Fair trade fight brewing in Asheville

It was the plight of the rose-breasted grosbeak that persuaded Laurey Masterson to switch coffee brands.

Masterson was one of the many downtown Asheville restaurant owners targeted by Durham’s Counter Culture Coffee in the mid-1990s with its dual message of quality and corporate responsibility. The sales reps’ basic pitch revolved around a simple concept pioneered by Counter Culture co-owner Fred Houck: Save the songbirds.

Houck, a birder, was one of the first guys in the industry to worry that sun-grown coffee—a popular production method that requires plantation owners to strip their land of trees—meant migratory birds wouldn’t have a place to nest. He quickly became a forceful advocate for shade-grown coffee, which he insisted could save the pewees and tanagers and redstarts that summer in North Carolina. Asheville’s green-minded restaurateurs loved the idea—and the customer service that came with it.

“They took my shop manager to Nicaragua,” Masterson says. “He picked coffee; he met the people there. He had a great, great time.”

At her Biltmore Avenue establishment, Laurey’s Catering and Gourmet-to-Go, Masterson still serves the custom blend Counter Culture developed to suit her tastes: “It’s my coffee,” she says, beaming. Other local eateries—including Earth Fare, the Laughing Seed and The Market Place—have also kept Counter Culture in their coffeepots. “Counter Culture is just so ubiquitous around here,” sighed a server at a newly opened restaurant, explaining why they had opted to get their beans elsewhere.

But Counter Culture has lately discovered that it can no longer depend on Asheville’s allegiance to its roasts. As the gourmet coffee company seemingly backed off on its aggressive promotional efforts in Western North Carolina, Larry’s Beans—the only other specialty roaster in the state—moved in, setting the stage for a knockdown, fair-trade coffee fight.

“Counter Culture was the dominant player, and now they’re not,” says Larry Larson, the Seattle-bred coffee entrepreneur behind Larry’s Beans. “We set out to make Asheville a beachhead. And we kind of trounced on their territory, and now they want it back.”

Fifteen local outlets now serve Larry’s Beans, while the Counter Culture camp claims 19 restaurants and groceries.

Counter Culture’s official stance is welcoming: “We love Larry’s,” Counter Culture spokesman Mark Overbay says. “We’re excited for the competition.” Still, the company appears wary of underestimating its rival: Last November, Counter Culture opened a training center in downtown Asheville to better serve its retail clients and familiarize local coffee drinkers with its signature roasts. Both outfits seem bent on proving their passion for Asheville, sounding off like parents in a custody fight.

“The Asheville community has a very sophisticated palate and really ‘gets’ the notion of coffee terroir, just as they do with wine and their amazing array of local produce at the Asheville Farmers’ Market (where we love to shop!),” Overbay writes in an e-mail message.

“I love Asheville,” says Larson, who regularly attends waltz night at The Orange Peel. “I want to live in Asheville.”

Adoration for Asheville aside, Counter Culture and Larry’s Beans are two very different companies. To steal an analogy from another grocery aisle, Counter Culture is the Häagen-Dazs of high-end coffee, with Larry’s Beans playing the Ben & Jerry’s part. While Larry’s Beans operates Raleigh’s only biodiesel pump and sponsors a local roller derby team, Counter Culture takes a lofty approach to coffee, casting it in the same light as overanalyzed foodstuffs like wine and cheese.

“The first time someone gave me coffee and told me to taste the peaches, that was Fred,” says Randy Talley about Houck, who passed away earlier this year. Talley was instrumental in introducing Counter Culture coffees to Earth Fare, but he has since become a Larry’s Beans convert, proudly displaying the company’s biodegradable bags at his downtown eatery, the Green Sage.

“The reason we picked Larry’s is their overarching green mission is more of a match with us,” Talley explains. “To me, Counter Culture is like coffee nerds. Larry is more like me: A coffee lover who wants to change the world.”

Lest there be any confusion about Counter Culture’s mission, the company’s slogan is emblazoned across its homepage: “We’re not trying to change the world—just the way it thinks about coffee.”

That single-minded focus appeals to Craig Peters, who manages the City Bakery on Biltmore Avenue. The bakery recently switched to Counter Culture coffee, citing its “outstanding coffee” and “in-depth training.”

“All of our staff members have been trained at their facility, and that makes a world of difference to our customers,” Peters says. “So far, we’ve had overwhelming response to the changes we’ve made.”

Larson doesn’t question the quality of Counter Culture roasts, which regularly garner high marks from experts. It’s the underlying approach that he takes issue with: To him, sipping premium coffees in superclean training centers represents a wasted opportunity.

“Coffee is just one piece of a sustainable world, and I want to be a part of a sustainable world,” says Larson, who serves on the board of the Fair Trade Resource Network. “Being a coffee geek is easy. I was a coffee geek for many years.”

Counter Culture maintains close relationships with its growers and constantly stresses its obligation to them. The company’s still looking out for migratory birds, and it strives to make its operations environmentally and economically sustainable. “Their social-consciousness ethic is admirable,” Masterson says. “I think they’re a great company.”

The roasters have lately been throwing elbows over Counter Culture’s vision of “direct trade,” which Overbay describes as something like fair trade plus. Larson, on the other hand, calls the practice “a bunch of baloney.”

Direct trade is an antecedent of fair trade, a system that calls upon its practitioners to adhere to a set of principles pertaining to pay, economic development and partnerships. By definition, all that direct trade requires is eliminating the middleman. So while industrial coffee conglomerates may practice direct trade, recruiting farmers to grow specifically for them, few of those relationships would be defined as fair trade.

But Counter Culture, says Overbay, wants to rewrite the meaning of direct trade. Last month, the company introduced what it’s touting as “the specialty-coffee industry’s first third-party, authenticated direct-trade coffee certification.” According to Overbay, Counter Culture is certifying only those coffees that conform to four specific measures: Counter Culture must have visited the grower every other year, paid at least $1.60 per pound for the unprocessed beans and maintained total supply transparency. The coffee must also score at least an 85 on a 100-point scale.

“As we were developing this, we wanted to make sure these standards were challenging for us to meet,” notes Overbay. Counter Culture has certified five of its coffees as direct trade and hopes to add another four to its roster by year’s end.

“We’re fully behind fair trade, but we find, because of the way we source coffee, it doesn’t adequately represent the way we trade,” Overbay explains. Under fair-trade guidelines, producers are required to join cooperatives, but Overbay says that discriminates against top-notch farmers who’d rather not associate with struggling growers.

“I know with some farmers that are really amazing at what they do, they’re so talented that they don’t need a cooperative structure,” he says.

To Larson, however, everyone needs a cooperative structure—just as everyone needs to recycle and fight mountaintop removal. “Counter Culture is trying to spin fair trade as negative and put themselves above it,” charges Larson. “They’re trying to make direct trade seem superior. It’s really unfortunate that they’re doing it.”

So the battle continues. And it may very well be won or lost right here in Asheville.


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