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As our point-person for retail customer support at Counter Culture and having worked as a barista for 5 years—most recently at Jubala Coffee in Raleigh, NC—I have fielded questions about how to make better coffee at home many, many times. I could spend hours outlining the variables that go into making delicious coffee, but there are three that have consistently stood out to me as the most simple and effective ways to significantly improve your home coffee game.
You're reading this, so I'm assuming that you already buy delicious, freshly-roasted coffee and that you have decided what brew method you're going to use. If you need help choosing one, check out our Quick + Easy Brewing Guides to explore some of our favorites.
Without further ado, three keys to brewing delicious coffee at home:
1. Purchase a quality burr grinder
Arguably the most important piece of equipment you can add to your delicious-coffee toolbox is a quality burr grinder. Having a burr grinder is important because coffee tastes best when brewed immediately after grinding. And it is crucial for good extraction to have an even grind. Consistent grind particles allow for more-even extraction and in turn a more-balanced cup of coffee.
Think of it this way: When you roast potatoes you want them to be diced as uniformly as possible. That way all of the pieces cook evenly. If there are large pieces and tiny pieces, the large ones do not cook completely before the tiny ones are overcooked. A similar concept applies to coffee grounds. If the ground coffee is not evenly sized, not enough soluble material is pulled out of the large grounds and too much material is pulled out of the smaller grounds creating an uneven brew.
There are a lot of burr grinder options available at different prices, but not all are created equal. If you want a quality grinder that will last for a long time, I suggest the Baratza Encore for virtually every application except for espresso. This is the grinder that I use at home every single day, and its reliability and ease-of-use are major selling points for me. If you’re looking for a smaller footprint, travel companion, or a lower price point, check out the Hario Skerton or Porlex hand grinders.
2. Use a digital scale
Just as using the proper ratio of ingredients in a cake or cookie recipe is crucial for good results, using a proper coffee-to-water ratio is crucial for making tasty coffee. The best bakers I know use scales to make sure they’re consistently making the best cake or cookies possible—over and over again. Similarly, many of the best baristas I know use scales to ensure the consistency of their coffee. Which might lead you to wonder, why measure by weight and not with your trusty coffee scoop?
When making coffee, a proper coffee-to-water ratio allows for consistency and repeatability: Use roughly 1.6–2 grams of whole bean coffee per-fluid-ounce of water depending on your brew method. Different coffees from around the world have different densities and physical size. And the roast profile of a coffee affects weight, as well. This means that one scoop of whole bean coffee of one variety might weigh 5 grams while another might weigh 8 grams—even though they look like the same amount of coffee in the scoop. In our example, if your go-to recipe uses 4 scoops of coffee for each pot, that would be either 20 or 32 grams, which is a 60 percent difference! Weighing coffee gives you consistency regardless of variety or roast level and gives you better control over the coffee you make. This will also help you know exactly how many cups of coffee you'll get out of a bag.
As with grinders, there are a lot of options for scales. Three of my favorites:
- The Acaia Pearl, which has a built-in timer as well as a smartphone app if you really want to geek-out.
- The durable OXO Good Grips Scale, which has a wide platform to accommodate any brewing device.
- The compact American Weigh AWS-2KG, which is an incredible value.
3. Use clean water
Water is the unsung hero of coffee brewing and may be the least thought-about component of making tasty coffee—which is crazy considering that brewed coffee is 98 percent water! With that in mind, it's easy to see why using clean water is so important. If your water tastes like chlorine or other chemicals, those flavors will make their way into your coffee. If the mineral content of your water is too high or too low it will affect extraction, and, in particular, if the mineral content is too high it can cause a more-rapid buildup of mineral scale in your brewing equipment. (More on water quality can be found here, if you want to dive a little deeper.)
To avoid overcomplicating things, just be sure that your water tastes good and has a decent mineral content. If you use tap water at home, run it through a simple carbon filter for taste and odor—like a Brita filter. If you purchase bottled water for your coffee, I would suggest spring water rather than water labeled as "drinking water." Distilled water should never be used to brew coffee as its lack of mineral content actually makes it corrosive to your equipment.
