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3 Steps to Brew Better at home

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!

Jesse Gordon

We wish all the competitors at the 2016 United States Coffee Championships (USCC) the best of luck! This year, there are 10 competitors in the finals of the USCC using Counter Culture Coffee. We asked them 5 questions to get to know more about the baristas and brewers behind the bar.

Here is a selection of some of their answers:

NathanNerswick Img
Nathan Nerswick

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.

Samuel Lewontin

What is your day job? In my everyday life, I'm the General Manager at Everyman Espresso in Samuel LewotinNew 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 spirit animal? Kyle Tush
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.

Lem Butler

Lem Butler

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

Rich Cummins
Rich Cummins

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.

Jenny Bonchak

Jenny Bonchak

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?

Jenna Gotthelf

Jenna Gotthelf

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 ScottSarah Rice Scott

What's your day job? I am a Coffee Quality Manager at Peregrine Espresso in Washington, DC.
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.

Wolfie Barn

Wolfie Barn

What's your day job? Director of Coffee at Pavement Coffeehouse.
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.

POSTED IN: coffee, coffee knowledge
Since 2002, coffee has been a major export for East Timor.Sustainability Manager Meredith Taylor visited East Timor last month. It was the first time anyone from Counter Culture has visited the country. Since 2002, coffee has been a major export for East Timor, and Meredith was excited for the opportunity to check out this under-the-radar origin.

Read Meredith's trip report on Flickr.

As I've said in previous posts, we have some awesome employees here at Counter Culture who think about sustainability not only at work, but in their own lives, as well. One of these sustainably-minded folks is Chelsea Thoumsin, the customer support representative at our Philadelphia Training Center. Chelsea knows more about bees than anyone I've ever met and, given that we depend on flowering plants for coffee, I asked her to write about her work with the Pollinator Project and shed some light on the importance of pollinators. –Meredith

In Pennsylvania alone, beekeepers experienced an average of 60% of honeybee colony loss in the April of 2014–April 2015 season."I keep hearing in the news that the bees are dying. Why's that? And what can I do to help?" As a beekeeper, I am on the receiving end of these and many other insect-related questions. These two, in particular, essentially spurred the creation of the Pollinator Project—wildflower seed packets designed to help honeybees and other integral pollinators.

Just how dire is the honeybee situation, anyway? In Pennsylvania alone, beekeepers experienced an average of 60% of honeybee colony loss in the April of 2014–April 2015 season, and, according to Science Daily, the national average of recorded losses was more than 40%. These numbers are staggering, but also considered "normal" over the past decade or so. Extreme losses indicate a larger, more convoluted issue of honeybee health and survival.

These are just a few of the factors of what can cause a colony to die: pesticides, fungicides, herbicides, starvation (due to lack of a variety of nectar and pollen-producing plants), stress of environmental change, agricultural stress (including migratory beekeeping), prematurely failing queen bees, varroa mites, disease (such as American/European foulbrood), tracheal mites, nosema, wax moths, and small hive beetles.

But why do we need pollinators? Pollinators facilitate plant reproduction, and, without them, we wouldn't have more than 85% of both food and plant resources in the world. Honeybees alone are responsible for about 30% of our food resources. Coffee trees are self-pollinating, but studies have shown a 15-50% increase in production when honeybees are aiding that pollination. To state it another way, the loss of pollinating bees would result in about a 33% reduction in coffee production.

Supporting the survival of honeybees is relatively simple for the average citizen: plant pollinator-friendly flowers. That alone provides a more habitable environment for honeybees, bumblebees, hundreds of species of native bees, butterflies, moths, beetles, wasps and hornets (yes, they're important, too), and hummingbirds. Lack of food, aka "forage" to us bee folk, is one of the main contributors of the honeybee's decline, not to mention the vast reduction in populations of other effective and very necessary pollinators we often forget about.

Pollinators facilitate plant reproduction, and, without them, we wouldn't have more than 85% of both food and plant resources in the world.While the idea of sprinkling wildflower seeds to make the world a happier and better place for honeybees seems like a Lisa-Frankean pipe dream, it truly does make a difference in the ecosystem at large. Wildflowers are hearty, they provide habitat for insects and birds, they re-seed easily, and they take minimal resources to maintain and propagate. Pollinator Project seed varieties are selected with the intention of providing forage during all seasons possible.

Since April of 2015, when Pollinator Project came to fruition, enough wildflower seeds have been purchased (and presumably, planted) to cover more than 3 full acres—that's more than 130,000 square feet of land—in solid wildflower mass. This certainly isn't nothing, and the repercussions are great since these wildflowers re-seed and exponentially increase their numbers each season. Another mission of Pollinator Project is to focus on education with the goal of demystifying the role of pollinators—and how we can better support them for their (and our) future. I've hosted presentations for groups ranging from high school students to residents of a boutique hotel, but one common theme rings true: It's inspiring to experience others wanting to make a positive change—for pollinators or otherwise—and I am thankful that Pollinator Project can do just that.

