Brett Smith and Fred Houk started Counter Culture Coffee in 1995 with a simple mission. “We said let’s be the best at one thing—wholesale—and then give retailers the right tools to make great coffee themselves,” Smith says. Many of Counter Culture’s peers in the so-called third-wave coffee movement, snobby favorites such as Stumptown, La Colombe, and Blue Bottle, began the same way, hawking optimally roasted single-origin beans at farmers markets and selling to local restaurants.
Now Counter Culture is the last of its kind. In August, Chobani yogurt mogul Hamdi Ulukaya bought a majority stake in La Colombe, and two months later both Stumptown and Intelligentsia, another longtime independent, were scooped up by Peet’s Coffee & Tea, itself part of the Luxembourg-based consumer brand conglomerate JAB. Blue Bottle will begin offering ground, vacuum-sealed beans this year. Together, these three formerly indie roasters plus Blue Bottle now operate 57 cafes in 9 cities, and they’re beginning to put pressure on Starbucks.