A response to Alex Baca’s article in the City Paper -- Café Olé: How Counter Culture Took Over D.C. Coffee, Feb. 8, 2012
In a recent article featured in the City Paper, Alex Baca argues that Counter Culture Coffee’s far-reaching presence in the district has adversely impacted the city’s growing coffee scene. To illustrate her point, Baca proffers two false assertions. The first is that there is little difference between the coffees offered at different establishments using Counter Culture. The second, that is implied if not explicitly stated, is that companies who use the resources that Counter Culture provides are doing so because they’re lazy and cheap.
The crux of the article is that,
…Counter Culture’s vast reach engenders a monochromatic coffee scene where two of every three cups from specialty java joints in the District taste the same. …“If you’re someone that loves coffee and going to different cafés, do you really want to go to the coffee shop on the corner and have their featured coffee of the month, and go to the next one and have their featured coffee, and have it be the same coffee?” says Reithmaier (District Bean Blog).
While there’s often overlap between what Counter Culture accounts serve, there’s enough variety in the company’s offerings at any given time to ensure that customers have a wealth of choices. Not once have I found myself at another Counter Culture shop and seen only the same coffees that we offer at Tryst or Open City. The truth is that Counter Culture’s coffees don’t all taste the same and they don’t taste the same everywhere. There is more similarity between Ceremony and Counter Culture’s Sidamo coffees (they buy some of the exact same Ethiopian beans) than there is between any two coffees that Counter Culture offers.
Baca admits that while working somewhere that served Counter Culture she “never loved the coffee (I find it a bit sour and watery).” “Sour” and “watery” are descriptors I’d expect from someone who has fallen under the spell of burnt coffee cast by gas stations and mega coffee chains everywhere. Baca misses the mark by attempting to dismiss Counter Culture’s entire coffee portfolio with two adjectives that aren’t necessarily indicative of quality but rather of personal taste and are likely to have as much to do with the barista’s preparation as with the beans themselves.
Contrary to what Baca argues in her article, my relationship with Counter Culture has actually served to broaden my perspective on the coffee industry instead of narrowing it. Counter Culture takes great pains to treat the coffee they purchase and those who grow it with incredible care – it’s built into the way they do business. Through their outreach and education programs, Counter Culture hasn’t dominated the dialogue as Baca claims, they’ve only encouraged it and empowered us to engage in it knowledgably and responsibly. Worth noting as well is the fact that, unlike the picture Baca paints of a coffee giant distorting our view of all things coffee to their advantage, Counter Culture’s approach is actually incredibly similar to others in the specialty world. My own interactions and relationships with folks from Stumptown, Intelligenstia, Gimme!, Ritual, and elsewhere in the specialty coffee world, have proven that Counter Culture’s values and quality standards are shared by many, if not most, in the industry.
The article also implies that the choice of using Counter Culture is primarily expeditious.
As long as a shop sells Counter Culture coffee exclusively, the company will provide that place with extra service—at no extra charge. Want your baristas trained in espresso-making and milk-frothing? How about your espresso machines installed or serviced? What about a course instilling staffers with the all-important fair-trade, single-origin, organic ethos? Sell Counter Culture, and only Counter Culture, and you get all that for free. …Rather than taking the time to close shop and train staff, operators can ship their charges off to Counter Culture for classes like “Beginner Espresso Lab” and “Brewing Science.”
We don’t rely on Counter Culture for training, but rather use the resources available to us through their training center and knowledgeable staff to do a better job of it. Counter Culture classes are a bonus available to our baristas beyond their basic training. Their tech support helps keep our machines making great coffee but we’re not reliant on it. We’ve had multiple staff members trained by our espresso machine’s manufacturer to be able to service the machine. These resources make your coffee better. I hate to break it to you, but, most shops who train in-house aren’t closing to do so. You’re drinking their training drinks.
I want there to be continued diversity in what coffees are available in DC. Places like Qualia are important for coffee locally and I proudly display my Madcap pin and can’t wait for them to start roasting in DC. I try to get my hands on great coffee from different roasters around the world as much as I can and I understand peoples’ desire to make more of these coffees readily available in the district. At the same time, as the article admits, Counter Culture offers a lot to small businesses committed to serving great coffee. Each relationship between a roaster and retailer is unique and our relationship with Counter Culture is special -- our proximity to Counter Culture's training center alone suggests as much. Like our relationship with our guests, our relationship with Counter Culture isn't just about the coffee, it's about the people. After the better part of a decade, it's a relationship I trust.
When it comes to multiple roasters, ordering a few pounds from here and there from around the country, paying the shipping cost on it and then being able rotate the stock to keep it fresh doesn’t make sense for us. I don't think it makes sense for most places with regard to consist quality and value. What it boils down to is that I firmly believe there isn’t a better roaster closer to DC than Counter Culture in Durham, North Carolina. I also believe that consumers get the most bang for their buck when retailers make the best choices given their own definition of quality and value. I’m not surprised others have come to the same conclusion that we have and DC is better for it.