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Count Culture's headquarters and training center hosts weekly free public cuppings. PHOTO BY BRIANA BROUGH
Count Culture’s headquarters and training center hosts weekly free public cuppings.

[dropcap type=”2″]A[/dropcap] cup of coffee is very rarely just a cup of coffee. For some, it’s a necessary jolt of energy from the gas station or office kitchen; for others, it’s a nice morning ritual but nothing to be picky about. I spent much of my life wanting to like coffee – its smoky, complex aroma represents the comfort of childhood, of my mother grinding her beans every morning like clockwork – and settling instead for strong black tea.

It took a really good iced coffee on a really hot summer day a few years ago to convert me. In less than a month, I was mildly infatuated. What I’ve come to understand is that, much like my glass of wine or beer or a plate of produce, a cup of coffee can be as basic or multifaceted as I want it to be. “I mean, I need an entire day to talk about what’s involved before [green coffee beans] even get to our shore,” says Scott Conary, president of Carrboro Coffee Roasters, who opened a coffee bar in Golden Belt in March. “Our culture is undergoing a phenomenal recalibrating,” adds Madeleine Pabis of Beanpeace Roastery, a small direct-to-consumer roaster based in Watts-Hillandale, “of our relationship not only to food and beverage, but to the people who grow, process and make available.” Durhamites know this – hence our bustling farmers’ market, award-winning restaurant scene, thriving entrepreneurial culture, and abundance of resident artists, musicians and performers. And now, a solid handful of local roasters – three in Durham proper and two more in the greater Durham area – are proving that we take coffee seriously, too.

Drinking local isn’t as straightforward as eating local. “The reality is, there’s no local coffee in the United States,” says Brett Smith, president of Counter Culture, whose roastery and headquarters are in Durham. “Coffee is not grown here, and it has to make a long trip.” No matter what, coffee roasters either work with a buyer or become involved in the process themselves to source raw coffee beans – which are green and much smaller and harder than what we buy and drink – from growing nations, predominantly in Central and South America and Africa. The key is in what they do next. “This isn’t a product until we do something to it,” Scott says of roasting coffee. “You don’t buy a stove and say, ‘I’m a chef.’ So it’s the same idea.” And, like food, coffee is not meant to sit for too long. “I do think coffee is best fresh,” says Robbie Roberts, owner and founder of Joe Van Gogh, who roasts in Hillsborough but operates two Bull City storefronts on Broad Street and Duke’s campus. “We really want to be a local roaster. Coffee needs to be where it’s roasted to be optimal.” It was that same sentiment that prompted Beanpeace owner and founder Elizabeth Dorr to begin roasting in her home two years ago. “I thought, ‘I would really like to get good, fresh roasted coffee into individual hands,’” she says. “How long it sits on a shelf really makes a difference.” She sells her beans at farmers’ markets and delivers directly to subscribers to ensure the freshest roast possible. “I’d rather do a weekly delivery than a monthly delivery because I know that at the end of the month, the coffee they got is not going to be as good as those first couple of weeks,” she says. Of course, not all businesses want to stay at the grassroots level like Beanpeace. Bean Traders, Carrboro Coffee and Joe Van Gogh all distribute within driving distance of their roasteries to guarantee freshness. Counter Culture has a recognized national presence, due in large part to a business model requiring coffee shops that serve only Counter Culture beans to undergo extensive in-company training. While their beans are roasted in Durham, they have eight regional training centers to provide barista and café support so that “they do the best job with our coffee,” Brett says. It’s a larger-scale take on serving the freshest coffee possible; but, here in Durham, we get the best of both worlds.

A coffee shop that doesn’t serve beans roasted nearby may sound like a foreign concept – it’s become a norm around here. “We’re a pretty small area, so it’s unusual how much [local coffee] we’ve had and have currently,” Scott says.

But the Durham spirit is to welcome makers and artisans. “We’re one of the few industries where people have chosen to do this, usually later in life,” Scott says. “Generally, someone has done something else for most of their life and has said, ‘You know what? I love this thing [coffee]. I’m gonna do this.’” That’s an uncertain leap of faith to take in some communities. “I think it all goes together with the art scene, the music scene and the food scene,” Elizabeth says of roasting in Durham. “There’s a sensibility that comes to light and then there’s an energy, and so then you get an influx of people sharing in that enthusiasm and that energy.” Thus, as our culinary scene strengthened over recent years, quietly, so did our coffee culture. One of Counter Culture’s first customers was Magnolia Grill. “Chefs are embracing it,” Scott says of sustainably sourced and locally roasted beans. “It’s exactly what they do on their menu. Different harvests at different times of the year is exactly what happens around the world. This is seasonality, too.” “One thing that’s helped us along the way is working with incredible chefs who continue to push us,” agrees Brett. “It’s such a fascinating industry. The product itself is great, and it’s fun to drink, but beyond just what you get in the cup – we have people who appreciate it more and more. So much goes into growing it, processing it. So much goes into roasting it and preparing it. You can study it for your entire life.”[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row css=”.vc_custom_1421875663574{border-left-width: 1px !important;}”][vc_column width=”2/3″][vc_column_text]

It’s a natural Durham fit, really – an industry fueled by passion that’s one part agricultural hard work and one part artisan skill. Robbie, a Raleigh native, remembers when he first began roasting coffee in the area in the early 1990s. “At that time, people didn’t know what a cappuccino was,” he says. “I can’t tell you how many times I had to explain what it was. … People like me, all the adults I grew up around, had instant coffee.”

