Just off Alston Avenue in East Durham, Brett Smith has assembled a production line tailored to a longtime quest to tease the most taste out of green coffee beans.
Set inside a former manufacturing plant and grain mill, Counter Culture Coffee’s new 24,000 square-foot headquarters includes a temperature-controlled warehouse that will prevent the coffee beans from going stale when it’s hot and humid. The manufacturing area is larger, which will allow the company that sells 2.5 million pounds of beans annually to grow and use more equipment to refine the process that feels more like the cultivation of a fine wine than coffee.
There is the new training center – with areas for professionals and home brewers – where people can come for intensive training or weekly Friday tastings at 10 a.m. The upstairs space includes offices for Smith, marketing personnel, e-commerce operations and a room to record podcasts shared with the company’s 90 employees, about 50 of whom work outside of Durham.
There are also quality control areas, where employees taste the coffee throughout the cultivation and roasting process, so they can continue to refine what they are doing.
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“And end up with the quality that we are really looking for,” said Smith, president of the 21-year-old company consistently ranked among top roasters in the United States.
Counter Culture Coffee mostly grew up in a 15,000 square foot facility was on the edge of Research Triangle Park, but the new headquarters and roastery sits in a budding commercial area just outside of downtown.
“We have always been proud to be a Durham company, and we felt like we wanted to be closer to the downtown area,” Smith said.
The company, which emphasis sustainable and transparent practices, also has roastery in Emoryville, California, 10 training centers across the nation and four more under development.
During a recent tour, the new headquarters was filled with the smell of coffee. The buzz, hums and whirls of machines roasting and packaging coffee echoed off the exposed metal rafters and corrugated tin ceilings.
The new facility provides a larger space to accommodates the company’s annual growth of 20 percent and an efficient production line that starts in the southern section, where huge bags of beans in burlap sacks are piled on industrial shelves.
When orders come in, the raw beans are pulled to the middle section of the building, which is lined with four bean roasters and a related production line that bags, tags and boxes the finished product.
The new building means new machines to incorporate to the production process, Smith said. That includes a new, more efficient roaster and an optical sorter. The sorter allows the company to pull out lower-quality roasted beans – estimated to be about 1 percent.
“All of this is part of our values and our mission and what really gets us excited is to continue push potential,” for coffee, Smith said.
Then the packages are moved to the northern end of the building where they are placed on a UPS truck.
The process includes quality controlled coffee tastings, or cupping.
Some employees are tasting to hone the selection process for the beans, which are brought in from what Smith calls “farmer partners” from across the world. Long-term relationships with the farmers is another tool that allows Counter Culture to identify and cultivate the best beans, Smith said.
Cupping is also part of the roasting process, said Ben Horner, the company’s head roaster. They will taste beans if something seems off, or if something went wrong during the process. They’ll also taste the beans if everything goes just right.
“We want to brag about it,” Horner said. “And we want to share it with our fellow roasters, so everybody else can aim to duplicate that process.”
Counter Culture’s neighbors include SEEDS, an educational garden that has been in the area since 1994. For years Counter Culture has been a SEEDS partner helping the organization in a variety of ways that include the donation of burlap coffee sacks for the community garden to use for weed suppression.
Emily Egge, executive director of SEEDS, said she’s excited that the trip to pick up the sacks will be a lot shorter. Egge said the area just outside of downtown has been coming back to life over the past decade as organizations such as Triangle Brewery Company, which is closing in May, a TROSA facility, and The John O’ Daniel Exchange, which provides office space to nonprofits and businesses, have brought traffic back to the street.
Counter Culture not only adds to the area’s transformation, Egge said, but it’s coffee roasting process also sprinkles in a new scent.
“It smells wonderful,” she said. “I think it kind of smell like waffles, not like coffee. It’s added a nice element to the neighborhood in that way for sure.”
Counter Culture Coffee’s new facility will open to the public Saturday with an open house event from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. featuring coffee tastings and demos. The business is located at 812 Mallard Ave.