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: San Ignacio, Peru!
Hi from Jaen, Peru!
Jaen is a bustling city in the Cajamarca region of the north, known for rice and coffee (depending on your interest, I suppose). It's the gateway to San Ignacio and the farms of Valle del Santuario and a natural stopping point in the multi-part journey to the valley.
I arrived in Lima early on Monday morning and spent the day hanging out at Café Verde, a coffee shop founded by our friend K.C. O'Keefe and staffed by a crack team of roasters, cuppers and beautiful-shot pouring baristas. The dedication to quality, freshness, information, and coffee culture at Café Verde really raises the bar for consumers in Peru – their all-Peruvian espresso is delicious – and is one of few of its kind anywhere (you've all heard my complaints about the coffee consumed at origin in Latin America). Sarah Kluth from Intelligentsia and I led the baristas in a latte-art throw down, which I did not win. They have some good baristas, but, in fact, I did pretty poorly by any standard. Oops, sorry guys!
But lest I wallow in shame, let's get back to the reason I'm here: the farms! We flew to Chiclayo later that day and crossed the Andes to Jaen in the dark, which was beautiful in a whole different way from the drive I recalled from last year: as we reached the top, the moon and stars seemed impossibly bright on the mountainsides as we looked at the dark valleys below. On Tuesday morning, we met with the president and other representatives of Cenfrocafe, the second-level association of farmers to which the first-level co-ops of Valle del Santuario belong. We discussed our shared goals and some potential for joint projects in the farming communities, which I will be following up on with their project manager in another meeting this weekend. The best part of the meeting, however, was getting to show the leadership of the association how we promote our coffee and projects through our website. It's unusual to have access to the internet with anyone on the farming end, so that was a treat, but when I pulled up the Valle del Santuario page and showed links to the Google map, our trip reports, photographs, CCDTC standards and the coffee-person interview with Elmer, my heart almost burst with pride.
After the meeting, it was back to the tried-and-true white Toyota Corolla for the last leg of the journey: north through San Ignacio to the valley itself, where I arrived in the town of Las Mercedes at the home of Aquino Huachez Huachez, one of last year's microlot winners! Exhausted from two days of travel, I fell asleep that night to the sounds of Aquino's five children laughing and the rain beating steadily on the tin roof. Wednesday began with a meeting of the five community associations to discuss the past year and our and hopes for the future. Rising costs and the falling value of the dollar puts pressure on all of our relationships, so although this is one of the relationships we are most proud of for the prices paid, the quality produced and the transparency we have across the supply chain, it's still full of challenges. Thankfully, navigating those challenges makes relationships stronger and Counter Culture is pretty good at it!
I was looking forward to hiking around some farms after the meeting, and I was not disappointed, for the day turned into an epic adventure in the pouring rain that included a backside-slide down a muddy trail, whispered discussion about whether the farmer in the lead does, indeed, know where he's going and, of course, some beautiful, beautiful farms. Most of these farmers have between two and five acres of coffee, nestled on misty mountainsides under the shade of fruit, lumber, and native trees. I loved seeing many examples of the native fig trees that give Ihuamaca its name and inspired our Valle Del Santuario icon! These farmers are mid-harvest at the moment, which made the tours more interesting and the accompaniment of 20 or 30 members even more of an honor. We finished the hike on Aquino's farm, where he has planted the Bourbon variety almost exclusively. The farm looks great, but this year might be a tough one for him and for many in the co-op because an early rain damaged the crop and will lower their output.
A spontaneous game of volleyball, organized (and dominated) by the women of the group, was the perfect end to the day. This morning, I visited more farms in the town of Bajo Ihuamaca, then returned to Jaen in anticipation of a day of barista training at Cenfrocafe's new coffee shop here and cupping with Cenfrocafe's cupping team tomorrow. On Saturday, it's back to the chacras (that's Peruvian slang for farms), the fig trees, the guinea pigs, and the sanctuary! I am sharing all of your respect, gratitude and affection with our partners here, and I hope that I can communicate their mutually admiring feelings to all of you. I miss you all and can't wait to share more stories and photographs in the days to come!
From the Road: East Africa Continues - Kenya!
Directly after Rwanda, I made a quick trip to Kenya. Kenya is home to one of the most respected coffee traditions in the world, and Kenyan coffees are famous among coffee connoisseurs for their unique quality. Even within the country of Kenya, there is a particular region from which the most famous coffees come: a few hours north of Nairobi, in the foothills to the south of the majestic Kirinyaga (also called Mt. Kenya), coffee farms produce absolutely spectacular coffees filled with winy fruitiness, mouthwatering savory character, and clean perfect coffee flavor.
