East-Coast Coffee Roaster Counter Culture is a Bay Area Game-Changer

In their 20th year of operation, Counter Culture Coffee, a North Carolina-based coffee roaster and educational training company, opens its first west-coast facility in a gorgeously spare 12,000-square-foot Emeryville warehouse. Counter Culture stands poised to take our local obsession with coffee perfection to the next level (who knew there was a next level?), both aesthetically and in terms of sustainability.

Welcoming visitors with a just-brewed cup.
Welcoming visitors with a just-brewed cup. (Kim Westerman)

This is not a place designed for the casual café-goer; in fact, it’s not a consumer space at all, save for the Tasting@Ten sessions every Friday morning that are open to all and designed to educate by way of sensory exploration of three distinct, ever-changing seasonal coffees. (Of the 15-30 types of beans on the menu, all but six are seasonal; year-round blends are also made with rotating seasonal selections).

Production: Beans ready to be shipped.
Production: Beans ready to be shipped. (Christy Baugh/Courtesy Counter Culture Coffee)

While Counter Culture—perhaps the wittiest pun in recent marketing history—aims for perfection in terms of sourcing, selecting, processing, and brewing, it isn’t concerned, interestingly, with which beans you choose for what brewing method. So, while the menu offers suggestions on what beans are designed for espresso, coffee-lovers are encouraged to experiment with all brewing methods across all their coffees. It’s a kind of freedom within structure that is quite appealing.

A pourover demonstration.
A pourover demonstration. (Christy Baugh/Courtesy Culture Coffee)

The company’s aesthetic is what I would call modern-geek warehouse, with a precisely equal balance of seriousness (evidenced by their invention of a coffee flavor wheel and their investment in a Loring convection roaster) and levity (which is represented by labels like “Hologram” and “Big Trouble”). It’s a refreshing twist on local artisanal coffee culture, which can be somewhat precious, to find a brand that seems to say, “Hey, we’re serious about making the best coffee you’ll ever taste, but we know that’s a moving target, and we’re learning new stuff every day.”

The taster’s flavor wheel, developed by Tim Hill, buyer and quality manager.
The taster’s flavor wheel, developed by Tim Hill, buyer and quality manager. (Kim Westerman)

I hung out in their cupping laboratory and tasted through their current coffees. My two favorites were Duarte Alto, a single-origin bean from Nariño, Colombia that has a light chocolate nose and citrus and caramel on the palate, and Buziraguhindwa (which is easier to pronounce once you learn it’s phonetic), a naturally sun-dried bean from a tiny village in Kayanza, Burundi with bright, tart fruit flavors.

The cupping lab.
The cupping lab. (Christy Baugh/Courtesy Counter Culture Coffee)

Counter Culture’s interest in sustainability starts with their relationships with growers. In some cases, they guarantee farmers premium prices based on quality, not quantity. In others, they agree to buy all the coffee produced during a given season in exchange for the producers’ willingness to experiment with new methods; the Burundi bean mentioned above was the first-ever processed this way in the region, and it has helped local farmers throughout the area create a good product using very little of their limited water resources. (Because the climate is dry, excess fermentation during air-drying is not a concern.)

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And the packaging, except for the tie and the air vent, is compostable.

Eddie Green and the Loring roaster.
Eddie Green and the Loring roaster. (Kim Westerman)

The aforementioned Loring roaster, made in Santa Rosa, is a sustainable work of art. One flame runs the whole shebang, explains roaster Eddie Green, and the beans never touch the burner. Every batch of coffee is made to order, so now that there’s a local outpost, west-coast orders will no longer need to be shipped from Durham, which will save recipients a minimum of two to three days. But that raises the question of the distinction between the coffee from the new roaster and that from the old, traditional European machines they have at the North Carolina facility: Will the same beans roasted in different locations taste the same? “Absolutely not,” says Green, and I’m sure there will be a lot of conversation and side-by-side tastings to see what shakes out.”

Beans inside the Loring Roaster.
Beans inside the Loring Roaster. (Christy Baugh/Courtesy Counter Culture Coffee)

Currently, Counter Culture beans are available locally form Modern Coffee in Oakland, and Blue Fog Market, Coffee Cultures, and Stanza Coffee and Tea in San Francisco, but expect that list to grow exponentially as Counter Culture makes its (environmentally light) imprint on local coffee mores.

Entrance to the new roaster and training facility.
Entrance to the new roaster and training facility.
(Christy Baugh/Courtesy Culture Coffee)

The Emeryville facility is open to the public tomorrow, April 25, from 10am to 2pm for brewing workshops and giveaways.

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Counter Culture Coffee
Counter Culture Coffee Bay Area Training Center
Address: 1329 64th St., Emeryville [Map]
Facebook: Counter Culture Coffee
Twitter:@counter_culture

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