Coffee Roaster Is Out to Educate, Cup by Cup

Mid City Caffe barista Ken Tu, left, listens to Counter Culture trainer Alex Brown dissect the science of pouring hot milk into espresso.
Mid City Caffe barista Ken Tu, left, listens to Counter Culture trainer Alex Brown dissect the science of pouring hot milk into espresso. (Photos By Lois Raimondo -- The Washington Post)
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By Amanda Abrams
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, June 17, 2009

In a sunny second-floor room with a view of Adams Morgan's 18th Street and an overpowering aroma of freshly ground coffee, Alex Brown is steeped in quality control.

A handful of 20- and 30-somethings with bar towels tucked into their back pockets are familiarizing themselves with fancy espresso machines as Brown, 28, hovers nearby and peers into a cup of espresso.

"Make sure the color's not too light," he advises, then turns to a participant who has been working on his steaming skills. "The milk should look like wet paint: viscous, thick and foamy."

This could be a seminar on making the ultimate cappuccino, but there are larger aspirations at stake. The trainees are recently hired baristas for Mid City Caffe, a coffeehouse set to open on 14th Street NW in midsummer. Brown and the room with a view, meanwhile, belong to Counter Culture Coffee, a North Carolina buyer and roaster with a dedication to high-quality coffee and a growing following in the Washington area.

Long before Mid City's owner, Mick Mier, hired any employees, he knew he wanted to serve "a wicked good product," as he puts it. After some research, he settled on Counter Culture, joining a host of other local cafes such as Peregrine, Big Bear, Tryst and Alexandria's Grape + Bean, known for their sweet, rich espresso with layered flavors and a subtle bitterness reminiscent of dark chocolate.

What Mier wound up with wasn't just an agreement for a weekly shipment of beans. Unique even among elite roasters, Counter Culture places a premium on coffee education. With five other training centers along the East Coast serving as classrooms, the company has developed a curriculum that covers geeky facts on the science of espresso and the pros and cons of various brewing techniques.

On Fridays, the company holds cuppings (tastings) to suss out the flavor of new beans and to develop participants' palates so they can eventually identify elements such as citrus, caramel and "snappy acidity."

The public is invited to the Friday cuppings, and any of the company's clients can take part in the free classes and sporadic labs (see "Join a Cupping"). It is the new clients, though, who are particularly encouraged to send over their baristas for instruction on all the details that go into creating a consistently excellent cup of coffee.

The training -- which, in Mid City's case, took three mornings -- is not held for altruistic reasons. Rather, it is a vital final step in the process, from growing and buying to roasting and brewing, characterized by careful attention to detail.

Established in 1995 in Durham, N.C., Counter Culture is part of a small but growing group of coffee companies that cultivate direct relationships with growers in an effort to improve the quality of the beans they buy. Like microbreweries, these companies, which include Blue Bottle of Oakland, Calif., and Stumptown Coffee Roasters of Portland, Ore., are determined to expose consumers to fresh, fairly traded and tasty alternatives to stale office coffee or the flat, bitter espresso served by some ubiquitous chains.

Counter Culture staffers describe their mission in part as an effort to reshape the way Americans think about coffee. In an ideal world, they say, drinkers might liken it to wine: an artisan product with specific seasons and a wide variety of subtle flavors to be savored, not something so lacking in value that it is served in a bottomless cup.

But it's a work in progress. "The model isn't quite there yet for coffee," says Brett Smith, Counter Culture's president and co-founder. "Ultimately, the consumer doesn't have a sense of the true value of coffee. Often, the farmer is barely making enough to get by."

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