Young and Hungry

Café Olé: How Counter Culture Took Over D.C. Coffee

How Did Counter Culture Coffee Take Over D.C.? Freebies

On a recent Friday morning, Bryan Duggan is asking the dozen or so people assembled in front of him what they think the grounds of an Ecuadorian roast smell like.

Self-professed coffee philistines and scruffy, plaid-bedecked twentysomethings I recognize as baristas at Filter Coffeehouse and Big Bear Café offer up “tamarind,” “sweet potatoes,” and “moss” to describe the coffee, dubbed El Gavilan. The weirder the descriptor, the more pleased Duggan seems.

We are in the light-filled, Ikea-furnished Counter Culture training center in Adams Morgan, where Duggan and his fellow customer service representative, Alex Brown, run free “cuppings” every week. Tiny clipboards with sheets of paper to mark down tasting notes have been distributed, and Duggan and Brown explain the various ways to understand coffee: the fragrance and aroma of the grounds, as well as the flavor, body, and aftertaste of the brew.

Don’t be fooled by the local address: Counter Culture’s headquarters are way out of town in Durham, N.C. Yet given the dearth of local roasters to compete with, the company has become the District’s dominant upscale coffee distributor.

A cursory examination of Counter Culture’s business model helps explains why: 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.

How Did Counter Culture Coffee Take Over D.C.? Freebies

For so-called third-place businesses like cafés and coffee shops that encourage hanging out rather than rapid customer turnover, that package deal seems like a smart business decision. 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.”

For the customer, however, 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. Even if you’re avoiding Starbucks, chances are you’re still supporting caffeine hegemony with every skinny latte you drink.

* * *

Counter Culture, which first entered the D.C. market in 2004 with a single account at the now-defunct Murky Coffee, supplies beans to at least 25 different cafés and restaurants in the city. Its clients include tiny indie shops, such as Peregrine Espresso and Big Bear, the Tryst-Diner-Open City triumvirate, and a number of big-name D.C. restaurants like Komi, Zaytinya, and Rogue 24.

In D.C.’s tight-knit café society, the company’s tentacles run especially deep. Peregrine owner Ryan Jensen, for instance, is also a former Counter Culture customer service representative. Jensen describes the company’s sales strategy as seductive—and, ultimately, matrimonial. “The way we set up our approach is much like a marriage,” says Jensen. “By being faithful to them, we get certain benefits. There are very clear discounts that you get if you purchase a certain amount per week. The more any of their accounts buy from them, you can get more savings. That adds up pretty quickly.” Jensen points to 2-percent discounts on orders between 30 and 100 pounds and 7 percent off those over 100; he estimates that Peregrine’s two locations go through about 500 pounds of coffee per week.

And just like a love affair, the initial wooing comes easy. “I knew the whole deal, the way they do their training and their service,” says Mike Visser, proprietor of Mount Pleasant’s Flying Fish Coffee & Tea. Before opening his own shop last year, Visser worked at Tryst, a Counter Culture client, as well as Baked & Wired, which served the same beans before switching purveyors about two years ago. “Machines are expensive, training people is expensive,” Visser says. “If you want it in a nutshell, it’s good coffee and it’s an unbeatable relationship, like, ‘We’ll service your machine for free if you serve our coffee.’ It was easy enough as a starting point because I knew what they offered from the help side.”

And again like a marriage, the structure of the client-supplier relationship promotes dependency and makes breaking up difficult. “I would always love to bring something else in when I’m better off down the road financially,” says Visser. “I’ve considered bringing in other local roasters, but that voids the warranty.”

How Did Counter Culture Coffee Take Over D.C.? Freebies

Full disclosure: I, too, once worked in a Counter Culture shop—Annapolis’ Hard Bean Coffee & Books. But I never loved the coffee (I find it a bit sour and watery) and, since moving to D.C., have actively sought out shops that serve other beans. This exercise has made me notice just how extensively Counter Culture has saturated the local market. And I’m not alone.

“D.C. has an interesting relationship with Counter Culture. It’s kind of bad in a couple of different ways,” says Jonathan Riethmaier, who blogs about the city’s coffee culture at District Bean. “Some of the coffee shops here wouldn’t be where they are without Counter Culture. To some degree, the level of consumership wouldn’t be where it is without Counter Culture because of their commitment to training and education. ”

The flip side: “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. “That’s the kind of risk you run, that you see a lot of the same coffee in different shops.”

