Drinks

Behind the Counter

Go behind the scenes of Counter Culture's new coffee-centric headquarters
Photo: Courtesy of Counter Culture Coffee
Counter Culture Coffee

Counter Culture's new headquarters are more like high school study hall rather than homeroom. The 24,000-square-foot roastery is where you go to learn about coffee, not numbly check in before the day begins.

The Durham, North Carolina, location is one of Counter Culture's 10 training centers nationwide. Even if you have yet to visit one, you've likely tried the coffee, even if inadvertently. The 21-year-old company sells wholesale to many coffee shops around the country, like Happy Bones and Everyman Espresso in New York, as well as Lavender & Honey and H Coffee House in Los Angeles.

These centers are intended to host baristas from Counter Culture-supplying coffee shops and restaurants, get them familiar with the different roasts and teach them how to make the best possible cup o' joe. They're also open to the public on Fridays at 10 a.m., where they host free tasting events and allow members of the local community to get in on Counter Culture's vast coffee knowledge, including classes for home coffee drinkers to hone their skills.

I stopped by last week to see how the beans go from burlap sack to Counter Culture-stamped bag. When the green coffee beans arrive, they start off stored in a temperature-controlled room. This is new for the company, a move that extends the coffee's shelf life—sure to help during humid Southern summers. Then they go through the roasting process, which involves either a new Loring roaster or one of the center's vintage machines. Knowledgeable coffee pros stand by the machines and keep close eye on the process, occasionally removing a sample to determine when the batch is finished roasting.

Afterward, the beans are cooled and brought over to the packaging area, where they're put into bags, labeled by hand and packaged before shipping trucks make their daily pick-ups. The beans are roasted to order, which means there's no set quantity that they bag each day, it just depends on how many orders are placed. This ensures freshness, as it's ideal to consume beans as close to their roasting date as possible.

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The roasting floor was itself a fascinating, Willy Wonka-esque sight, but the tour was just as intriguing once outdoors as it was inside. The building used to be a grain mill, one of the area's main crops (along with tobacco and cotton), and every aspect of it seems to reflect the region's history.

As I stepped around the back, a definitive roasting aroma permeated the air. Then I noticed the railroad tracks that run adjacent. In a different era, a train would pull up, cars would get filled with grain and the train would continue on its way. The Counter Culture property was a mill up until 1992, and the looming grain elevator that was built in the 40s still remains.

Durham is a logical choice for the facility, since the company was founded there in 1995. Cofounder Brett Smith remains CEO to this day, and when I met him, he emanated excitement about the location and company in a way I imagine he would have 20 years ago.

The roastery is just one part of a general revitalization of East Durham, an area once noted for relative poverty. They're kicking off with a party for the public this Saturday with food from Triangle area chef Ashley Christensen. So if you're in the neighborhood, stop by for a cup or three.

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