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: 21st de Septiembre Co-op
Today is a holiday across Mexico in observance of the Day of the Revolution, which commemorates the beginning of the Mexican Revolution in 1910. The revolution is not to be confused with independence, which occurred in 1810. (See the pattern? Mexicans joke that the government will hold its breath for an entire year in 2010.) The Mexican Revolution led to widespread agrarian reform, gave birth to the Mexican constitution and laid the foundation for Mexican politics as we know them now: think populism, Zapatistas and the PRI that ran the country for 80 consecutive years after the revolution ended in 1920. ¡Viva la revolución!
But let's move from Mexico's fascinating history to the 21st of September's fascinating coffee: I am writing from the town of Putla de Guerrero in western Oaxaca, Mexico, where the 21st of September co-op has its offices, warehouse, and soon-to-be cupping lab (more on that in a later dispatch). For the past few days, I have enjoyed the company of Clemente Santiago and Laura Tilghman of Sustainable Harvest, our importer partner, as well as Chris Thorns and Jorge Quintanilla of Allegro Coffee, which is one of the 21st's buyers, along with Counter Culture Coffee and Taylor Maid Farms. We're all here to work together with the leadership of the co-op to set a course for the harvest that's just now beginning. My goal is to share Counter Culture's experiences with last year's coffee – from taste profile to contract discussion to lot separation – and get perspective from the 21st on the same subjects so that we agree on how to make progress in coffee quality and our relationship.
We had the unusual opportunity today to participate, along with representatives from all 23 of the 21st's member communities, in a visit to a small coffee farm in the town of Zimatlán that recently completed a biogas-and-sustainable-miscellany project. The project began with the collaboration of the farm's owner, Jacinto, and the 21st's agronomist-in-charge, Gerardo, to use hog waste from the farm's seven pigs to create and capture methane gas for cooking and became, over six months, a system that integrates tilapia raised on animal and food waste, vegetables irrigated with the waste water from the tilapia pond, and specific ornamental plants that provide food for the hogs. Jacinto wants the farm to be a demonstration farm for other growers interested in incorporating these sustainable and efficient farm processes, and I believe that he is the perfect person to present these ideas because he represents the average member of the 21st in income, age, indigenous background, education, and experience. I loved listening to him talk about his journey toward greater self-sufficiency on his farm and observing the visiting growers of the 21st discuss which technologies they could incorporate and how to continue improving upon the model. It's also a good reminder to me, and all of us, that these opportunities are everywhere and for everyone – this system arose out of a few good ideas and the willingness to question the traditional way of doing things.
Tomorrow I will disappear up into the mountains for four days of farm visits, meetings with growers, and, I can only hope, more spicy and delicious tacos. Even if I didn't love the coffee and admire the co-op, I would visit the communities 21st for their food alone. I look forward to good conversations and to further strengthening Counter Culture's connection to this marvelous co-op, and please know that I am thinking of you guys and doing my best to represent Counter Culture Coffee, our customers and all of the coffee-loving consumers of the 21st's coffee while I'm here!
A Tale of Two Sumatras
There are perhaps no coffees more misunderstood than the coffees from the island of Sumatra. The western-most major island of the Indonesian Archipelago, Sumatra is a vast, exotic island known to ancient mariners as the sentry to the straits of Malacca – the pirate-infested gateway to the legendary spice islands. The island was home to exotic animals like the famous Sumatran Tiger and Orangutan (meaning "forest man" in the local language), and ancient and fierce civilizations that amazed European explorers.
After Dutch spice traders established trade with and colonized these remote islands, they founded tropical plantations on the islands of Java and Sumatra. Coffee was among the first crops they cultivated on these plantations, and before long these islands were the largest producers of coffee in the world. Soon, coffee cultivation shifted away from the colonists and towards the indigenous people of Sumatra.
It was then that Sumatran coffees began their rise to fame. And, since Sumatra is a gigantic island rich with cultural and geographic diversity, the coffees from the island were similarly diverse in their flavor and appearance. By the 1920s, coffee was being traded with indigenous names like Ankola and Mandailing, two ethnic groups of western Sumatra who traded particularly good coffee. Some coffee was grown in the lowlands of western Sumatra, but the best came overland from the mountains of Northern Sumatra. These mountains, deep in the dark interior of Sumatra, were mysterious to explorers and Sumatrans alike. And the coffees that came out of these highlands were richly diverse and wildly different from each other.
Now, the miracle of modern travel has allowed us to discover and explore the true sources of these amazing coffees. It has been astounding for us to experience the beautiful diversity of Sumatran coffee, Sumatran culture, and the Sumatran environment by traveling the long road to coffee's origins in the mountains of that dark island.
The best coffees in Sumatra come from two distinct places: the mountains in Central Aceh on the northern tip of Sumatra and the mountains surrounding Lake Toba farther south. These coffees can still be classified according to the ethnic groups that grow the respective coffees; the Gayo and Toba Batak respectively. As part of our mission to uncover the secrets of the most amazing coffees of the world, we offer an example of each of these two very different coffees to our customers.
Our Gayo coffee, named after the ethnic group that grows the coffee in the mountains of Aceh, comes from a little valley called Jagong. Small Gayo farmers cultivate this coffee organically using the traditional varietals of Bergundal and Tim-Tim. The result is a syrupy-sweet dark-chocolate and fruit sensation, with a dollop of the deep earthy tones that make Gayo coffees famous. We pay tribute to the Gayo culture by featuring a hallmark of Gayo architecture on each bag, the ornately decorated triangle that fills the gable of each traditional Gayo house. The Gayo speak their own language and maintain their unique culture, including the tradition of coffee cultivation and trade.
Hundreds of miles south, in a completely different area of Sumatra, the magnificent Lake Toba sits as the centerpiece to the mountain homeland of the Toba Batak people. The Batak have cultivated coffee in these jungled mountains for generations and traded them in the towns of Siborongborong, Lintong Nihuta, and Dolok Sanggul.
Our favorite coffees come from Dolok Sanggul, and we buy coffees exclusively from this community. Our icon for this coffee features the silhouette of most ubiquitous symbols of Batak life, the unique, curved-roof "boat houses" that are the traditional dwelling of the Batak people. Dolok Sanggul coffees are spicy and resinous, complex and fragrant, bringing to mind the reality that Sumatra was known to the ancients as a spice island, home to pepper and cloves. The coffee is extraordinarily well prepared and clean as a whistle, a rarity in an island which is unfortunately notorious for dirty, moldy coffees.
These two coffees could not be more different than each other, and we think it's a shame that many still lump them together using the generic "Sumatran" descriptor. Both are amazing examples of an authentic tradition, and we couldn't imagine choosing between them. So try them both, and experience the diverse land of Sumatra from two unique perspectives.