Pay attention to these three things at home, and I guarantee that you'll be making more-delicious coffee on a consistent basis. If you have any lingering questions about any of this, please don't hesitate to contact us through the help button in the bottom right-hand corner of this page!
Thirty-six coffee professionals from around the country participated in the United States Barista Championships in Atlanta last weekend (April 14–17), a competition presented by the Specialty Coffee Association of America and the Barista Guild of America. Lemuel Butler, Counter Culture Coffee wholesale customer support and barista trainer in Durham, NC, won first place and was crowned the 2016 U.S. Barista Champion. This the first national win in Butler's decorated coffee career during which he has won five Southeast regional championships (2005, 2007, 2010, 2012, and 2014)—the most of anyone in competition history. Lem will go on to represent the U.S. in the World Barista Championship in Dublin this year, June 23–25. Lem has been an integral member of Counter Culture's team in Durham since 2007, training countless baristas and staff in coffee excellence and forging relationships with chefs, cafe owners, and members of the industry.
Samuel Lewontin, general manager and barista at NYC's beloved Everyman Espresso, placed fourth in the Barista Championship using Counter Culture coffee. This year, 10 baristas competed using Counter Culture coffees, with Lem and Sam making it to the finals.
At the Barista Championship, baristas competed in front of four sensory judges, two technical judges and one head judge as they prepared and served four espressos, four cappuccinos and four signature espresso beverages during a 15-minute race against the clock. Lem competed with Finca Nuguo, a Gesha variety coffee from Jurutungo, Panama, with big floral notes of jasmine, lime tartness and tropical fruit sweetness, that was roasted by Counter Culture's Kyle Tush. Each competitor's signature beverage is notably the “canvas” of the competition, where baristas show their creativity and innovation. Lem called his drink "SouthernPlayalisticCadillacCoffee," a spring-y ode to his southern roots and the Outkast album that first inspired his love of southern hip-hop, comprising Finca Nuguo espresso, magnolia flower simple syrup, hibiscus, lemongrass and nitrous oxide (for creaminess), served elegantly to judges in beer snifters. Lem's beverages were accompanied by an earnest presentation about specialty coffee's effects on his life and what he will give in return.
"Twelve years in this industry has done so much for my family and me, and now I'm asking myself, 'What will I give back?'" Lem said. "I never fathomed that I'd be representing the U.S. at the World Championship, but beyond that I want to inspire others to perfect this craft, to keep competing and never get discouraged."
"We are so happy for Lem's well-deserved success,” said Counter Culture President and Co-Founder Brett Smith. “He epitomizes how perseverance and hard work pay off and has led the way for so many in this field to push their limits.”
Counter Culture first received an unsolicited bag of green coffee from Finca Nuguo's farmer Jose Manuel Gallardo Mendez in November 2014. Roaster Kyle Tush and Coffee Buyer Tim Hill worked with Jose to refine his processing and quality and in a year's time produced what Counter Culture called “simply the best coffee we sold in 2015.” The particular lot of Finca Nuguo that Lem brought to the US Coffee Championship is a tribute to what can happen through collaboration, dedication and patience—values Counter Culture has been committed to for the past two decades.
Sam competed with a coffee grown by Tito Raúl Quelal in Nariño Columbia that was roasted by Counter Culture's Kyle Tush. Sam credited the farmer Don Tito's washed processing and sun-drying for the coffee's “exceptionally sweet,” “enhanced acidity” and “sparkingly clean” flavors.
The top 12 baristas from a qualifying round held in Kansas, MO, in February earned a first round bye at the US Barista Championship tournament. Open to the public and free to attend, the event also hosted opportunities for attendees to learn more about the world of specialty coffee and to taste coffee from roasters nationwide.
Here is a selection of some of their answers:
What is your day job? I'm a barista, 40-hours a week behind the bar.