* * *

As widespread as Counter Culture coffee might seem, there are alternatives. You just have to look for them.

There’s M.E. Swings, the 80-year-old roaster downtown. Qualia Coffee in Petworth also roasts its own. Illy, an Italian coffee purveyor, has a shop in Foggy Bottom and now supplies the recently opened Lot 38 near Nationals Park. Local start-up Vigilante Coffee Co. sells beans at Eastern Market and distributes to Smith Commons and Granville Moore’s.

Perhaps the biggest challenge to Counter Culture’s D.C. dominance could come from Ceremony, the rebranded roasting arm of Annapolis’ Caffé Pronto, which offers an exclusive contract that’s comparable in its perks to Counter Culture’s. Ceremony’s roasting operation is 225 miles closer to D.C. than Counter Culture’s Durham headquarters. There’s no training center here yet, but owner Vincent Iatesta says he’s considering it. In the meantime, Ceremony staffers travel to the D.C. area to train baristas at places like Filter and Restaurant Eve.

Ask the guys at Counter Culture about rivals encroaching on their turf and you’ll hear all about the benefits of competition—a position easily espoused by the dominant player in any industry. “If a coffee roaster comes here, and it’s good quality, it’s just going to push the bar up,” says Brown.

Photos by Darrow Montgomery

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  • Jeremy

    Wow, I never realized just how strong Counter Culture's hold on people is. This makes me appreciate even more the work that people like Chinatown Coffee, Dolcezza, Baked & Wired and Grape & Bean are doing with their multi-roaster programs.

  • AB

    It does get monotonous, but at least when you go to the places that serve Counter Culture, you can be reasonably that you're getting a certain level of quality because of their training programs and service.

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  • deangold

    Swing's actually roasts in Alexandria. They ahve a great range of coffees. But there is no cachet in supporting local with Swings. Too bad.

  • Dark Menace

    Can't believe you left out Pound in Capitol Hill. Definitely NOT part of the Counter Culture machine. They get fabulous organic beans from Kickapoo in Madison, WI. Anyone else in DC doing that? Oh, and they've got some great beers on tap now too...


    Oh. Thank. God. I thought I was going crazy last winter when all the coffee in all the shops I was going into on Capitol Hill all tasted like the same sewer water. Now I know why.

    Thank god for Mayorga, brewed in Rockville (Marvelous Market) and Pound. Coffee that actually tastes. like. coffee.

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  • Mike

    Sewer water? Sounds like those coffee shops don't know how to make their coffee. I have found CC to be very good, and Northside Social in Arlington, at least, brews it well.

  • Dan

    Qualia 4 Life

  • Allie

    This is really interesting, especially considering how a number of the coffee shops you just listed, namely Peregrine and Filter, are frequently referred to as "the best coffee in the city" -- and yet it's all the same! Ha. Funny, DC. Very funny.

  • Lisa

    Listen, y'all. You need to check out Blind Dog Cafe at 944 W Street in Shaw. Officially opening Monday, 2/13, at 7am. They are doing amazing espresso and chemex pour overs from PTs Coffee, and it will know your socks off. And they are doing unbelieveable sandwiches and house-made baked goods from Black Strap Baking Co. You will never cross the threshold of Big Bear again.

  • Fabrisse

    Best coffee in town is at Sidamo on H Street. They roast their own on the premises. Head there.

  • Mark

    25 cafes is dominating the DC coffee scene, really? Dig a little deeper and you’ll find a lot of folks doing nice work in the craft. After 95 years (not 80), M.E. Swing Coffee Roasters is doing better than ever. There is much greater awareness and demand for specialty coffee than ever before. The coffee “bar” in DC has never been higher, and everyone is drinking a better brew.

    M.E. Swing Coffee Roasters

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  • John Hargood

    Really? The DC coffee industry, like all other industries, is capitalist? What impressive reporting.
    This is not worth the money I didn't pay to read this.

  • Coffee Expert Dude

    I am a little confused. 25 businesses selling their coffee in a city of almost 1 million people is a lot? Good customer service as an added value to there clients is a bad thing?