It is to this area that I drove, immediately after arriving in Kenya. I spent the night in Nyeri Town, the capitol of this region. I didn't stay at the Hotel Starbucks, in nearby Karatina Town. This really must be coffee country – Hotel Starbucks!
It is an exciting time in Kenya. Historically, Kenyan law required that all coffee be tendered to a state-run open auction. Samples were available to licensed bidders, who vied for coffees at the famous Nairobi Coffee Exchange. We've been active in the auction for years now, buying and selling straight auction lots, unblended. 3 years ago, however, a new law was passed in Kenya allowing farmer cooperatives to sell their coffee directly to exporters and roasters, bypassing the auction. This became known as the "second window" through which coffee could leave Kenya, and it set the stage for developing more direct, long term relationships with coffee farmers. As a brand new thing, the second window was not immediately embraced by farmers or exporters, and it is only this year that we bought our first coffees direct. We, and a handful of other roasters, paid such a high price for these direct coffees, that it has created some excitement among farmers. It is with this in mind that I was visiting some of our favorite cooperatives, to explore the idea of buying more coffee directly in the coming year.
Anyway, first thing in the morning, I went to visit with the Thiriku cooperative at their coffee washing station (which are called "factories" here in Kenya). I first visited Thiriku in 2005, while I was in Kenya teaching cupping classes. That year, some of the best coffees at the auction came from Thiriku, and they have a reputation for being a well-run cooperative. Upon arrival, I shook the hands of Thiriku's board of directors, some of whom I recognized from 3 years ago (that's a good sign). Their spirit, however, is much different now! They have had a pretty successful few years, and they are proud of the prices they have paid the farmers of the cooperative. They were especially happy that I had made a return visit, that I would return twice was proof to them they were doing a good job. The first deliveries of coffee were being washed while I was there, and we talked about Thiriku's approach to quality and farmer outreach as the day broke. I have a good feeling about Thiriku, and if the quality pans out like I think it will, we may very well see some coffees from them in late 2008.
I had to say goodbye to Thiriku in order to make my meeting with Tekangu, the association of cooperatives that includes the Tegu, Karatina, and Ngunguru cooperatives. The most astute among you may recognize these as some of the all-stars of Kenyan coffees – and many (including me) have the indelible memory of a certain Tegu lot from the 2004 crop. I headed right for the Tegu factory – the last time I visited here was in 2006. Amazingly, even though the coffee from this factory has at times achieved greatness, it is not consistent: coffee has sometimes been just mediocre from Tegu. Embarking on a direct relationship will entail partnership and quality feedback, which will (hopefully) help to get our hands around quality control here, and make those great lots intentional rather than accidental. At the same time of my arrival, farmers were arriving with the very first cherries of the 2008 harvest. /div>
Farmers were bringing in literal handfuls of cherries, in small plastic bags, carried for miles. It is amazing the amount of work these farmers do each year to bring their coffee to market. Tegu's management took the opportunity to explain to me their new quality initiative – which has to do with bringing ONLY the ripest cherries into the mill. We crouched on the ground with the farmers, picking out slightly ripe, underripe, and overripe cherries in an attempt to really focus on the best of the best – for that is what is going to make it possible for us to pay the really high prices. Ripeness equals sweetness in the cup, and the full, fruity flavor is a great Kenyan is impossible without perfect ripeness. I believe Tegu is on the right track here. They have also divided their farmers into two groups: the "A" group has very well-managed, well-tended farms. Group "B" are farms which have had quality issues in the past or which are less well-managed. Farmers bring their cherry in on different days, allowing Tegu (and us) to keep the best separate, and reward those farmers who are producing the best quality (since those best-of-the-best lots will be sold to us at a premium). I had a great time hanging out at Tegu, filming movies, and planning out the harvest with the leaders of the co-op. I hope for a long, direct relationship with Tegu and the rest of the Tekangu group.
We went from Tegu to the Karatina factory, where the Tekangu association offices are. We were met by the rest of the Tekangu leadership, and they proudly shared with me the events of the past few years; they have successfully sold a number of the highest-priced lots to the auction, and they are eager to enter into a direct relationship with us, knowing that we have been a great buyer of their coffees in the past. Very exciting! We toured the factory, which was busily being prepared for harvest time. We'll be seeing samples from all three of these factories during the harvest, and giving feedback to the cooperatives. And if greatness emerges, we will be right there and ready to bring the lot home to roast! These would be the first Kenyan coffees which could theoretically qualify for our Direct Trade certification!!
It's an exciting time, all right.
After a friendly goodbye to the Tekangu leadership, I headed back to Nairobi and then homeward.
Until next time,