How long have you been in the co ffee industry? 3-and-a-half years
What is your spirit animal? Golden Retriever
What is your favorite song on your competition mix? "Sweet Dreams" by the Eurythmics. Annie Lennox is my '80s crush. She is just so regal.
If you win, to whom or what would you dedicate your win? I would dedicate my win to my wife, Abby, for her unending support and all the folks at Counter Culture—especially Kyle Tush—for being a wealth of knowledge and just getting the job done! And, finally, to Jeremiah Cawley for countless hours of training and support during competition prep.
What is your day job? In my everyday life, I'm the General Manager at Everyman Espresso in New York City.
How long have you been in the coffee industry? I've been in coffee for 15 years, though only 9-or-so of those have been in specialty.
What is your favorite song on your competition mix? I don't have this year's USBC playlist put together yet, but my favorite song from a prior playlist is probably The Kills' "Future Starts Slow."
If you win, to whom or what would you dedicate your win? However I wind up finishing, my routine is dedicated to my parents, Sarah and David, for too many reasons to count; to Diane Hostetler, who taught me the craft of stage performance and work ethic, and so many other things besides; to Tito Raul Quelal, for growing, picking, and processing such a phenomenal coffee; to the teams at CRS and Caravela, for helping to bring it to the States; to the whole Counter Culture Coffee team, for their tireless support and extraordinary generosity; and to my family at Everyman Espresso, without whom none of this quixotic dream would be possible.
What's your day job? Charm Offender (also known as Customer Relations at Counter Culture Coffee)
How long have you been in the coffee industry? Twelve short years
What is your spirit animal? Lion of Judah
What is your favorite song in your competition mix? If I told you, everyone would have it in their mix.
If you win, to whom or what would you dedicate your win? Family, farmer, roaster, friends
What's your day job? I am a barista for Underline Coffee in New York City.
How long have you been in the coffee industry? I started at Starbucks in 2007, but didn't get serious about coffee until I began working for a local roaster a few years ago.
What is your spirit animal? Owl
What is your favorite song in your competition mix? The Bar-Kays, "Soul Finger"
If you win, to whom or what would you dedicate your win? I would have to say José and his team at Finca Nuguo. This coffee is truly amazing, and I'm just doing my best to carry as much of that through to the cup as I can.
What's your day job? Founder and CEO of Slingshot Coffee Co.
How long have you been in the coffee industry? Ten years in some capacity or another. Five years as a full-time gig.
What is your spirit animal? Dorothy Zbornak
What is your favorite song in your competition mix? I'm stressed out because I can't answer this right now.
If you win, to whom or what would you dedicate your win? Girls. Cuz who run the world?
What’s your day job? My day job is being a barista at Everyman Espresso in New York City.
How long have you been in the coffee industry? I have been working in the coffee industry for five years.
What is your spirit animal? My spirit animal is always stressed by this question.
What is your favorite song in your competition mix? Right now I am enjoying Bob Dylan's "Meet Me in the Morning."
If you win, to whom or what would you dedicate your win? If I were to win the Brewers Cup I would dedicate this victory to the people, because that is why I am doing it.
Sarah Rice Scott
How long have you been in the coffee industry? I have been in the biz since 2014.
What is your spirit animal? A great blue heron.
What is your favorite song in your competition mix? Wait, can brewer’s have music? So, I don’t have a mix (yet?), but I feel like early era REM has been a part of the soundtrack of my practice sessions.
If you win, to who or what would you dedicate your win? My coach, Evan, and team Peregrine. Evan has been so critical to my training. He’s pushed me further as a coffee professional and he’s a pretty great person all around. The rest of my team (including barista legend Jeremy Sterner) are likewise incredible. Despite the stress and anxiety of competing, they have made this process so much fun and so rewarding. It’s a real honor to work with such a great crew.
How long have you been in the coffee industry? 9 years.
What is your spirit animal? Wolf
What is your favorite song in your competition mix? "There is no there" by the Books. It's been in my headphones (and in my head) for like a decade and a half and I'm still not tired of it!
