Thanks for visiting! In this section, we share our experiences in the places where coffee is grown. Traveling to origin and learning about the environment and culture of coffee growing countries are vital parts of what we do. We value coffee as a medium for cultural exchange, and we hope you enjoy these accounts of what we have experienced and learned.
Back from the Road: Mexico, April 20104-19-2010
I arrived in Oaxaca, Mexico, for one of the most exciting weeks of the year: semana santa, or holy week. The days between Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday have a special significance in Catholic communities around the world, and Oaxaca's unique blend of indigenous Mexican and colonial Spanish cultures make it a popular place to watch parades and processions. In Latin America, it also traditionally means vacation! Not so for the young, dedicated leaders of the 21 de Septiembre cooperative who spent semana santa hard at work cupping coffee, visiting farms, and continuing to develop the relationship that the co-op and Counter Culture have built over the past four years.
We began in the cupping lab at the offices of Sustainable Harvest, our importer, in Oaxaca City. The harvest has all but ended for the 950 members of the cooperative, and the 21st is anxious to divide coffees among their buyers as efficiently as possible. Every year, Counter Culture pays a premium to the co-op for the coffee that we sell as our 21st de Septiembre in order to guarantee access to their best coffees. Our primary challenge has been, and continues to be, that the 21st lacks the ability to separate lots by producer (the way our partners in Colombia and Peru can) because they haven't finished building a cupping lab or trained a cupper. They do separate coffee by community, and we gravitate toward Zaragoza because it has historically produced the best coffees, as well as the most coffee – almost half of the co-op's total comes from this one town! This year, I cupped lots from Zaragoza as well as a few other communities that have contributed coffees to our total lot in years past. When I asked why we didn't focus exclusively on Zaragoza, the 21st explained that the "special lot" they make for Counter Culture Coffee is one of the best tools they have for inspiring growers to work on producing better quality coffee and that, because of that potential, the co-op wants to make sure that we consider other, smaller communities that lack Zaragoza's altitude but have better farming and processing practices. That seemed fair, so we cupped all of the samples without knowing which coffees came from each community. After sorting out the better coffees and making some blends among them, my top-scoring coffee of the day ended up being a blend of 80 percent Zaragoza and 20 percent Nueva Esperanza, which goes to show that sometimes, the whole is better than the sum of its parts. And what a sum it was! Red fruit and orange-y acidity stood out over the classic, chocolate-milk flavor profile and reminded me again that this co-op produces coffee unlike any other coffee we have tasted from Mexico.
With coffees chosen, we set off on the long, twisting road from Oaxaca City to Putla, the small city where the co-op has its office. From there, it's a short distance as the crow flies but a long one as the truck crawls up into the mountains, and I felt a familiar sense of relief and awe when we finally made it to the mountaintop town of Zaragoza. As word spread of our arrival, growers congregated in the coffee warehouse at the center of town. I immediately recognized many of the faces – and voices – of the growers in this cooperative, and I was struck by a comment made by the 28-year-old president of the co-op, Diracsema José, who told me that the co-op faced "two age-related challenges," their aging coffee plants and their aging members. These challenges led us directly into a discussion of my current favorite topic: soil fertility.
These days, I sound like a broken record as I ceaselessly encourage farmers, particularly on certified organic farms, to invest in making and applying compost that will help them achieve stable, sustainable yields from their farms. Though it requires time and energy up front, better soil and consistent productivity allow a grower to spread the costs and labors of farming over more coffee. The 21st has begun worm composting projects, which I always love, and they have also invested heavily in starting new coffee plants from seed to replace the sprawling40- to 50-year-old coffee trees on the farms. Replanting efforts usually make me cringe because it often means sacrificing heirloom varieties, but the 21st is replanting with the same Typica and Bourbon varieties that have always grown on these farms and simultaneously preaching the virtues of these great-tasting coffee varieties to farmers! Seldom do growers in any country receive encouragement from agronomists (or anyone else) within their home countries to prioritize cup quality; usually it's high-yielding, flat-tasting coffees that end up replacing the heirlooms.