  • Mike

    If the coffee was "watery," that's not the fault of Counter Culture, it's the fault of the maker.

  • Ben

    Dunkin Donuts coffee FTW, son!

    Oh, sorry...I think I'm in the wrong thread. I'll just show myself out.

  • Lizzie

    I don't understand how a N.C-based roaster can be evil and yet Illy, a foreign, multinational company, is on the "OK" list. The author seems to be missing the forrest for the trees...

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  • Shawn

    Bourbon Coffee at 21st and L St. NW is my shop of choice. I go out of my way in the morning for their espresso.

  • M

    This article fails to address the MOST PRESSING ISSUE in coffee in DC! Which is: why is it that these fancy roasters refuse to do a dark roast? I can't stand the vegetably flavor of lighter roasts. I don't want my coffee to taste like cherries and bergamot; I want it to taste toasty and nutty. I understand that they believe dark roasting covers up the unique nature and terroir of their single-sourced beans. But I don't really care -- I LIKE the dark roasted flavor. Is that so wrong?

  • sgb

    For the record - Chapel Hill/Carrboro/Durham is serious coffee nerd hq. Several barista champions are actually Counter Culture trainers.

    Once again, how did even pass editorial muster. "at least 25 different cafés and restaurants in the city" hardly seems like a valid basis for an article accusing a coffee bean vendor of monopolizing the market. After all, there are endless number of chains you can get terrible coffee at.

  • Always on a Rant

    I personally think that this article was written 4 years too late. Its too bad. Furthermore, coffee is not the same, even if it is supplied by the same person. It matters which hands it passes through before it reaches the customer. Just because Counter Culture sells their coffee "all over the city," doesn't mean that it is brewed correctly everywhere (most restaurants are a perfect example).

    And Allie, for the record, although Filter Coffeehouse and Peregrine Espresso ARE recognized for serving the best coffee in DC, they source it from DIFFERENT roasters- Ceremony Coffee Roasters (Filter) and Counter Culture Coffee Roasters (Peregrine).

    In the end, its up to the other Roasters in the area (or not in the area) to win back some of the market share that Counter Culture Coffee has, but keep in mind, its up to the Barista to make sure that the coffee is justly brewed and served.

    Stay thirsty my friends

  • Always on a Rant x2

    I couldn't agree more with the post above. The only thing I have to add are a few head-scratchers that I can't seem to shake.

    My favorite quote of the article comes from Alex herself when she states, "I find it a bit sour and watery". If we are going to attack CCC, this is the only clear target I can find. Not for the terrible quality of their roasted coffee but for the fact that they didn't train Alex how to make coffee. Any coffee novice would realize that "Sour and Watery" are not adjectives that you can use to blame the roaster. Instead you have to point the finger at the user. Had the coffee been brewed properly, it would not have these characteristics. "Shame on you CCC!"

    I next have to look at The District Bean himself. For someone that seems so adamant against CCC's dominance and monopoly, he has made it public, via his blog, that he works at a CCC cafe, YOLA in Dupont and goes to coffee events that CCC hosts, aka TNTS. It seems odd. Especially, for someone who considers "CCC's relationship with DC as a bad one."

    And lastly, I'm shocked that people are still talking about things being LOCAL. Coffee isn't local. In fact, the only place you can get freshly grown coffee in the USA is Hawaii. We're talking about shipping coffee from across the world. Not just CCC's coffee, but the majority of coffee has to cross some sort of international border and people are crying for local? Local roasting? Sure, I understand that. But come on, if you can get the best quality from a roaster that is a jaw dropping 250 miles away, in my opinion that seems like a good deal. And I'm not taking anything away from Ceremony or Swings quality, because their coffee is good too. It just seems ludicrous to complain about coffee not being local.

  • Kirsten

    Having grown up in DC, and then relocated to Durham several years ago, this is an interesting, informative and amusing read. Counter Culture is just one of several local roasters down here whose beans pop up in local coffee shops. They are certainly one of the bigger players, but I'm not sure they have the dominance here they do there.

    But with my DC hat on, so glad to see Swing's and Qualia mentioned! My parents bought their beans at Swing's exclusively when I was growing up and I LOVED getting to go on that errand, smelling all the different beans, watching the staff carefully weigh out mom's selection on the old scale with old weights... At the time, there was just nothing else like it. (I also think they can roast across the river and still call it local.)

