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Counter-Counter Culture

Alex Baca's story on the coffee scene in DC is definitely worth a read. I know that this article has been in talks for a long time, so I'm happy to see it finally come to print, even if I'm way late in making these comments about it.

(from counterculturecoffee on Flickr)

I've expressed my distaste for Counter Culture coffee in the past. I have no reason for disliking it other than the fact that it doesn't taste great.

I recently confirmed this opinion when some friends of the blog hosted a blind coffee tasting. Four of us tasted 4 coffees, including one Counter Culture roast. I picked the Counter Culture as the worst tasting, and none of the other tasters picked it as their favorite. It was hardly a scientific study; but it did confirm my personal belief that there's something off with their coffee.

It irks me that so many of DC's "independent" coffee shops serve Counter Culture, because I don't like it. I especially dislike the company's required method of brewing iced-coffee; but that's for another post.

As Alex's story makes clear, coffee shops in DC don't necessarily serve it because they believe it's the best, they're contractually obligated to serve it under an arrangement where Counter Culture helps pay for some of their start-up and overhead costs in exchange for exclusive rights to serve their coffee. From a business perspective, this makes sense; but most of these shops' customers will never know it.

Now, I happen to think the absolute best coffee shops in DC are the two that roast their own coffee right on-site (Qualia and Sidamo), but I also realize it's not reasonable to expect this from everybody in the coffee shop business.

To me it's actually more a question of what we consider a "local" or "independent" business. I like to support these types of businesses, but when a product is getting shipped in from North Carolina and served at over a dozen different coffee shops, how local or independent is it really?

If a local entrepreneur buys a Denny's or iHOP franchise, is that a local business? That's debatable. Obviously it's part of a big corporate chain, but the owners might still live right in the neighborhood where it operates. On the other hand, what obligation does a coffee shop have to source coffee from a different company than their competitors? A bar can serve the exact same drinks as its competitors and still be a better or worse place to go.

A good compromise would involve a local coffee roaster supplying the beans to the local coffee shops. That's a lot easier said than done, but in terms of calling a coffee shop authentically local or independent, I think that's what it would take.


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