visiting a coffee roastery is like a fantasy factory tour: it appeals to both the sensory and machine-geek parts of my brain palette, and I’m lucky that the folks at counter culture coffee in durham, north carolina, were totally on board with letting me stop by while i was in town. was i even just a little bit in town because i was hoping they’d let me stop by? of course! (thanks again to good times visiting with my friends gail and awesome color for the bigger reasons.)

owing to the hospitality of mark overbay, peter giuliano and tim hill (and to nyc starlet katie cargiulo for the arrangements), i stumbled into ccc’s hq a couple thursday mornings ago, and was directed towards a cup of coffee of unidentified origin. (ha!)

roasters filled the floor of the woods-surrounded one story carolina industrial building — both the shiny machine kind and the award-winning-left-the-barista-trade-to-practice-my-craft human kind, and I roamed around taking pictures before dropping in on a class in progress in the training lab.


in the training room — one of ccc’s multiple sites like this scattered around the south and mid-atlantic — i watched an intermediate class of baristas dose, measure out their dose, dose again, measure again, until they were the most perfectest baristas ever. actually, i left before finding out if that happened, but hey, i’m an optimist.

it was time to find coffee director/storyteller peter giuliano now, and to hinder and join his cupping of fazenda ipanema while he intermittently recounted amazing things about his recent trips to origin. (who knew what conditions affected the current “bride price” in papua new guinea? i didn’t!)


in the cupping room with mark and tim and peter i tried respectfully to pick peter’s brain a little bit about counter culture’s notorious, and currently new-york-city ubiquitous, espresso toscano.

right now toscano is the go-to espresso at abraço and everyperson’s espresso here in my new hometown. that two of the five best cafes (and until last week, three!) in the biggest city in the country are serving the exact same espresso is both fascinating and vexing to me (ccc’s charismatic sales reps here can’t be all of it.)

personally, toscano doesn’t really light my tree. not that i’m the arbiter of standards by any means, but after conversations with a lot of like-minded baristas i really did wonder, both taste and businesswise, why is it doing such a good job at lighting up new york?

giuliano’s vision of toscano is persuasive: an italian-inspired blend which dispensed with the idea of balance in the service of sweetness and simplicity instead. lacking the fruit or bitter dimensions other espressos might try to incorporate, toscano instead plays it safe and sticks to what it is good at, hitting on caramel and chocolate and a wee bit of nut.

“which is a good thing,” says giuliano, “people love snickers bars, man.”


the roasting time is pushed long on these beans — a little more than 20 minutes — to create a workhorse blend that clearly hits a lot of people-pleasing notes, both in milk and independent from the pitcher. giuliano credits murky coffee with being the first shop to really embrace the toscano blend, originally a combination of brazilian, sumatran and sulawesi beans, deep and heavy-bodied that continues to evolve (the sulawesi component is now sumatran lintong, for example).

“i don’t mean to apologize for the blend being simple,” he explains to me. “i think it’s beautiful in its simplicity.”

my divergence from popularly held opinion doesn’t lower my opinion of ccc as an amazing roaster doing tremendous work right now. from their recently updated packaging, which connects the ideas and cultures of origin so much more directly to the end-consumer than any other roaster of this calibre today, to their sophisticated and accessible community education efforts (cuppings, lectures) to the coffees themselves (toscano impairment or no, i’ve been absolutely hooked on their beloya for the last five weeks, be it as espresso or on the french press i drag around to wherever i happen to be living this week), counter culture is doing great things in a way that’s getting them more and more well-deserved attention.


talk turned to single-origins and the story of last year’s surprisingly successful red mountain— a favorite (“a good transition for people who like indonesian”) which ccc expects will be eclipsed by the arrival of this year’s kuta. while i, and many people i know, are pretty happy about the increasing availability of well-selected single origin drip coffees at the cafe level, we also discussed their increasing appearance as espressos as a welcome direction for specialty coffee, one that is gradually blossoming through cafes that have the time and grinders to experiment.


back to the roasting room i got an in-depth description of the special qualities of each particular roaster. the sasa-samiac is as customizable as counter culture’s roasters get, fine-tunable to the roaster’s need. the renegade is reserved for the espresso blends, to achieve maximum body and sweetness at roast times of 21-22 (!) minutes, and with the swiftest cool-down in the room at less than two minutes to room temperature beans.

south and central american and african coffees are roasted on the roure, whose high airflow and unique perforated drum allows a cleanliness and acidity level nearly double the level of their other roasters, explains head roaster tim hill. i kind of want him to stand there all day and continue to describe his favorite characteristics of every machine in the room, but eventually he has to get back to work, and i need to get to the airport.


of the 15,000 lbs of coffee roasted and shipped out of here a week, i have a feeling i will continue to find much of it in my cup here in new york city, and i look forward to discovering more of what coffees — and histories! — counter culture will send us from the carolina pines…

3 Responses to “roastery roadtrip: counter culture coffee”

  1. bz

    they’re hard to hate, those ccc guys. ubiquitous as their coffees are in my neck of the woods, they’re continually “pleasing” in a simple, reliable, fundamentally coffee way.

    nice report.

  2. Hampton

    Now I have to try this stuff….

  3. meghan brooklyn

    Mmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm Durham. mmmmmmm CCC. Mmmmmmmmm a certain roaster from CCC… damn I love the south.

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