If you win, to who or what would you dedicate your win? Were I to win, I'd dedicate the win to everyone who had a hand in making this coffee so awesome, to everyone who supported me in preparation, and to the employees and regulars at Pavement. And the caturra variety. And Larry Margulies, president/owner of Pavement. ♥ u Larr Bear.
At Counter Culture, we talk a lot about transparency and partnership in relation to how we buy coffee. Both are essential to improving the quality and sustainability of the coffees we purchase in direct ways: Transparency builds trust and trust helps us build the partnerships that make continuous improvement possible. As I've been learning more about how different every coffee supply chain looks, it dawned on me that both transparency and partnerships are vital to our Purchasing Principles for a less-obvious, but equally necessary reason: They help us create feedback loops.
While important to building relationships, feedback in the form of direct communications via phone, email, etc., tends to be qualitative information and is hard to achieve with every individual farmer. On the other hand, numbers—like prices and cupping scores—give more-objective feedback and can be easily disseminated to large groups of people without language or translation barriers. A big part of making coffee better is experimentation, and, without the expertise or facilities to cup their coffee, farmers need feedback to know whether the changes they made were beneficial.
I don't want to give the impression that numbers like prices and cupping scores are the ultimate feedback mechanism. Although we try to tie price to quality as much as possible when buying coffee, the price we pay reflects other variables, as well. For example, we might pay more for a coffee than its quality score dictates if that farm is a good long-term partner—even if they had lower quality because of bad weather. Combining smaller parcels of coffee presents another issue. Farmers don't often have access to price and score on an individual level when their lots are mixed in with others from their community before cupping and scoring takes place. In some cases, numeric feedback exists but is never communicated to producers by other people in the supply chain.
How do we fix these issues to give better feedback? Sometimes what's needed to improve the quality or sustainability of a coffee are other forms of positive reinforcement—for example, paying farmers based on the ripeness and uniformity of the coffee fruit they sell when they aren't able to get individual quality scores. Other times, existing forms of feedback just need to be amplified to make sure they reach farmers, and that will require us to lean heavily on our supply chain partners. For important areas where we want to push and measure improvement—like sustainability—effective feedback and reporting don't necessarily exist. And it's on us to develop them.
Coffee farming involves a huge number of variables and clear feedback is vital to giving farmers the information they need to continuously improve the quality and sustainability of their coffee. Being transparent by sharing data and ensuring that it gets to growers through strong partnerships are what make those feedback loops functional.
Stay tuned for more exciting updates!
A few weeks ago, I was part of a meeting with other coffee roasters in which one company kept referring to producers as "suppliers." In a strict definitional sense that's true, but the word "suppliers" struck me as negative. I think part of that has to do with my past—I interned in college for a large auto manufacturer that had hundreds of parts "suppliers"—and part has to do with our philosophy that we're in long-term partnerships with producers and others in the coffee-supply chain.
In my mind, the word partnership means working together toward a shared purpose. For our supply chain, that purpose is high-quality coffee grown sustainably. A steering wheel supplier is generally only concerned with making a functioning part that fits their buyer's specifications. Their purpose is to make a high-quality steering wheel—whether or not that wheel contributes to the overall quality of the final car is controlled by the buyer. In our supply chains, everyone is dealing with a single product the whole way through. If one of those steps is done poorly, there's no hiding it in a bigger final product. In other words, if we're not all sharing the same end goal—high-quality coffee grown sustainably—it doesn't work.
For our purchasing model to work, we first have to identify partners who are willing to commit to that shared purpose. On a recent trip I took to the Coordinadora de Organizaciones de Desarrollo de Concepción Huista co-op in Guatemala, for example, we talked through two initiatives that are great examples of this shared purpose: getting drier coffee and projects to help farmers adapt to climate change.
