Coffee Chronicles: Behind the Scenes at Counter Culture

"You might be pleased to know your beans are roasted and packed to the sexy classic rock sounds of Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath."


[Photographs: Allison Hemler]

Get out your measuring scoop, a kettle, and a French press, and make yourself a cup of Finca Nueva Armenia, roasted by Counter Culture Coffee--this company is passionate about coffee, and has expanded beyond its North Carolina headquarters to bring beans and talented baristas to cafés and restaurants across the five boroughs. Last month, they opened a training center on West 26th Street in Manhattan, and like the other training centers in Durham, Asheville, Atlanta, Washington, D.C., Charlotte, and Philadelphia, hold cuppings at 10:00am each Friday to explore coffee origins and wake up the nostrils and taste buds.

Last week, I attended the Friday morning cupping at headquarters in Durham, North Carolina, and discovered that coffee is subject to seasonality just like the rest of the world's fresh food products. Along with a handful of Counter Culture staff and a few coffee lovers, we tasted the 2009 and 2008 crops of Finca El Puente and Kenya Thunguri. While the 2009 crops conjured up such adjectives as sweet, fruity, and bright, the 2008 crop came off as dull in comparison, with hints of musty cardboard amongst chocolate and fresh herbs. After the cupping, Mark Overbay, Marketing and Communications Manager, took us on a tour of the facility, through the bags and barrels of coffee, measuring scales, test and large-batch roasters, packaging tables, and corporate offices.


Head roaster Tim Hill at Counter Culture HQ

I stood in awe at the magic unfolding before my eyes, as I watched head roaster Tim Hill and the rest of the production staff blend beans and weigh out five-pound bags. (You might be pleased to know your beans are roasted and packed to the sexy classic rock sounds of Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath.)

The walls of the building are painted with messages proclaiming unwavering attention to quality and seasonality, along with transparent business practices and direct farmer relationships. You won't see terms like French, Italian, or City Roast printed on their bags, since every coffee is roasted to a particular level that brings out its best flavor profile. Their "Direct Trade" label is third-party certified, ensuring direct relationships with coffee farmers, a price of at least $1.60/lb for green coffee, a quality score of at least 85 on a 100 scale, and full transparency throughout the buying process.

Since coffee isn't grown in the continental U.S., buying from a sustainable supplier is the closest we can get to local. While Counter Culture isn't roasting out of New York, I'm convinced purchasing from them is one of the greenest options available to us in the city, especially after getting to know the company's footprint and the cutting-edge people behind the scenes.


Green coffee, waiting to be roasted

One of the coolest aspects of Counter Culture is that you can see everyone at work (and play). Their training center blogs not only document cuppings, Thursday Night Throwdowns, new coffee crops, and brewing epiphanies, but report on activities like a Skype-based tasting with the 21st de Septiembre co-op. They'll be holding a completely free Counter Intelligence Camp on September 18 and 19 in Durham, chock full of coffee history, brewing techniques, and barista skills. If you can throw down a $200 airline ticket to the Research Triangle, you'll more than likely surpass my rusty barista skills after an hour of milk chemistry with latte art experts.


Competing lattes from the Thursday Night Throwdown at Cafe Helios in Raleigh, NC

If you want some Counter Culture right now, here are some restaurants and cafes in the NYC area serving drip and 'spro:

Sorella, 95 Allen Street, Manhattan (map)
The Spotted Pig, 314 West 11th Street, Manhattan (map)
Craft, 43 East 19th Street, Manhattan (map)
Everyman Espresso, 136 East 13th Street, Manhattan (map)
Knave, At the Le Parker Meridian, 119 West 56th Street, Manhattan (map)
Dean & Deluca, Various locations in Manhattan
The General Greene, 229 Dekalb Avenue, Brooklyn (map)
Franny's, 295 Flatbush Avenue, Brooklyn (map)
Fort Defiance, 365 Van Brunt Street, Brooklyn (map)
Dames Coffee, 305 First Street, Hoboken, NJ (map)