–Chelsea Thoumsin

Pollinator Project is a small business in Philadelphia that fills up much of Chelsea's free time. Twenty percent of proceeds go The Xerces Society.

Our 2016 Origin Field Lab will be in Honduras!March 13–19, 2016

On this weeklong trip, students participate in each step of the coffee production process at origin—from harvest to export—and learn about the benefits and challenges of building long-term coffee relationships.

The 2016 Origin Field Lab will cover the complexities of contemporary coffee farming in general, and in Honduras in particular, and with on-site experiences which will illuminate the intricacies of coffee cultivation and processing for farms of varying sizes.

(Application limited to Counter Culture's wholesale customers.)

A few weeks ago, I read an article about the purported end of the farm-to-table movement in the restaurant industry. According to the author, farm-to-table has been taken too far and restaurant-goers want to go back to ordering off of a menu without being “berated” by an extensive explanation of where their food is from. The article argued that consumers in this situation still care whether their food is sustainable, but they want to be able trust that the restaurant is sourcing it sustainably without hearing about any of their actual sourcing practices.

Setting aside my doubts as to how the article’s author reached his “the farm-to-table trend is over” conclusion, I was pretty rankled by his assertion that people are still supposed to care where their food comes from, just not enough to ask that the restaurant tell them. How is a consumer supposed to develop trust in the restaurant’s sourcing practices without any information on which to base this decision? For me, the only two possible outcomes in this scenario are that the restaurant gives me access to information about how they source their food or I decide that I don’t care if my food is sustainably grown for that particular meal. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve made choice number two plenty of times, but I’d prefer choice number one for both my food and my coffee.

My job would be much easier if I could just say “trust us, our coffee is sustainable.” At Counter Culture, however, we want to make it as easy as possible to make choice number one and I think that means giving consumers as much information about the coffee as we can. We’ve experimented with a few different ways of sharing this information over the years, so I’d like to talk a little about where you can find it now and what we’re planning for the future.

Last week, we published our 2014 Annual Report, which gives a snapshot into Counter Culture as a whole. The information in the report isn’t meant to be comprehensive or detailed, but as a way to get an idea of the big picture. We’ve also published a few reports, under different titles over the years, to supplement the annual report, including the Sustainability, Direct Trade, and Transparency Reports. The change of nomenclature has been a bit confusing but the general information has stayed the same—trying to describe where and who we buy coffee from and the nature of those relationships. The level of detail included in these reports has gradually increased and this trend will continue with the summer release of our 2014 Transparency Report, giving more information about more coffees than we ever have before. With the publication of the 2015 Transparency Report, we hope to provide information on every single coffee we bought in 2015. Although this arguably covers the coffee we buy, I’m still thinking through how to best convey information about Counter Culture’s internal practices. I’ll be publishing our 2014 carbon footprint results in the next few weeks and I hope I can gradually add more metrics to this report for a more comprehensive look at our internal sustainability.

I love making graphs more than most, but I’ll admit that it’s challenging to convey all of this information in a digestible format. I’ll share the way I see these reports playing a role using the example of a new seasonal blend we released on Friday: Line Drawing. Line Drawing is so named because it blends coffees from two countries, Colombia and Kenya, where farmers have traditionally relied on chemical fertilizer inputs for coffee farming. In the case of the two coffees used for this blend, however, the communities are making big strides to produce and use more organic inputs—a great example of movement along the sustainability continuum. If we draw lines in the sand like defining sustainability through organic certification only, we’re creating a false dichotomy that doesn’t support these incremental successes. I hope folks see Line Drawing on our offering list and go to the product page to read about the coffee in more detail. I hope they then ask themselves why they should trust Counter Culture on how sustainable this coffee is, leading them to dig into our Annual Report, Transparency Report, Carbon Footprint Report, etc. to decide for themselves whether that trust is justified.
So far, we’ve focused on the sustainability impacts of growing, purchasing, and roasting coffee. This week I’d like to take a step back and talk about an issue that’s affecting the sustainability of the coffee industry as a whole: climate change. As Counter Culture works to measure and reduce our carbon footprint, we also recognize the need to account for the climate change effects that are already in motion and affecting coffee production. In this post, I’ll share two exciting climate change projects we’re working on.

High-quality coffee grows in pretty specific conditions. It needs heat during the day, cool evenings, and predictable rainfall to trigger the coffee trees to flower and produce fruit that ripens at the ideal rate. Coffee beans are the seeds of this fruit, and their flavor is highly dependent upon the right combination of these attributes. Often, these ideal conditions occur high on the slopes of mountains, generally above 1,400 meters.

