Above and beyond the counter

Counter Culture brings sustainable ?avors home

Stroll into Durham’s Counter Culture Coffee and it isn’t immediately clear that you’ve just walked into the headquarters of an influential international company. In the cupping room — where Friday morning coffee “cuppings,” or tastings, take place — you’ll see smooth, glistening espresso machines and rows of stools.

But then you reach the roasting area, where huge machines spew the fragrant, soil-brown beans like something out of Willy Wonka’s factory. And it hits you: this isn’t your grandmother’s Folgers, and Counter Culture wouldn’t have it any other way.

“Specialty coffee makes up a very small percentage of the global coffee trade,” said Mark Overbay, marketing and communications manager at Counter Culture. “Coffee is the second-most traded commodity after oil in the world, which most people don’t realize. The coffee trade is huge, tremendous, and we and other roasters like us operate a very small corner of that industry.”

How to Fix a Better Brew:
  • Look for a roast date on the package, and buy your beans as close to that date as possible.
  • Only buy a week to a week and a half’s worth of coffee beans.
  • Grind your coffee as close to brewing as possible.
  • Experiment with French presses and single-cup, handcrafted pour-overs.
Local businesses that sell Counter Culture
  • Weaver Street Market
  • The Daily Grind
  • Crook’s Corner
  • Magnolia Grill
  • Lantern
  • Sugarland
  • A Southern Season
  • Whole Foods
  • The Fresh Market

This focus on specialty coffees has lead the local business to establish outposts throughout the U.S. and abroad since its establishment in 1995, with training centers in Asheville, Charlotte, New York, Atlanta, Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia. The company’s overseas partnerships have required lots of research and legwork to establish.

“Our model is unique, in that we cultivate direct relationships with coffee farmers throughout the world,” Overbay said. “Good coffee really grows in pretty small areas in the context of the global coffee trade. Those places are in East Africa, central and south America, the mountains of Indonesia, Southeast Asia and the Pacific islands.”

Partnerships with farmers have often resulted from chance interactions with other growers and coffee lovers.
“In one case, a customer at a cafe in Washington, D.C., was Ethiopian and met one of our employees when they were in D.C., and this man said, ‘Oh, my cousin in Ethiopia is an amazing coffee farmer. You should really look him up,’” Overbay said. “We did, and his coffee was astoundingly good, so we bought it. There are a lot of stories like that.”

As the first certified organic coffee roasters in North Carolina, Counter Culture holds its partnerships with growers, restaurants and cafes to a high — and sustainable — standard.

“We love food, and we treat coffee like a food. It’s a precious agricultural product, and we try to work with chefs and cafe owners that feel the same way, that are just as passionate about their ingredients as we are about ours,” Overbay said.

“I think that coffee is often an afterthought on restaurant menus, and we’ve helped to change that. Coffee is, for many people, the last impression that you leave a meal with. You get coffee after a meal or you have coffee with dessert, coffee with brunch — it should never be an afterthought.”

It’s a business plan that’s served the company since coffee shops were a rarity in the area.

“When we first started Counter Culture it was in 1995, and at that point, interestingly enough, there were one or two coffee shops in Chapel Hill and Carrboro combined,” said founder and president Brett Smith. “Now there are, like, 20-something if you include all the Starbucks and Caribous and all the others.”

And despite the company’s insistence on a quality product, Smith is quick to point out that chains like Starbucks often receive undue criticism.

“I think there’s a tendency sometimes for people to bad-mouth Starbucks and bad-mouth these other places, when at the end of the day Starbucks has done an incredible amount for the industry,” he said. “It’s brought an awareness of specialty coffee to a lot more people, and it’s made opportunities for a company like Counter Culture to come in and actually fill the need that Starbucks can’t.”

Whether the company’s delivering to gourmet restaurants or interacting with farmers in El Salvador, the end goal is the same for everyone involved: sustainability — be it social or environmental.

“Not only do we want great coffee, we want great coffee for generations,” Overbay said. “We want coffee that’s not only good tasting in the cup, but coffee that’s good for the people who grow it, good for the people who process it, good for the people who handle it all the way until it gets into the cup.”

Contact the Diversions Editor at dive@unc.edu.

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