Counter Culture Coffee's big move to East Durham will increase their production and upgrade their public face | Food Feature | Indy Week
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Counter Culture Coffee's big move to East Durham will increase their production and upgrade their public face 

Brett Smith, Counter Culture's co-founder and president

Photo by Jeremy M. Lange

Brett Smith, Counter Culture's co-founder and president

When Brett Smith explains where his new office will be, he motions overhead to a heavy, bare, two-story steel structure and tries to detail floor plans over the background din of buzzing saws and roaring engines.

Eventually, he resorts to yelling.

"It will be somewhere up there," shouts Smith, leaning back and pointing toward the top of the very new frame, about the size of the skeleton for a modest family home. It's housed inside a 50-year-old building that's wide, long and tall enough to accommodate several of them. "We'll have some conference rooms, and I'll be able to look down and see the entire operation, including the roasting."

The entire operation, as Smith puts it, will be the new headquarters for Counter Culture Coffee Company, the two-decade-old Triangle institution that has become one of the leading coffee roasters, suppliers and educational outposts in America. In spring 2016, Counter Culture will move from its nondescript brick warehouse roost off Highway 54 near the Durham-Morrisville border to this much-larger, long-neglected facility in East Durham. The relocation will afford Counter Culture the opportunity to grow its production for years to come, to enhance its teaching mission with upgraded facilities and to reorient itself inside a city now growing from the core.

"This space is going to give us a lot of flexibility to consider expanding," says Smith, Counter Culture's co-founder and president. "The space for our team is going to be a million times better. And it's going to be a great place for opening up and inviting Durham into our business."

If you look east from downtown Durham, you might be able to spot the peak of Counter Culture-to-be. It's a towering gray rectangle that suggests a relic of the Soviet regime, even if it's topped with an American flag that seems to catch the wind on a still day. The tower remained after the building's run as a grain-and-seed operation ended long ago; standing inside of it and craning his neck upward, Smith points out the labyrinth of pipes and tunnels and belts that must have been used to sort and route seeds.

Counter Culture's new location in Durham. - PHOTO BY JEREMY M. LANGE
  • Photo by Jeremy M. Lange
  • Counter Culture's new location in Durham.

Counter Culture won't use the tower, at least not yet, but instead will occupy the aircraft hangar-like building to which it is attached. Smith has been eyeing a move toward downtown Durham for the better part of a decade. Several years ago, he was even in talks to lease this exact space. Now, with Triangle Brewing, SEEDS and TROSA just a few doors down, Counter Culture will join a new hub of recycled industrial relics when the business finally moves into 812 Mallard Ave.

The 25,000-square-foot space—"a compound," Smith offers with a hesitant smile—will give Counter Culture 50 percent more room, representing a temporary culmination of sorts for the company's 20-year growth spurt.

The business launched in 1995 in a 750-square-foot office in a suburban strip mall, not far from the company's current location. Like Intelligentsia in Chicago and, later, Stumptown in Portland, Counter Culture soon emerged as an essential player in the rise of small American coffee roasters pursuing direct relationships with farmers and developing sustainable practices. Counter Culture's model also hinges upon working directly with the businesses brewing its products; rather than opening up a shop of its own, the company supplies and maintains much of the equipment being used in other coffee shops.

That model has served it well, too. Earlier this year, Counter Culture opened a roasting facility in California, its first on the West Coast. Next year, the business will unveil the eleventh link in a chain of national training centers that encompasses Boston and Atlanta, Durham and San Francisco.

"When we first started, we would talk about how high we wanted to get our production. We said, 'Well, let's go to 400 pounds of coffee per week. OK, now 600. How about 1,000?'" says Smith. "Last week, we got to 50,000 pounds."

Smith's mild-mannered speech, button-up blue shirt tucked deep into khaki pants and slow movement through the new warehouse suggest less a flamboyant mogul than someone whose rise has been patient and methodical. Indeed, when he explains the configuration of Counter Culture's new space, every facet ties back into elevating the company's core tenets, not suddenly adding new ones.

Every Friday morning, for instance, Counter Culture has long welcomed the public to its training facility for a free "cupping"—essentially, a chance to test and be taught about the brew, followed by a tour. In the new space, those events will benefit from an upgraded design that includes a room devoted to espresso and another workshop devoted to home-brewing experiments and instructions, a first for the company. Large windows will offer a constant view into the coffee-making process, while the company's technicians will have more room for repairs on the equipment it dispatches to coffee shops around the region. True to Counter Culture tradition, however, the compound won't have a coffee shop of its own.

"We can have events, big stuff like parties and food trucks, even serve a meal in here and do coffee pairings," says Smith. "But there still won't be a devoted, day-to-day retail operation."

Rather, much of the additional space will be allocated to increasing the quality and quantity of Counter Culture's production. Raw coffee beans will arrive through a dock on one end of the building and be stored in a climate-controlled room until the time for roasting arrives. The current facility doesn't have the same capability, which Smith admits can create problems during hot summer months. The beans will then be moved forward in the building to be roasted in one of four machines before being packed for shipment and sent out through another dock on the warehouse's opposite end.

The configuration will up Counter Culture's efficiency immediately, says Smith, allowing for a 20 percent increase from the 2.5 million pounds of coffee set to be roasted this year. And it will eventually give the company the opportunity to add new machines if necessary. Judging by Counter Culture's trajectory during the past two decades, though, that's a question only of when, not if.

"We've pushed our other space, and we're out of room to grow," says Smith, far enough away from a construction worker dragging steel pipes across concrete floors to allow him to speak softly. "But this layout is much better for that. We're excited to be here."

This article appeared in print with the headline "Extra shot"

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