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.
From the Road: Honduras to Nicaragua[Note: Because of a technical issue, Kim Elena's trip photos didn't reach us. The photos included here are from visits to Finca Pashapa from the last two years.]
I just arrived in Managua, and I’m gearing up for a few days of visits to growers, followed by Counter Culture Coffee’s annual trip to Nicaragua, the Origin Field Lab, which will begin later this week.
Ahh, but I am getting ahead of myself by telling you what’s to come without telling you where I have been! I spent last week in western Honduras, working on a project: namely, to make 2010 the year of Finca Pashapa. This year marks the eighth consecutive year that Counter Culture Coffee will purchase coffee from Finca Pashapa, a 30-acre, certified organic farm owned and run for three generations by the Salazar family. This was my third trip to the farm and with every year that passes, I am more enraptured by Pashapa and its people: where else can I spend a morning learning farming techniques and strategies on a model organic coffee farm, followed by an in-depth cupping and discussion of flavor profiles and nuances with those same growers in the afternoon? The farm’s diverse shade and worm composting set a standard for real environmental sustainability that no farm I know of has yet touched, and the coffee’s eight-year record of consistent cup quality is both laudable and all-too unusual, even among the greatest coffees.
In order to maximize the potential deliciousness of Finca Pashapa’s coffee, the first challenge facing Counter Culture Coffee was to address the mysterious aging of Honduran coffee in general. Among buyers, coffee from Honduras has a unique and unfortunate reputation for tasting flat and “past crop-ish” more quickly than coffees from other countries. Most people attribute this unfortunate tendency to a problem in the way that coffees from Honduras are dried. Between the drying machines common to Honduran mills and the humidity of the Caribbean coast where coffee leaves Honduras for the United States, I cannot deny that the supply chain is rife with hazards to coffee quality and longevity.
So what is a lover of Honduran coffees to do? One answer is to accept the risk of premature aging and account for it by purchasing minimal amounts of coffee from Honduras. When we plan for the coming years at Counter Culture Coffee (long-term planning is a huge benefit of our long-term relationships), though, we always agree that the enormous potential of Honduras’s Finca Pashapa is too great a sacrifice to pay to this rapid-aging mystery. Hence, we have no choice but to resolve it! With both short- and long-term futures in mind, this year I called on every member of the supply-chain team – from the coffee’s growers and exporters in Honduras to the importer in San Francisco – to assemble in Honduras and attempt to resolve this problem, at least as it relates to coffee from Finca Pashapa.
Our group convened at the offices of the exporter, Beneficio Santa Rosa, in the mountainous city of Santa Rosa de Copan to taste coffee together and to strategize. After spending hours discussing our experiences with Honduras’s coffees and eliminating factor after factor in search of the answer to the aging mystery, we kept returning to the hot and sticky climates of San Pedro Sula – where most of the country’s coffee is processed – and Puerto Cortes – where it is exported.
It’s no secret that coffee suffers humidity terribly, and together we determined that we would address these challenges in three ways: by adding a special, air-tight bag to our coffee to protect it during its journey down from the mountains and over sea, by avoiding San Pedro Sula completely, and by setting a 24-hour time limit for our coffee to wait to embark at Puerto Cortes. We are on track for 2010!
The second part of the two-part quality project relates to the as-yet unrealized flavor potential of Finca Pashapa’s coffee. Last year, Counter Culture Coffee added a dimension to our relationship with these growers in the form of a microlot from the highest-altitude parcel of the farm, called El Lechero. Roberto Salazar – who, in addition to running the farm with his family, also supports a co-op, manages a mill, and serves on national cupping juries – has methodically tasted the coffee from each part of the farm for years. In El Lechero, he recognized an opportunity to produce exceptional coffee and the family began paying higher wages to the farm’s employees to pick and sort El Lechero’s coffee with special attention to detail. The results of that differentiation – only the pure, ripe, sweet coffee fruit made it into the lot – indubitably made a difference, and since that first tasting of El Lechero’s coffee, we have not been able to stop ourselves from wondering, “What would it be like if ALL of Finca Pashapa’s coffee was harvested and sorted with such attention to detail?”