    Now when I visit DC, I trail my sister to Qualia, where we can choose from a range of single-source, fair-trade varieties and brewing styles. It's a little precious, but damn they have good coffee!

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  • Christina

    After reading this article I am surprised. Why would anyone find a business such as Counter Culture, who not only provides an ethical and environmentally friend product but also espouses a successful and beneficial business model, and then essentially label them an evil capitalist company trying to monopolize a market? First of all, Counter Culture offers different blends and single origin coffees and espressos. So even if you drink two cups of CC coffee in a day they could taste totally different. Second, isn't this exactly the kind of business we want to promote in America's current economy? They trade their beans fairly, they are environmentally conscious, they put a lot of effort into providing a quality product, they offer beneficial business agreements to their customers, and they are successful! What more could you possibly want? They aren't going around town bullying and intimidating the other roasters. The reason they have product in 25 cafes is because they serve quality at an awesome deal.

    Finally, why would you take their comments about competition raising the bar as anything but genuine? This article is an unfair and biased account of the actually awesome job that CC is doing to get everyday people used to quality coffee and therefor open up the market to new small and local roasters. It is extremely disappointing to see a great company demonized simply for becoming successful.

  • Mark

    I've worked in several coffee shops over the last 7 years and have seen a lot of the "behind the scenes". CCC does a good job of selling based on a "relationship"--aka contractual exclusivity. Fact is, NOTHING is free. Service, training, marketing is built into the price that people are paying for their coffee. This means that consumers are OVERPAYING. Yes, it's good coffee, but it's not THAT good.

    They have also done a great job of convincing people that they are the most conscientious, environmentaly-focused roaster in the world. They do a nice job, but so does Pronto, Swings, and Mayorga. I think that the vast majority of people just want a great cup of coffee that was sourced with a conscience and would be willing to forego all the "coffee geek" hype.

  • Acsenray

    What exactly is the harm of a quality coffee roaster achieving a prominent role in the local market? Counter Culture's product and service are exceptional. And I can't really recall that Counter Culture affiliates have run the competition out of business. They make damn good coffee, and it's fine if you prefer competitors like Mayorga or Qualia, but it's bizarre to raise the alarm based on the fact that a product you like less has some degree of success. I for one have no problem in finding Counter Culture coffee readily available throughout the city. The situation before was not a wider variety of quality coffee houses, but rather Bunn swill served at minimarts.

  • JonD

    Coffee? From the sour grapes I thought this article was about wine! As a consumer and aspiring coffee geek, I appreciate the training and cuppings in their lab. I remember being greatly influenced by a vist by Aida Battale, who operates coffee plantations in El Salvador, at Murky years ago. That was sponsored by CCC at a time when Murky might have been the only reasonable place to get espresso in the metro area. Was that "evil" or exploitive of CCC? Hardly. It was informative.

    I have to take issue with an item in each of the previous 2 threads. BUNN makes good commercial and home machines that heat water to the necessary temps to brew coffee.. BUNN is not responsible for the crapy coffee or poor preparation of convenience stores and restaruants. It seems that the vast majority of people have little concern for coffee quality, whether Counter Culture, Pronto, M E Swing, or Mayorga. Most seem fine with the poor minimart swill or Foldgers, etc. The discussion here, I suspect, is limited to people of at least a minimum level of coffee geekery.

  • Lisa

    Hard bean in Annapolis does not even carry counter culture... they source from Royal Cup. Perhaps CCC was once involved but if so, they cut ties, for good reason

  • Mike N.

    Counter Culture is a progressive company with an ethical, high quality product and incredible retailer support. This article makes them out to be the evil empire coming ALL THE WAY from North Carolina...a four hour drive away.

    Companies with premium products who innovate the category with superior customer service deserve to do well. I hardly think CC locking down 25 cafes in a big city like DC after 10 years in the market is unreasonable. Local food is amazing and people should support whatever roaster they most vibe with, but just because a company grows beyond mom and pop status to regional distribution does not make them evil. On the contrary, we need more progressive start-ups to gain traction and compete with the really big players like Folgers and Maxwell House.