Of course, addressing an aging membership is a lot more difficult than replacing aging coffee plants. Most of the children of these growers don't see a future in coffee and would rather migrate to cities – or out of Mexico altogether – than take over for their parents. We talked about the potential of cupping as a profession, and I described the growth of the (mostly) young barista culture in the United States – and the enthusiasm and ideas that young people can bring to the industry that these growers, Counter Culture, and the baristas serving 21st de Septiembre single-origin espresso are all a part of. It's a big task, fitting these supply-chain puzzle-pieces together and making them work in unison, but as I looked around at the leaders of the co-op – under 30, full of energy, internet savvy, and lovers of espresso, all of them – I felt excited that maybe, this is just the group to do it. I look forward to the arrival of this year's coffees and to many more years pursuing deliciousness, sustainability, and innovation with this amazing cooperative!
Back from the Road: Burundi, February 20104-8-10
Maybe it is just my sheer love for goat brochette, or maybe it is the amazing passion fruit, but when I arrived in Burundi it felt like my home away from home. It was also very good to be back after a somewhat-successful year of selecting some amazing coffees. (I mean have you tasted Kiryama yet?) Even though the coffees taste great right now, the work for great coffee is constant and there never seems to be a down moment. So, now is the time of year to go and collaborate with our producer partners and get ready for the harvest that will start this spring.
After spending a night in the town of Kayanza, my first stop was at a coffee washing station called Buziraguhindwa (BOOZ-e-ra-GOO-hind-wa). Buziraguhindwa actually means "never retreat when facing a problem" and was named for famous tribal warriors who inhabited the hillside hundreds of years ago. One of the main reasons Buziraguhindwa was the first place we wanted to go was because it is being run by a gentleman named Cassien Nibaruta. Cassien was the production manager for a coffee we carried just a few months ago called Teka, and when I heard that he has going to be the manager of Buziraguhindwa, I had to go see his new project! The other unique thing about Buziraguhindwa, which made it even more intriguing, is that Buziraguhindwa isn’t finished being built yet.
When I arrived at the washing station with Cassien, the place was swirling with activity. Dozens of people were assembling drying tables, patching concrete, planting grass, and calibrating equipment. I ask Cassien right away whether or not he was going to be ready for this harvest, to which he merely shrugged off what I asked, and said, “Of course.” With that we started talking about all the things that he put in place for this new washing station.
To name just a few of the really impressive developments: they have built a great water filtration system that will drastically reduce ground pollution and water consumption, without affecting the process style; they built the facilities to handle smaller batches of coffee for better separation and better processing; they reserved a piece of the land for a demonstration plot to teach producers about processing and coffee varietals; to help with the low productivity, they also have a nursery that they will use to give farmers free seedlings to plant; and, potentially the most important improvement is that they have designed a system for paying the farmers drastically faster.
On top of all the improvements that Cassien has put into place, the location is pretty much perfect. It was built in area that has fewer washing stations than other parts of Burundi, which will be good in that farmers will not have to travel as far to turn in their coffee cherry. It also just so happens to be smack-dab in the middle of all the best coffees we have tasted from Burundi. With amazing altitude, an amazing facility, and a great manager, Buzirguhindwa will no doubt produce some of the best coffees in Burundi. With the scouting of this new mill completed, we got back on the road, and made our way to a few of the places I visited back in July 2009.
