Durham, N.C. — Counter Culture Coffee was born in the Triangle back in 1995. Started by co-founders Brett Smith and Fred Houk, the first roasting facility operated out of a modest 750 square-foot space in a strip mall in Durham near RTP. Back then, the operation only roasted a few hundred pounds a week and only sold coffee to restaurants.
Fast forward 21 years and Counter Culture has established itself as a leader in the coffee world and can be found in some of the most popular coffee shops across the country. Production has grown to roughly 50,000 pounds of coffee a week between the Durham HQ and their roasting facility on the west coast. In response to this growth, earlier this month Counter Culture completed the move into a renovated 25,000 square foot warehouse space in east Durham at 812 Mallard Ave. The public is invited to visit the new space at the Grand Opening Celebration this Saturday, April 30.
Listening to Smith talk during a recent tour of the new facility, it’s clear that Counter Culture isn’t just about increasing the amount of coffee it roasts, it’s also about building and growing relationships. They work directly with farmers and coffee cooperatives throughout the world to identify high quality coffee farms and work with the producers to tweak and improve their farming practices to be more sustainable and while continually improving their product. There are also several quality control steps used throughout the roasting process where members of the Counter Culture quality control team check the beans, remove any defects and taste the coffee to ensure a proper roast and consistency.
The new Durham headquarters opens up several possibilities for the company. There’s more room for roasters, allowing for continued growth and the storage. And the production area is climate controlled. This is not only something the employees appreciate, but it also helps maintain the high quality of the coffee beans by protecting them from extreme temperatures and moisture.
Probably one of the greatest assets of the new production space is the streamlined layout. Coffee beans are delivered and stored at one end of the building. From there, they can be easily moved to the middle section of the building, home to the roasters, quality control stations and the production line where the coffee is bagged and boxed before being shipped out of the other end of the building. The sequence of events happens in one straight efficient line. When a customer calls in an order the facility can roast, package, and ship the finished product within 24 hours ensuring fresh roasted beans upon delivery.
The new location also has a large modern training center which supports another major aspect of Counter Culture’s mission – education. Barista training and public outreach about what makes a quality coffee product completes the quality control process. Training for coffee professionals is offered through their “Counter Intelligence” coffee education program which deals with both proper brewing techniques and the science of coffee. The program helps baristas improve their skills and the customers experience. The training center has four nicely equipped stations. One for their weekly public coffee cuppings, two which are outfitted much like a professional barista station you would find in your favorite shop, and a fourth that is set up more like a home kitchen to match what the typical customer is working with from home.
As you walk through the headquarters you might see a few familiar faces. On my visit, I spotted two former baristas from two of my favorite local coffee shops now working at Counter Culture roasting coffee beans and working in customer service. Of course then there is Lem Butler, Counter Culture's head of wholesale customer support and barista trainer. You might recognize him if you have attend one of the many latte art throwdowns around the Triangle these past few years.
Lem is a five time regional barista coffee champion and earlier this month he took first place in the coveted U.S. Barista Championship. He will go on to represent the Unites states and compete in the international championship in Dublin, Ireland later this summer. Since 2007 Lem has been an integral member of Counter Culture’s team in Durham, training countless baristas and staff in coffee excellence and forging relationships with chefs, cafe owners and members of the industry. If you see Lem at the grand opening celebration on Saturday be sure to congratulate him on this amazing accomplishment.
The new Counter Culture Headquarters is a must visit for any coffee fan. Saturday's grand opening party is free and open to the public. It will include coffee tasting, home brewing demonstrations and food samples from some local celebrated chefs. There will also be a Pop-Up store if you want to grab some new coffee gear or a fresh bag of beans.
John Huisman writes about local events, food, and culture on his blog TriangleExplorer.com. He grew up at the Jersey Shore but has called Raleigh home for the last nine years.