Pioneering Durham coffee business celebrates 20 caffeinated years of community | Food Feature | Indy Week
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Pioneering Durham coffee business celebrates 20 caffeinated years of community 

The beginning of a beautiful relationship

Photo by Jeremy M. Lange

The beginning of a beautiful relationship

"Close your eyes."

I am about to enter the roasting room at Counter Culture Coffee, when company president Brett Smith asks me, jokingly, not to look.

Of course, I look. But I don't know what I see—or am not supposed to see. Instead, I'm fixated on the rich and arresting aroma of coffee beans in heat.

It's been more than 20 years since Smith, then a new graduate of UNC Kenan-Flagler business school, and Fred Houk met for lunch at Pyewacket, a restaurant on Franklin Street in Chapel Hill for an informal chat. One hour became two, which turned into three, and at the end of the meal, Smith and Houk had hatched a plan for a new coffee company. (Houk left the company in 2001; he died in 2007.)

"It wasn't about building a company and flipping it," says Smith, as we sat in his office, whose sparseness suggests he's rarely in it. "We wanted to build a great company. We wanted to do things the right way."

Back then, the coffee landscape was less crowded than it is today: In 1995, when CCC sold its first batch of beans to Pop's restaurant in Durham, Starbucks had less than 500 stores, all in the U.S. and Canada. (It now has 21,000-plus outlets in 65 countries.) Specialty drinks—frappés, lattes, machiattos and their fussier no-whip, skim, extra-foam cousins—had not become the lingua franca of the coffeeshop.

"The first wave of coffee was the percolators," such as Folger's and Maxwell House, says Smith, who drinks his coffee black. "The second wave was Starbucks, which turned a commodity into an experience."

Counter Culture, Smith says, rode the third wave, which emphasizes the quality of the coffee bean and the ethos of sustainability.

"Early on we would visit the farms," Smith says. "Having that relationship was integral to what Counter Culture was about."

The thinking is that the intention—long-term relationships with farmers who are paid a fair price for their crop, the bean's terroir, growing conditions, harvesting methods and, finally, proper preparation—will find its expression in a magnificent cup of coffee.

After Counter Culture Coffee beans are roasted, they are bagged and prepared for shipping. - PHOTO BY JEREMY M. LANGE
  • Photo by Jeremy M. Lange
  • After Counter Culture Coffee beans are roasted, they are bagged and prepared for shipping.

We peek into the CCC training center, one of several along the East Coast, where employees of restaurants and coffee shops that serve Counter Culture Coffee learn about the chemical properties of coffee—by nature, it's acidic—and how to prepare it.

CCC's business model is based not on management, but micromanagement. It sells and services the (very expensive) machines, and trains the employees. In return for this convenience, the restaurants and coffee shops sell Counter Culture coffee exclusively. And Counter Culture is assured that its coffee tastes as it should.

The tasting room is where all the labor—the growing, harvesting, shipping, roasting—reaches fruition. Here, Tim Hill, a coffee buyer and quality manager, has the enviable task of tasting coffee all day, every day, when he's not traveling to Africa and Central America. (The public can attend free tastings every Friday at 10 a.m.)

Under a row of track lighting, wooden shelves are neatly arranged with small, dark glass jars of beans, each inscribed with a lot number. Nearby, a dozen clear glass coffee mugs holds brewed coffee at room temperature.

In coffee circles, tasters use a method called cupping, a more dignified term than slurping, which is actually what you do. Dip a spoon in a cup of cold coffee, raise the spoon to your mouth and take a quick slurp. The action aerates the coffee in your mouth, drawing out and intensifying the flavors. (Hill usually spits out the coffee, lest he never sleep.)

Smith, Hill and I cup a spoonful of coffee from a Guatemalan lot. It has lemony overtones, a bit like iced tea.

We try the Kenyan.

My less-refined palate cannot find the words, so I consult the flavor wheel, which is hung on the wall. These are descriptors, Hill says: Cherry, round, leathery, savory, earthy, fruity.

There is also a wheel for faults, for coffee that's gone bad: mold, baggy and gamey (yes, coffee that tastes like a wild boar would be a turn off).

"It tastes like currants," Hill says.

Yes, of course, currants.

"Can I keep my eyes open?"

This time, when we enter the roasting room, Smith says yes.

Barrels and burlap bags teem with beans, separated into organic and traditional, 2 million pounds of which CCC will roast in a year.

Roasters the size of a Zipcar heat the beans in large, rotating drums. But the human roasters are the alchemists, calculating the time and heat necessary for a particular brew. (Fifteen minutes per batch is the average; the longer the roast, the stronger the coffee.)

Daryn Berlin, Employee No. 1, started at Counter Culture 20 years ago as a roaster. (Small world department: He found the job through a classified ad in the INDY). He worked his way up to sales manager, a position he's held for nine years.

"The coffee continues to get better," he says. "This a very specific niche, and the demand is great. It continues to expand and grow."

Over the next decade or two, Counter Culture will face both climatological and market swings. More concerning—and enduring—though, is the effect of climate change on coffee. As the world warms, weather becomes more unpredictable. Agriculture suffers. (Exhibit A being California's drought).

Smith is the board chairman of World Coffee Research, an industry group that studies biodiversity, climate change, and coffee quality. Its research includes breeding heat-tolerant varieties and expanding the coffee's narrow genetic range. (Smith was quick to add this research does not include GMOs.)

Coffee prefers cool weather, which explains why the plants thrive in the mountains. However, over time, the crops may have to be grown at higher elevations.

"At some point, though," Smith says, "you run out of mountain."

It's doubtful that America will ever run out of coffee drinkers, although the number is dropping. Since 2013, the number of cups of coffee drunk per day in the U.S. dropped from 2.01 to 1.85 (I know none of these people). Other caffeinated beverages—the breakfast drink Mountain Dew Kickstart and Red Bull, for example—have supplanted coffee as the jolt of choice.

However, the popularity of specialty coffees is up. And once you've had a really amazing cup of coffee, you're unlikely to go back to Taster's Choice Instant.

"We've never tried to be the biggest," Smith says. "We're sticking to our core values. It's been an amazing ride."

  • Photo by Jeremy M. Lange


Counter Culture Coffee is sold at these places in the Triangle:

Whole Foods, Earth Fare, Fresh Market, Southern Season, Weaver Street Market and Wine Authorities

These restaurants and coffeeshops also serve it:

RALEIGH: Jubala Village Coffee, The Morning Times, Sola Coffee Cafe, Joule Coffee, New World Coffee, Poole's Diner, The Raleigh Times, Tupelo Honey, Irregardless, Bittersweet, Beasley's, Chucks, Sitti, Mandolin, Capital Club 16, The Fiction Kitchen, Garland

DURHAM: Parker & Otis, Mad Hatter's Bake Shop, all Saladelia locations, Cocoa Cinnamon, Daisy Cakes, Nana's Restaurant, Mateo Bar de Tapas, Four Square

CHAPEL HILL: Crook's Corner

This article appeared in print with the headline "Counter culture club."

  • Counter Culture Coffee celebrates its 20th anniversary

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