National coffee wholesaler and barista training organization Counter Culture is launching its new roastery in Emeryville on Friday — just blocks from the Berkeley border — with a free tasting at 10 a.m., followed by an open house Saturday to show off the new space.
The facility is generally not open to the public, and isn’t set up for retail, but the open house, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday, will feature brewing workshops, limited-edition giveaways and more. Counter Culture also has “Tasting@Ten” sessions every Friday morning, which are free and open to all.
The North Carolina-based coffee roaster celebrated its 20-year anniversary last weekend. Until now, its only roasting facility has been in Durham, North Carolina. The new Emeryville roastery will give Counter Culture a West Coast presence that will allow it to speed up shipping and deliver a fresher product to customers, which include both coffee shops and restaurants, said Nathan Brown, a company spokesman.
Thursday morning, company representatives described Counter Culture’s approach and philosophy during a private event for the media. Company founder and president Brett Smith said, from the beginning, he wanted Counter Culture to “focus on what we do best,” with its roasting and education programs, rather than take on retail.
“We did not want to compete with our customers,” he said. “We focused on creating relationships with our customers.”
Smith said Counter Culture will open a training center in Los Angeles later this year, and has plans to continue expanding in other U.S. markets going forward. (One staffer hinted that Seattle and Denver may be under consideration for future outposts.) Smith said he has no plans to open a retail outlet, given the success he’s having with the current approach, but added: “Never say never.”
In the East Bay, Oakland’s Modern Coffee is currently the only place slated to carry Counter Culture beans, though Whole Foods may eventually offer them as well. San Francisco customers can buy the beans at Stanza, Coffee Cultures and Blue Fog Market.
As for its philosophy: “Handmade coffees — focused on single origin coffees, microlots, and handcrafted blends — are sourced directly from farmers and cooperatives and will be roasted daily to accentuate their unique flavors,” according to the company profile. Every bag includes the farm or co-op that produced the beans.
Counter Culture offers six year-round whole bean coffee products, with names like Hologram and Apollo. Each one features a certain flavor profile — such as floral and citrusy, or “fruit-forward and chocolatey” — that is made up of different types of beans throughout the year. Sometimes the company uses blends to get the right mix, and other times beans from one area or farm will be used instead.
Quality control workers and other staffers taste a variety of coffees each day — in cupping sessions — to sample new products, and come up with the right flavor match and roast profile for the year-round products. They regularly compare and calibrate their findings with staff at headquarters to ensure results are consistent. In Emeryville, roaster Eddie Green is using a Loring S70 Peregrine to roast three times a week. (Loring is based in Santa Rosa and has been in the roaster business for about a decade.)
“It’s about finding that middle point where coffee tastes best,” said Green, of his approach to roasting. “You want to tame the flavor without dumbing it down. You want a roast that’s not too fast, and not too light, so what you end up with is a beautiful cup.”
In addition to the year-round offerings, Counter Culture features other beans for sale as well, such as single origin and single farmer batches. Counter Culture has four green bean buyers who travel overseas to source beans from different places, and also regularly receives samples from importers and producers in the industry.
The other piece of the business is the education component. Counter Culture has developed a training program, called “Counter Intelligence,” which has a variety of “labs” focused on everything from espresso fundamentals and brewing science to “milk mechanics” and cupping. Counter Culture wholesale customers can take those classes for free, and can aim for the ultimate goal of barista certification.
Georgia Cronin — who’s heading up customer relations at the new Emeryville location — said the small classes, typically of 10-15 people, usually have a few spots available for interested members of the public too. The specialized classes generally last from 3-6 hours, and can cost around $150, which somewhat limits attendance to those with a serious interest in the subject.
But there’s also a “brewing basics” class that will be offered in Emeryville on weekends — May 2 is the next one on the calendar — which lasts about 2 hours and costs $75, for “anyone interested in perfecting their coffee brewing technique.” The class fee includes a $15 website voucher, a Counter Culture ceramic pourover brewer and filters, too.
Katie Carguilo, head of quality control at the Emeryville location, said she started out in Washington, D.C., as a barista while she was in college. But she ended up getting hired to work in a Counter Culture training center, which she did for seven years. In a coffee shop, the focus is on getting drinks to the customer in what can be a fast-paced environment. Carguilo — the 2012 U.S. Barista Championship winner — said the training center, where the emphasis was on sharing knowledge about making and tasting coffee, was a better fit for her.
“For me it was ideal,” she said. “The idea is for people to take that knowledge and bring it back to their shops.”
Jesse Kahn, who is based in New York and runs training center development for Counter Culture, said the Bay Area stood out as a good place for the new roaster because of its central West Coast location, active port, and thriving culinary scene.
Kahn said it took about a year to find the right location, however. He chose Emeryville because it was accessible, near high-density cities such as Berkeley and Oakland, and with many local baristas living in the East Bay. It was also more affordable than San Francisco, particularly given the larger footprint the company needed for the combined roaster and education center. Kahn also said the Emeryville City Council had been easy to work with, and that he liked the atmosphere of the industrial neighborhood.
As for the design of the new space, he said it is meant to feel like a high-end home kitchen, rather than “industrialized chic” or standoffish. The 12,000-square-foot warehouse-like facility — renovated by New York-based architect Jane Kim — uses reclaimed materials and features large exposed beams. The clear sight lines and loft-like spaces are meant to facilitate learning and allow for a range of uses.
“It’s a ‘kitchen stadium’ meets coffee shop meets classrooms, with circle-in-the-round style seating,” Kahn said. “We want people to be able to engage in conversation and dialogue while physically producing coffee. Everything you need is at your fingertips.”
This is the third Counter Culture training center with street frontage, added Kahn, which he said gives the business a higher profile in the neighborhood. He said he’s not expecting a lot of foot traffic, but added that the business model has a tendency to draw in “curiosity seekers.”
“They come in the door asking, ‘What is this place?'” he said. “‘What is a training center for coffee?’ It gives you a chance to talk to the consuming public.”
Nationwide locations for Counter Culture include New York City, Chicago, Boston, Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, Atlanta, and, in North Carolina, Asheville and Durham. In addition to opening in Los Angeles and Emeryville this year, the company also plans to open a new training center in May in Charleston, South Carolina.
Counter Culture’s Bay Area Roastery + Training Center is located at 1329 64th St. Connect with Counter Culture on its website, Facebook and Twitter. Learn more about Counter Culture’s training program.
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