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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


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.)


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.

-Meredith

In this post, I'd like to dive in to what I mentioned in the first post as a good indicator of a coffee's sustainability: certifications. Wouldn't it be great if there were a certification and corresponding label that could simply tell us whether a coffee is sustainable or not? The good news is that certifications related to sustainability do exist. The bad news is that no one certification covers all the aspects of environmental, social, and fiscal sustainability. The chart below is my attempt to make sense of the most common coffee certifications.

Environmental

  Rainforest Alliance Fair Trade Utz Bird Friendly Organic CCC Direct Trade 4C
Water Conservation Y   Y Y Y    
Soil Conservation       Y Y    
Integrated Pest Management       Y Y    
Ecosystem Conservation Y     Y Y    
Wildlife Protection Y     Y      
Waste Management Y            

Social

  Rainforest Alliance Fair Trade Utz Bird Friendly Organic CCC Direct Trade 4C
Community Relations Y            
Working Conditions Y Y Y        
Occupational Health Y Y          

Fiscal

  Rainforest Alliance Fair Trade Utz Bird Friendly Organic CCC Direct Trade 4C
Guaranteed Quality Premium           Y  
Guaranteed Price Premium   Y       Y  
Transparency           Y  

* Topic is addressed, but is either not required for certification or not measured/quantified.

I'll be the first to admit that this chart is a massive oversimplification, but I hope it illustrates my main point: No one certification indicates a sustainable coffee. While it's true that a coffee could theoretically get to "yes" in every category by obtaining multiple certifications, the reality is that certifications have costs. The supply of certified coffee is much greater than the demand, so producers aren't guaranteed a premium, even if they meet all of the criteria.

Individual drawbacks aside, certifications do offer benefits. Each of the certifications in the chart invokes a third party (i.e., not the buyer or the seller) to audit the operations of the farm, cooperative, or association of farmers seeking certification. This independent verification not only authenticates the operation, but also brings a level of scientific and technical expertise not possessed by most coffee buyers. Finally, though they may be imperfect, certifications allow consumers to compare the relative sustainability of products at a glance, which is extremely valuable.

In short, for Counter Culture, certifications are a good place to begin when assessing a coffee's sustainability. Visits to producers and cooperatives help fill in some of the gaps left by certifications, as does developing supply chain relationships—which can help to facilitate information sharing.

In the coming months, we'll be field testing an environmental scorecard from our friends at Root Capital that should help us to develop a more nuanced understanding of our understanding of sustainable coffee.

Up next: what it means to be a sustainable roaster.

Meredith
 


Click here to see this photo set on Flickr.

Our annual Origin Field lab trip is an opportunity for  Counter Culture wholesale customers to learn about coffee cultivation in an immersive environment. We host this lab, in part, because we recognize that the dedicated professionals preparing our coffees for the end consumer can reach people directly with the knowledge and information they get from the experience.

The 2015 Origin Field lab included two Counter Intelligence instructors, two Counter Culture staffers, two Culinary Institute of America folks, and a handful of awesome coffee people from Counter Culture accounts Little Skips, Midtown Scholar Bookstore, Peregrine Espresso, Rex NYC, and Washington, DC's Tryst.

The lab addressed the complexities of coffee farming in general—and, in particular, in Honduras—and with on-site experiences from farm to port.

Our group was lucky enough to spend the better part of a week with Moisés Herrera and Marysabel Caballero of Finca el Puente in Marcala, Honduras. Moisés and Marysabel welcomed us into their home, nursed one of us back to health, fed us (over + over again), and, often, helped to make certain that our group had what we needed and got where we needed to go. Huge thanks to both of them!

We were also fortunate enough to learn from coffee farmers, co-op representatives, exporters, port operators, and so on.
Theme
Tasting @ Ten – Three Year-Round CoffeesThis week, we'll familiarize ourselves with the current versions of three of our year-round products: Big Trouble, Fast Forward, and Slow Motion.

Style of Tasting:
Freestyle! Cup them, pourover compare them, or choose three different brewing methods to emphasize different flavors. It’s your choice.

Notes on the Coffees: 
With a menu that changes as often as ours does, it is easy to get so caught up in tasting new things that we forget to check in on our year-round friends. Although their names remain the same, the ingredients change with the seasons, and fans will notice subtle shifts in flavor as coffees come and go.

Big Trouble's goal in life is to taste sweet and nutty, and right now we achieve that with a 70/30 percent blend of coffees from CENCOIC in Colombia and the exciting new Lacau from East Timor. CENCOIC is a cooperative of indigenous farmers in Cauca, and we tentatively committed to buying their coffee this year before we had tasted it because we believe they have potential to be a good supplier for us over the long term. Happily for all of us, the coffee turned out to be good, and now we have a platform for working together in the future! All of our year-round coffees provide a staging ground for new coffees and relationships, but Big Trouble is especially good in this respect because the roast level is slightly darker than a few of the others.

Fast Forward is one of those lighter-roasted contemporaries of Big Trouble, and its components tend to be higher-quality coffees and to represent more advanced relationships. As of a few weeks ago, Fast Forward is made of coffee from the inimitable Cenfrocafe cooperative in Peru—in this case, one of their lots that represents many communities, as opposed to the specific micro-regions of Valle del Santuario or Huabal—blended with 10 percent of coffee from the Hama washing station in Yirgacheffe, Ethiopia.

Whenever decaffeinated coffees grace our Friday tasting tables, my instinct is to talk about and taste them last, which might be perceived as an insult to both these coffees and to the die-hard decaf drinkers who love them. Given that, put Slow Motion toward the front of the lineup today, will you? Our only year-round decaf coffee is the flavor counterpart of Fast Forward (the name is a clue), and right now they are a near-perfect match, as Slow Motion comes entirely from the same Cenfrocafe cooperative of Peru mentioned above.

Kim Elena