This year, Roberto and I had an honest discussion about whether it would be possible to apply such standards across the board, and what the costs would be, and I am confident that this farm will continue to produce better coffee every year, and that we will continue to expand the scope of our partnership.
This year, for the first time, I visited farms around La Labor other than Finca Pashapa, and I met growers who belong to the cooperative that processes coffee with the Salazar family in La Labor. Roberto has been working for years to identify growers with the farming conditions and determination to produce great coffee, and to encourage organic production, as well. We believe that at some point in the not-too-distant future, these farms will produce coffee to rival El Lechero, and in the meantime, Roberto will be cupping coffees like crazy to find those special micro lotes (micro lots).
Though I spent a scant five days in Honduras, I was still able to enjoy the hospitality of Roberto’s parents, Jorge and Coyo, who never fail to make me feel like part of the Salazar clan (in a good way). With six grown children and at least six grandchildren, most of whom live within a stone’s throw of the casa paterna (parents’ house), Coyo’s kitchen is constantly churning out meals of eggs and meat from the family’s hens, beans, tortillas, and vegetable stews made from the spoils of their gardens, juice from their citrus trees, and cheese from their dairy cows. Dinner usually begins around 5:30, when the sun goes down, and I happily spend hours at their table, talking coffee and politics, gossiping about the village, and laughing as the Salazar brothers make fun of one another. As I said, we are very lucky, and as you might imagine, I can’t wait to go back.
Now then, it's Nicaragua time. I miss you all and I look forward to hanging out soon.
Back from the Road: Sustainable Quality at Finca Mauritania12-23-09
I arrived in El Salvador two weeks ago on the first day of the coffee harvest at Finca Mauritania! It was purely coincidental, of course, but I like the correlation because it reinforces the feeling that we have gotten the year off to an auspicious beginning. Speaking of beginnings, this trip was my first to El Salvador and to the venerable Finca Mauritania, if you can believe it. I met Aida Batlle on her first trip to visit Counter Culture in 2004, only a few months after I joined the company, and since that time Counter Culture's relationship with Aida has become a model for relationships we have constructed elsewhere in the world. Various Counter Culture Coffee employees and customers have visited Aida's farms over the years to learn about the work that goes into producing her extraordinary coffee, so I headed to El Salvador with high expectations. Thankfully, I was not disappointed.
Our first order of business was to visit Aida's farms. We stopped by Finca Kilimanjaro and Finca Los Alpes before making our way to Finca Mauritania, where we arrived just as the pickers congregated to weigh and sort the day's coffee harvest. As I crouched to take photographs of the pile of beautiful, ripe coffee cherries, it occurred to me that I felt like I already knew the farm manager, Adonai, and his wife. I have seen countless photos of the perfectly-picked cherries at Finca Mauritania, and I have shown these photos to other coffee producers from around the world, only to watch them gape with disbelief: they can't believe that anyone would invest the effort in picking such uniformly ripe coffee! I hate to echo other trip reports, but it bears repeating that Aida's dedication to quality and perfectionism is unsurpassed (and maybe unsurpassable).
Different versions of coffee perfectionism were on view at two other farms we visited in other parts of Santa Ana: first, on a farm owned by Alejandro Duarte, we saw a plot of "BLC," or Bourbon Low Caffeine, planted for the famous Illy company. The experimental variety was technically a secret until about a year ago, and if you're wondering whether I got to taste it, the answer is no: this coffee is Illy's property through and through, and, in fact, if the company decides to pull out of the experiment, the producer must destroy the plants! The second version of coffee perfectionism was yet another experiment unlike any I have seen in coffee, this time in grafting: at a lower-altitude farm owned by the J. Hill Company (which owns the mill where Aida processes her coffees) they are experimenting with grafts of Bourbon-type coffea Arabica plants onto coffea Canephora, or Robusta, roots, in hopes of improving the Bourbon's drought and disease resistance. Again, I can't make any judgments on cup quality, but I felt lucky to get a sneak peak at these experiments.
