that has since become the home to Gilly Brew Bar. 

The Mayor’s House. | Photo by Gary Fortner.

The inspiration for Gilly, which is named after Brown’s grandfather Gilbert, came from a desire to help change the culture of the Stone Mountain community for future generations. “My wife Shellane is from Stone Mountain, and to be completely honest, it was the last place she wanted to invest in at first, but we both felt a strong calling to do so,” Brown says. “There were not many places for the community to spark and flourish, but it wasn’t because it didn’t have the infrastructure or the spaces (our main street had at least 55% vacancies back when we came into town),” he adds. “The lack stemmed from so many things, the main ones being lack of vision from the people (neighbors, city council, and leaders), and outdated codes/regulations that focus too much on preserving the negative history that many have a hard time getting past, which ultimately causes the residue of racial tension that still sadly lingers around.”

With a background in music and business, Brown had almost no experience in coffee, save for some time spent working in his Shellane’s family bakery (she is a cake artist). For this reason, he began by approaching several coffee shop owners in the Atlanta area to see who might be willing to get involved. They all resisted. After so much rejection, he felt a strong pull to lead the concept himself.

It was no easy task. “There are a lot of people in town who grew up here, lived here, went to school here, and when my family purchased the property, it kind of rubbed people the wrong way. I heard through some neighbors that not too many people were happy that we acquired the space,” he says. While the demographics of the city are predominately African-American, he says, the makeup of the historic district skews white. “Being in this industry as a Black male, and in Stone Mountain, I felt like a disruptor. Gilly was kind of like my way of rebelling back, like, okay, you guys aren’t receiving me, so I’m going to introduce something that is just going to wreck this community (in a good way),” he adds.

Gilly opened officially in 2018 with a focus on coffee and tea drinks, served with community in mind. “I think the beauty of food and beverage is that it creates a space where people are able to commune and interact, to engage with neighbors. What I saw in the beginning was a lot of support from people who commuted to Stone Mountain and slowly over the last three years, as I’ve been able to connect with people in the community who have intentionally avoided coming here, they are seeing the diversity that we’ve been able to bring to the community and that has sparked interest. We’re starting to see the fruits of that labor now, seeing neighbors come by, so that’s been nice.”

With the brew bar—Gilly’s tagline is “not a coffee shop”—Brown has worked to disrupt what has been considered the typical aesthetics and experience that the most recent wave of specialty coffee shops around the country has established. “I think it’s definitely tied to my experience as a Black male with the Caribbean background. My family is Jamaican, so my experience in coffee shops hasn’t always been the best. I always felt snobby personas in those places and I’ve seen how those coffee shops tend to also be early signs of gentrification,” he says. “What I did like is that idea of hospitality and being able to serve and creating a space where people could be together. I’m totally for that, but I didn’t want to be known for the other negative things, you know?”

Inside the historic building, which Brown is still working to repair, the aesthetics are what he calls “a blank canvas,” to differentiate from the typical third-wave coffee shop vibe. “It’s gradually developing into what I envision it to be, but what I would say separates our space from others is that nothing is forced—it has an authentic personality,” he says. “Many businesses these days try to build old and rustic vibes, but I don’t even have to try; our place just is.”

The Classic, Pink Lady Elixir. | Photo by Mary-Claire Stewart.

Within its storied walls, today’s Gilly “bartists” happily serve the usual drips and lattes, but the anchor of their program is what Brown calls “elixirs:” creative tea and coffee-based concoctions that are infused with deeper stories and meaning. For example, the Spring 2021 “Masters Collection” of elixirs—inspired by the music of experimental Black artists—features recipes influenced by the works of Erykah Badu, D’Angelo, Questlove, Roy Hargrove, and Talib Kweli. Drinks like the Peaches & Cream–inspired beverage, served with a petal punch called “Roses” (named after the OutKast song) was a dessert-like elixir made with Georgia peaches, rose buds, crushed ice, goat’s milk, rose water simple syrup, and a single-origin coffee from Quindio, the western central region of Colombia.

I think the beauty of food and beverage is that it creates a space where people are able to commune and interact, to engage with neighbors.

This Summer’s menu, which launches this week, will tell the story of Brown’s vision for Gilly’s second location in the Castleberry Hill neighborhood in Atlanta, which opens later this summer. “A lot of our storytelling stems from the Bible, so there’s a passage in Corinthians where Paul explains that he becomes like other people in different communities to try and win those people over and meet people where they were,” Brown says. “Castleberry Hill is a very artistic community, so our mission for that space is to win the artists of Castleberry Hill over.”

One of the drinks on the new menu, called The Good Steward, is a tea elixir that speaks to part of the passage that refers to someone who owed money for oil and another who owed money for wheat. The drink will be brewed with barley kernels, infused with a premium extra virgin olive oil, citrus, and an agave syrup infused with a reduction of Uncle Nearest Whiskey. “I didn’t want to be stuck in that bubble of only doing coffee, so we brew with anything we can find,” Brown says. “We’ve brewed with acorns before! It helps us demonstrate to people how we’ve separated ourselves from your typical coffee shop, because we serve similar products as a coffee shop would, but a lot of our values and our storytelling aspect really help people to understand why we don’t want to be associated as that.”

Peaches & Cream, With a Petal Punch. | Photo by Mary-Claire Stewart.

Beyond their creative drink offerings, Brown says Gilly aims to cultivate community through events like Bars Behind the Bar, which invites folks from the neighborhood to show up and get behind the bar to perform. “If you’re familiar with NPR’s tiny desk, it’s kind of like that where we invite people to share their artistry through music or poetry. We do those monthly and they are free for anyone to come.”

And with the second location primed to open in Atlanta this summer, Brown says they’re committed to preserving their values every step of the way. He plans to create a 501c3 in the future to give back to the community even more, and he’s partnered with other nonprofits on events in the meantime. He also participates in city council meetings to stay in touch with needs of the community. “How do we not become part of the problem when it comes to gentrification? How do we keep our values as we change and grow? These are a lot of the things I battle with,” Brown says. “At the end of the day, I’m really trying to make sure we keep understanding what the needs are in the community, because that’s how we’ll continue to best serve them.” 

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