Those days are long gone, replaced by an appreciation for both a well-made cup of coffee and the people behind it. “That’s what we believe ourselves to be, is a craftsperson who can do something with knowledge and skill,” Scott says. “Hopefully people can connect to that idea.” With connection comes community. “It really is about supporting the community and the community supporting you,” Elizabeth says. She always donates a portion of her proceeds to local charities; Carrboro Coffee and Counter Culture actively educate consumers about the farmers who supply their coffee; and Joe Van Gogh and Bean Traders intentionally foster community building in their shops. Bean Traders has become a south Durham destination for Bull City paraphernalia. “It was just natural, as the Durham scene started growing, that we would carry those local goods,” Co-Owner and Founder Christy Chapman says. “We carry mostly Durham goods because this is where our heart has always been.” When it came time to plan this year’s Big Eastern Regional Barista Competition – a pre-qualifier for the United States Barista Championship that happens at the annual Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA) Symposium, a.k.a. a really big deal – Counter Culture co-hosted the event here, in The Cotton Room at Golden Belt. “The whole barista community came in to Durham, and the feedback was amazing,” Brett says. “People came into town and were blown away by the culinary scene, how cool downtown Durham is and just the activities. It’s a great place.” This year was the SCAA’s 26th symposium, which means it began right around the time Robbie remembers explaining the meaning of a cappuccino to folks ’round these parts. In that quarter-century, a cup of coffee has come a long way. Likewise, “Durham has become a relatively sophisticated coffee culture,” Robbie says. “It’s become a more sophisticated town overall.”

Every roaster agrees that if you want to learn more about coffee, the best way to do it is to try as much as possible and be curious. From day one, Counter Culture has hosted weekly company-wide cuppings (the coffee equivalent to a tasting). “We say, ‘Hey, no matter what your job is or your task is, let’s get together and drink coffee,’” President Brett Smith says. “Coffee is communal.” Here are a few regular educational opportunities:

  • Every Friday at 10 a.m., Counter Culture hosts cuppings at their training center and headquarters. Free;
  • Every Wednesday and every other Saturday, Carrboro Coffee offers workshops from Espresso 101 and cuppings to Latte Art and Brew Methodology. $10-$15;
  • Each month, a Triangle coffee shop hosts “Thursday Night Throwdown” latte art competitions, which are free and open to the public. The venue rotates and anybody – barista or not – can sign up to compete. Search #triangletnt on Twitter and Facebook to figure out this month’s location. 

He first learned basic barista skills as a college student in Greensboro and is currently a head barista at Carrboro Coffee, with nine years under his belt. Despite some strange requests over the years – including one for a unicorn – his go-to milk design is a tulip. He made our cover bull by free-pouring foamed milk (whole milk is his ideal) into a heart-like shape and then using a milk frother thermometer to draw its horns and features. (Check out the video here!)

[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][vc_column width=”1/3″][vc_custom_heading text=”High Five” font_container=”tag:h3|font_size:22|text_align:left” google_fonts=”font_family:Lato%3A100%2C100italic%2C300%2C300italic%2Cregular%2Citalic%2C700%2C700italic%2C900%2C900italic|font_style:900%20bold%20regular%3A900%3Anormal” css=”.vc_custom_1421875630309{margin-bottom: 0px !important;border-bottom-width: 0px !important;padding-bottom: 0px !important;}”][vc_column_text]Who’s who on the Durham coffee scene
Their beans are packaged in compostable vegetable-lined bags.
Roasting Since 2012
Location The Watts-Hillandale home of owner and founder Elizabeth Dorr
Number of Cafes None. Look for her at the farmers’ market or become a subscriber!

Founder Christy Chapman met her husband and co-owner, Dave, when working as a barista. She served him an iced coffee and he claims it was love at first sight.
Roasting Since 2000
Location A space in south Durham, just up the street from their shop
Number of Cafes 1

This fall, the company will open a second headquarters in San Francisco – Durham will remain the East Coast head roastery.
Roasting Since 1995
Location A warehouse near RTP
Number of Cafes More than 300 coffee shops nationwide serve – exclusively – Counter Culture.

President Scott Conary has been judging national and international barista competitions for more than a decade, including a nine-year stint as the only American head judge at the World Barista Competition.
Roasting Since 2004
Location A space within Open Eye Café in – you guessed it – Carrboro
Number of Cafes 3

Stop into our oldest roastery’s Broad Street shop to try their nitrogen kegged cold brew on draught – it’s fuller and creamier when pulled from a nitro tap, much like a Guinness.
Roasting Since 1991
Location The main “roast works” is in Hillsborough
Number of Cafes 3[/vc_column_text][vc_column_text]

Carrboro Coffee’s Scott Conary. PHOTO BY BRIANA BROUGH
Carrboro Coffee’s Scott Conary.

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