Our partners include not only the production end of the supply chain, but the folks who make our coffee, as well. If a wholesale customer isn't committed to brewing great coffee, then the high-quality aspect of that shared purpose is lost. We also need folks who are willing to communicate. Communication is key to coordination—something that's especially important in a global supply chain. Communication is also key to making improvements. We don't see our partners as immediately interchangeable suppliers. Issues constantly arise with an agricultural product that has to be transported around the world, and we wouldn't be a very good partner if we just dropped someone every time something went wrong.
That brings me to how we can be better partners. What I've laid out is the ideal, and I'd be remiss if I didn't acknowledge our need to improve on these aspects, as well. One of the things we're working on is better communication with our wholesale partners—setting regular meeting schedules to make sure that we're both informed about what the other is doing.
On the other end of the supply chain, we're working with producers to set yearly quality and sustainability goals. These goals identify what we'd like to see improve for each coffee. These are not things that need to change in order for us to buy coffee from those producers next year, rather they're a way for us to better-target what we can work on together season to season.
We're also working on better ways to measure and track how sustainably a coffee is grown as a way for both us and producers to have more tangible evidence of progress.
Stay tuned for more exciting updates!
We believe in pushing potential in every aspect of what we do—from employee development to coffee-buying relationships—and we believe improvement is a journey not a destination. We're proud of all of the coffees we sell and we want to celebrate their journey to higher quality and sustainability. With that in mind, we are making a change to Hologram that will impact its organic certification. Starting February 15th, 2016, we will be removing the USDA Certified Organic label from Hologram for all West Coast products. The label was removed from all East Coast products in early January.
Hologram is one of our most popular blends and the vast majority of coffees used in Hologram will still be certified organic, but we saw great potential in a few groups of growers that are not yet certified. To support these coffees, whose flavor profile will work well for Hologram, we are making the choice to remove the certification and work with these growers as they continue on their journey toward greater sustainability.
In summary, changing Hologram to conventional allows the inclusion of coffees that are making progress moving along the continuum towards greater sustainability and we are committed to helping them push their potential.
We understand that some of our customers will still want coffee that has reached the organic certification benchmark and we are committed to offering a large selection of certified organic year-round options that include Apollo, Fast Forward, and Forty Six in addition to the numerous single-origin organic offerings.
In some ways this is good—it means that people like me who are officially "in charge" of sustainability don't have sole responsibility for addressing the myriad issues in the coffee industry. On the other hand, it means that no one company, Counter Culture included, is going to make coffee sustainable all on their own. So, if a sustainable coffee industry necessitates the involvement of everyone and covers just about every topic, what the heck do we do?
My answer to that question at this point, eight months into my job, is: do the best that we can within our own operations, be transparent about our work so that others can learn from our successes and failures, and join others in the industry to magnify and focus our impact.
Internally, we worked on environmental sustainability through improvements to our greenhouse gas data collection and waste management. We also set team sustainability initiatives for the first time in 2015, as an attempt to further infuse sustainability into our own operations. Just last month, we became part of the Durham Living Wage Project, and we continue to support sustainable livelihoods for coffee producers through our Seeds fund.
Our systems of reporting and ways to share information about our successes and failures are both works in progress, but we think it's important to keep sharing even as we work to improve those processes. I talked about this a lot in my presentation at the National Coffee Association's Fall Summit, which gave me the opportunity to reflect on the importance of working on sustainability issues, despite their messy nature. We also launched a new version of our Transparency Report this year with the intent to show rather than tell people how we buy coffee.
Even if we get everything right internally, Counter Culture is still a relatively small entity in the coffee market. If we want to make industry-level impacts, we need to join forces with other coffee folks and work towards common goals. I was fortunate to inherit a role in the Coalition for Coffee Communities from my predecessor, and we've recently committed to help build a framework for measuring and defining sustainable coffee as part of the Sustainable Coffee Challenge.
I talked about continuous improvement and movement along a continuum a lot this year, in reference to our own operations, how we view sustainable coffee production, etc. No one company or buying relationship or certification is ever going to make coffee a truly sustainable industry, but I'm hopeful that if we put our minds and dollars together, we can start moving along the spectrum more deliberately and at an increasing pace.