The next place I stopped by was Kinyovu. Kinyovu was one of the first washing stations that got funding to start improving their facilities a few years ago, and having tasted the coffee the past 2 years, the improvements certainly show. While we were at Kinyovu, I had time to catch up and talk with Jldephonse the president of the Yagikawa Cooperative. (Yagikawa means “speak” coffee.) He was there to talk with Emile Kamwenubusa – of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) – and me about an idea to promote cooperatives and farmer associations through coffee lot separation. The idea is that groups of farmers will turn in their cherry together on a specific day, and, if the coffee is of high quality, then that group will be rewarded a premium for their coffee. This concept is pretty revolutionary and could potentially be a way to incentivize farmers to produce better coffee. After the good conversation with Emile and Jldephonse, we had to get going to make our way to Kiryama.
Kiryama was one of the washing stations last year that struck me as having really high potential, and when we were actually able to taste the coffee we were not surprised that it was great. Coming back here was a priority to see if Kiryama was working to improve the facilities that produce the coffee. Upon arriving, I met with Nelchiade Niyonkuru, the washing station manager, and started talking about the plans for Kiryama. While Kiryama has great potential, I will say I was slightly disappointed that no improvements have been made to the washing station since I was last there. While I know the coffee will likely be great again this year, it was a little discouraging. Again at Kiryama, Emile talked about producer association lot separation, and the potential that it could have for the quality. In July, after the coffee is harvested, the goal will be to taste all of the different lots from Kiryama to see what the quality is like and if we are interested in any of coffee. We will have to wait and see. After walking around a little longer and more conversation with Nelchiade, we once again got back on the road to head to the next washing stations.
The fourth washing station we visited is called Gatare. This was another washing station I visited last year, but we did not purchase coffee from. Gatare is really interesting because it is not directly owned by the government, but is owned by the agency that manages the washing stations for the government. To be completely honest, I am not exactly sure how that works, but Kinyovu, Gatare, and – I believe – two other washing stations fall into this category. Like the facilities at Kiryama, not a lot has changed since I was last there in July, so, while the coffee is still very good, it has a lot more potential, as well. This whole stretch in Kayanza – between Kinyovu, Kiryama, and Gatare – always makes me think about the microclimate here. It isn’t a fluke that all of my favorite coffees in the past come from a very small area. After a discussion with the washing station manager, with the sun starting to get lower and lower in the sky, we had to make another quick exit to ensure we made it to Teka, the last washing station to visit for the day.
Teka was one of the standout coffees we bought from the 2009 crop, and I was interested to see what the mill was going to be like since Cassien Niburata was no longer the manger. When I arrived, I was greeted by Bede, the new manager, and he was eager to talk about the coffee for the coming harvest. Last year, there was so little coffee produced all over Burundi that lot separation was not a priority, as they only had a very small amount. This year, though, with the understanding that there will be a lot more coffee, Bede wanted to be on top of what it is going to take to produce the best coffee and keep it separate. For quite a while, we talked about the fermentation methods and which one produced the best results. Which, to be honest, there is still no clear answer. We talked about separation and improvements to the system that he can do. We also talked about some more improvements to facilities that could increases the quality.
Overall, I was really impressed with Bede, and I believe Teka is going to have another great year. Right as I was leaving Teka to head back to Bujumbura, I couldn’t help but notice the people from the community walking around smiling and taking interest in why I was there, which just further cemented why I love coming here so much. The people are just friendly and amazing, and I can tell they just care about the coffee and work they do.
Burundi truly is one of the most under-recognized coffee-producing countries, and the hope is that, with all the work we are putting in and plan to do in the future, the reputation for the coffee and for the country will grow. Over the next few months, we are going to be further planning and waiting to see what these places are capable of. With the promise of lot separation and experimentation really taking hold, I think we are going to see some really impressive lots with the 2010 harvest. For the eager people waiting to see what great things will happen this year, you all will just have to enjoy the 2009 crop and wait until winter to taste the beautiful coffee that will begin being harvested in a few weeks.
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- Back from the Road: Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, The Direct Specialty Trade Auction
- From the Road: The Secret Coffee Farmers of East Java
- From the Road: Salaam from Sumatra
- From the Road: Honduras to Nicaragua
- Back from the Road: Sustainable Quality at Finca Mauritania