Even very small changes in temperature and precipitation patterns can have a dramatic effect on the viability of coffee trees. For example, a few degree increase in temperature can raise the ideal altitude at which coffee can be grown on a particular mountain. With a temperature increase, a farmer who previously grew coffee at 1,400 meters might have to move further up the mountain—if a higher altitude exists—where that farmer may not own land or already have coffee trees planted.

In 2013, Counter Culture partnered with a group of students from the Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke University to form a partnership around studying climate change impacts and adaptations for coffee farmers. In the summer of 2014, the students from this group went to three co-ops we work with: CODECH in Guatemala, ASORGANICA in Colombia, and CENFROCAFE in Peru. Using various methods to gather input from farmers, co-op leaders, technical experts, and government leaders, the students researched both the effects of climate change on coffee producers and their resiliency strategies. From the data they gathered, the students made specific recommendations of adaptation strategies to each co-op. For year two of the study, a new group of students will hone in on some of the best recommendations and spend two months on the ground with the co-ops doing feasibility studies.

We’ve really appreciated the alternative perspective and expertise of the students, and we’re looking forward to learning how we can best support these co-ops as they adapt to changing climatic conditions.

As I mentioned in the post about our internal sustainability operations, we’ve measured and offset our company’s greenhouse gas footprint since 2010, but I’m especially proud of the purchase we recently made for our 2012 and 2013 emissions. Not only are these offsets independently verified, they also directly benefit coffee farmers—two things we hadn’t been able to achieve in tandem in past years.

Through Cooperativa AMBIO, we purchased enough trees to offset 1,341 tonnes of CO2. The credit to grow these trees will be allocated to coffee farmers in the buffer zone of the Selva El Ocote Biosphere reserve, in Chiapas, Mexico. Not only will this help maintain a biodiversity hotspot, it also provides these farmers with source of income in addition to coffee. According to our contact at Cooperativa AMBIO, our purchase will affect an area roughly the size of 14 soccer fields and directly impact 6 coffee-growing families.

Beyond purchasing high-quality offsets, the next step is to reduce the amount of energy we use and the need to purchase offsets. While we’re on that journey, though, we’re committed to supporting great projects.
In this post, I'm going to shift away from talking about sustainability where we buy coffee and focus on our own operations as a roaster.

A coffee grown sustainably shouldn't necessarily retain that "sustainable" designation if others involved further along the supply chain aren't also acting responsibly. Just as poor roasting can ruin a high-quality green coffee, an unsustainable roasting company can compromise the integrity of a coffee that was grown and processed sustainably. In other words, Counter Culture has a responsibility not only to roast coffee well, but also to uphold the sustainability of the coffees we buy.

Beyond sourcing sustainably grown coffee, I see Counter Culture as having three major responsibilities in continuing this momentum: environmental protection, supporting community viability, and communicating information to consumers.

Thanks in part to the personal interests of Counter Culture co-founder Fred Houk—who was a passionate bird-watcher—we've always had environmental stewardship in our DNA, though sometimes it's expression has been informal. We took a big step forward in creating systems to formalize our environmental sustainability commitments when we started measuring and offsetting our carbon footprint in 2011. The offset part has been especially cool in that it has allowed us to do some really interesting projects in the communities where we purchase coffee.

It's taken a few years to perfect the measuring process; we're now to the point where part of my new job will be not only to measure our footprint, but to work on reducing it and reporting our results. We're also creating systems to track our waste and water usage with an eye on making sure we're using resources as efficiently as possible.

As I mentioned in the first post, a full picture of sustainability encompasses not just environmental concerns, but social issues as well. Much like our environmental efforts up to this point, our social efforts have been largely focused on programs at "origin," i.e. in communities where coffee is grown—like SEEDS and collaborations with non-profits working in coffee communities.

We'll continue to work on social sustainability at origin, but we also want to strengthen our efforts in local communities. With a growing number of training centers in the U.S., it's important to us to support customers and organizations working on projects that contribute to viable livelihoods in those communities. We also have some pretty amazing employees at those training centers who are interested in sustainability and whose efforts we support through our Green Fund, which offers $500 in matching funds annually for personal sustainability-related projects.

Frankly, none of these efforts can achieve their full impact if we don't do a good job at communicating them. Our unique position in the coffee supply chain means that it's our job to tell you not only what we're doing, but also what farmers are working on and what customers can to do to consume our coffee sustainably. That's a lot of information, and, over the years, we've tried presenting it many different ways. This presentation is something we'll always be working to improve, and I see it as one of the most exciting challenges of my new position.

As a corollary to this glimpse of where we're at, the next post will talk about where we've had successes and failures at moving coffees along the sustainability continuum.