But back to Aida's coffee! This year's crop of Finca Mauritania will be the seventh that Counter Culture purchases from Aida, and each year we work together to broaden the scope of our coffee experiments and to deepen our commitment to one another. This year, Aida and I picked December for a visit because the coffee harvest is not yet in full swing, and we have an unusual new coffee-related project to work on: carbon.
About six months ago, after conversations here at Counter Culture and with Meredith Taylor of Washington, DC's Peregrine Espresso (who had just begun a long-distance, sustainability-focused internship with Counter Culture), I approached Aida with a proposal to calculate the seed-to-cup carbon footprint of Finca Mauritania's coffee and to plant trees that would sequester the carbon produced at each step in the chain. Though I couldn't give her many details—at that point, I hardly even knew what I was asking for—Aida good-naturedly agreed to let us make Finca Mauritania the carbon guinea pig and to help me however she could. Meredith and I spent months learning about carbon, researching carbon calculators, testing carbon calculators, talking to carbon auditing organizations, and following just about every lead you can imagine that has the word “carbon” in it, before creating a worksheet of our own to quantify the energy used at each step in the creation and preparation of Finca Mauritania's coffee, right up to the brewing. From gallons of diesel to therms of natural gas to kilowatt hours of electricity, I haven't done this much math since high school! As we neared completion of the energy-consumption puzzle, we realized that the most challenging information to obtain was that information coming from our supply-chain partners at origin.
Beneficio Las Tres Puertas is the mill to which Aida brings Finca Mauritania's coffee for processing—that is, everything from removing the skin of the cherry to drying, sorting and bagging the coffee for export. Understanding their operation is crucial, both from the perspective of cup quality and from the carbon-footprint perspective. The mill manager, Mario Mendoza, walked us through the ecological features of the mill, including a wastewater treatment system more extensive than any I have ever seen and a unique energy generator that burns the skins of coffee cherries for fuel. It is always important to Counter Culture to meet and build trust with everyone in the supply chain, since transparency is one of the criteria for Counter Culture Direct Trade and our model relationships. This trust becomes all the more important when you're asking for something out of the ordinary, which is exactly what I was there to do: we needed to know how much energy was used to wash, dry, and prepare Finca Mauritania's coffee for export in order to calculate the total pounds of CO2 generated in that process, and Mario was eager to assist us.
Interestingly, I have found that when I tell most people about the carbon-counting project that Counter Culture, Peregrine, and Aida are undertaking together, they are really excited to hear about it and happy to get involved. When it comes to calculating a year's worth of data for the electricity used in one of our training centers or the total gallons of fuel used in transporting the coffee from El Salvador to New Jersey, sometimes the process gets a bit stickier! I keep reminding myself—and telling all of the many supply-chain participants who do the legwork of finding the information I ask for—that when we do finally fill in the blanks, find the total carbon footprint of this coffee from seed to cup, and then plant trees to sequester the carbon we collectively produce, then we will, as a group, have made an inspiring step in the direction of real sustainability. And this group includes everyone at Counter Culture Coffee. The number of miles driven and flown by Counter Culture employees contributes directly to the footprint calculations, while energy-conservation behaviors can help reduce that footprint. It is all connected.
Likewise, we are all participants! Everyone who has had a cup of one of Finca Mauritania's coffees—including Pulp Natural, Pasa, Espresso—has already become involved in this project, and that, to me, is amazing. I raise a cup of Aida's Grand Reserve to all of us in recognition of the dedication, trust and support that makes such amazing things possible!