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Friday, April 24, 2015

Make Way, Bay Area Coffee Snobs: Counter Culture Has Arrived

Posted By on Fri, Apr 24, 2015 at 11:00 AM

Counter Culture Coffee's Roasting and Classroom Facility in Emeryville - TREVOR FELCH
  • Trevor Felch
  • Counter Culture Coffee's Roasting and Classroom Facility in Emeryville

Coffee beans sourced with sustainability in mind and roasted with a surgeon’s delicate hand aren’t exactly new to the Bay Area. We’re still surfing in the Third Wave. After all, a certain once small local roaster and café is now challenging Starbucks for global growth, one Google Ventures funding paycheck at a time. Strangely, the Bay Area wasn’t even acquainted with one of the country’s most celebrated coffee sources that was founded twenty years ago, while the Second Wave flag was still flying high. Starting this week, Counter Culture Coffee is staking its claim in the Wild Caffeinated West.

Apart from being home to the men’s college basketball champion Duke University Blue Devils, Durham, North Carolina is perhaps best known as the home of Counter Culture. Founder/CEO Brett Smith was in graduate school at the University of North Carolina in nearby Chapel Hill when he started roasting small-batch coffee beans in a miniscule 750-square-foot space. Since then, all roasting has taken place in Durham but the company boasts state-of-the-art training centers in seven other major East Coast cities. Talk about a little coffee engine that could. But in none of these places can the public actually visit Counter Culture Coffee unless you attend the weekly cuppings. They don’t do retail cafes. Counter Culture is wholesale-only and the cafes are somebody else’s responsibility.

Smith told SF Weekly recently that “retail and wholesale are very different businesses,” even if we as coffee drinkers are accustomed to roasters of all sizes from Four Barrel and Sightglass to Peet’s also having their own cafes and controlling all elements from bean to cup. For Counter Culture, the focus is initially on relationships with farmers worldwide and then on roasting the beans to the optimal point, bringing flavors out without manipulating them.

And they have officially arrived on the West Coast, so let the pour-over battles commence! This weekend, Counter Culture unveils their spectacular 12,000-square-foot warehouse space in Emeryville, housing both their first roaster outside of Durham and another classroom, complete with stadium seating and an instructor's stage (Los Angeles will receive a classroom facility later this year). However, the company is by no means a secret to Bay Area industry folks who have seen countless Good Food Awards head to a mantel in Durham. Additionally, Katie Carguilo, the 2012 US Barista Champion, who will be running the quality control for the Emeryville operation. Counter Culture is going to great lengths to make sure that baristas don’t screw up your cortado. Good beans can’t save an indifferent barista. Good baristas can’t save bad beans. Harmony in the cafe is all we need.

Listening to Emeryville head roaster Eddie Green explain how innovative this roaster is could be a senior thesis presentation at Caltech. It’s an intensely complex machine that can roast 150 pounds of beans at a time. Despite the competition elsewhere in Emeryville, Smith chose it because the logistics were perfect for sending coffee north, south, and east.

Counter Culture beans roasted in Emeryville can be found in the city at Coffee Cultures — how great a coincidence that the two hooked up except that the café is named for yogurt cultures — Stanza (who uses other roasters, too), Blue Fog Market, and at Oakland’s Modern Coffee. However, if you'd like a cappuccino at the Emeryville facility, you’re mostly out of luck aside for a few public events. The public can always participate in the 10 a.m. cuppings held every Friday, and witness the team decide which beans should be on the roasting agenda. Otherwise, it’s only avid home brewers paying for lessons and coffee professionals attending “Brewing Science,” “Milk Mechanics,” and “Espresso Fundamentals.” There is no Ph. D in coffee…yet.

After a few sips of the Buziraguhindwa coffee from Kayanza, Burundi (it’s between Rwanda and Tanzania), the sharp plum and hickory notes of a precisely brewed coffee made me realize there really is space for another top-tier coffee roaster in California. Besides, nobody wants to waste time falling asleep.

Counter Culture Coffee, 1329 64th St., Emeryville


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Trevor Felch

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