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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.)

One aspect that's really appealing about the sustainability-as-a-checklist idea is that it's pretty easy to measure—either a coffee is certified organic or it's not. Expanding on the theme from my last post, I'd like to keep exploring the movement away from thinking about sustainability in coffee as a checklist of certifications and more as a process of movement along a continuum of continuous improvement. One aspect that's really appealing about the sustainability-as-a-checklist idea is that it's pretty easy to measure—either a coffee is certified organic or it's not.

The more we evolve our thinking about sustainability, however, the more we realize that the nuances we recognize in our own internal practices apply to our origin partners as well. This week, I'm going to give a few examples of "moving along the continuum" from the producer side and how we're going to start trying to measuring that movement in a more refined way.

I don't want to give the impression that organic certification isn't a good indication of sustainably grown coffee; it certainly can be, it's just not a perfect substitute. Take, for example, the evolution of organic certification with Moisés Herrera and Marysabel Caballero, the owners of Finca El Puente. We started buying non-organic coffee from them in 2006 and had many conversations with them over the next few years about the benefits of organic agriculture. They surprised us in 2010 by announcing that they had certified a section of the farm—having managed that section of the farm organically because of our interest. We were excited and offered to pay $0.30 more-per-pound for coffee from this section of the farm, hoping they would increase the area managed as organic in the coming years. As of the 2015 harvest, however, the size of the plot managed as organic remains the exact same as it was in 2010.

(Turns out that we're the only company of their multiple buyers who's interested in paying them more to grow organically certified coffee. Achieving and maintaining organic certification is costly, especially when those costs aren't amortized over a co-op. Moisés and Marysabel decided it didn't make economic sense for them to certify more of the farm.)

Marysabel Caballero at the washing station she and her family run in association with Finca el Puente.Here's where moving along the spectrum comes in: Since getting that portion of Finca el Puente certified organic, Moisés and Marysabel have started making their own organic fertilizer to apply to all parts of their farm. This is really great progress from a soil-health and environmental-sustainability standpoint—and something that wouldn't be captured as "movement" if we were just looking at certified acreage.

We have a similar situation at the Mpemba washing station in Burundi—where we've purchased coffee from the Kazoza N'Ikawa co-op since 2012. As a relatively recent addition to the specialty coffee scene, Burundi is still lacking a lot of the infrastructure and institutional knowledge necessary for good coffee production—including access to and information about organic inputs for fertilizer. In other words, a producer in Burundi interested in getting organic certification would basically have to build and operate an organic fertilizer operation in order to get enough inputs for their farm.

Despite this challenge, the farmers of Mpemba asked if we could help them get started on the path to more-sustainable agricultural practices by starting an organic composting operation. With funds raised by the 2013 Holiday Blend and continued support from our Seeds program, Counter Culture organized an organic agriculture workshop and helped the co-op purchase goats and pigs for organic compost inputs. In this case, the farmers at Mpemba are making great strides towards more-sustainable agricultural practices, whether or not those efforts result in eventual organic certification.

So, if we're going to move away from the organic/not-organic dichotomy, how do we measure where a coffee is at on a spectrum of sustainability? Having good communication within our supply chain and visiting our producing partners is helpful in determining where a particular coffee falls, but those still result in a subjective assessment. We've been looking for a more-objective way to measure how sustainably a coffee is grown and recently settled on the use of Root Capital's Environmental Scorecard. Through answering a series of questions about topics like water and agrochemical use, the scorecard rates the environmental practices of an operation on a color scale. We're starting to roll out the use of the scorecard with Coffee Buyer Tim Hill's visit to Papua New Guinea next month, and we're excited to see where this leads us in our assessment of sustainability in coffee!

Woodberry Kitchen's Spike Gjerde on our 2009 Origin Field Lab to Nicaragua. Congratulations to Woodberry Kitchen's Spike Gjerde for his 2015 James Beard Foundation Award for Best Chef: Mid-Atlantic!

We work with some of the best restaurants in the country—restaurants run by folks who understand and appreciate the importance of quality coffee as an integral ingredient in a dining experience. We're proud of these relationships and the dedicated people who work hard to make sure that the coffee at the end of a delicious meal elevates the experience.

We're looking for people to join our field operatives street team in North Carolina and Northern California: share your passion for coffee and to help to promote Counter Culture to grocery shoppers! Prospective team members should possess a strong enthusiasm for customer service—and a desire to learn more about coffee and pass this knowledge on to other coffee fans.

Please apply if you love Counter Culture, love chatting with people about coffee, and have a flexible schedule—and you want to earn a little extra money and win prizes! Training will be provided. For more information, click here.


*All applicants must complete the questionnaire below.

Slingshot Coffee's Jenny Bonchak took second place at the 2015 US Brewers Cup competition!1. Why do you compete?

I compete because it's a big part of my coffee journey! I admit that I'm unabashedly competitive, but it definitely goes way beyond that. I know that competing is a great way to make me a better coffee person—continually improving my palate, thinking even more critically about coffee than I already do—and at the same time, I have a lot of fun learning through preparation and the actual competition.

2. How much work goes into it?

An indescribable amount of work goes into competing. That is, if you want to get the most out of the experience. I have been a coach for another Southeast Regional/US brewers cup competitor for the past three years, so I did have a slight advantage knowing what I was getting myself into. Even then, it was so much different being on the other side! But, all in all, I'd definitely do it again. I loved it.

3. What coffee did you use at the US Coffee Championships and why?

I'm so in love with the coffee I used, and its story really resonated with me, which is why I chose it. The coffee I used was a from a husband-wife team of growers in Jurutungo, Panama, named Jose and Ailenne Gallardo. It's a long story, but the Gallardos sent a random 5lb sample of their '13-'14 Gesha to Counter Culture with barely any information in the package. A few days later, Ailenne sent an email to Tim Hill at Counter Culture to introduce themselves and give more info about their farm and the coffee they sent. They're not well known in the specialty-coffee world; they don't have a name for their farm; they have only been growing this coffee for 3 years. It's insane! But they had so much determination to grow exceptional coffee, and they were so willing to be receptive to suggestions on how to improve in the '14-'15 harvest. And improve they did! The coffee I ended up using was harvested in January 2015 and got to me 10 days before the competition. But, when I cupped it, I knew it was the one. It was juicy and floral and sweet ... and everything that reminds me of my favorite season, summertime. It was a fantastic coffee in every way. I can't wait to brew this coffee again!

4. Who do you learn from/who inspires you?

I truly have learned so much from my coffee crush (and husband), Jonathan Bonchak. I'm continually inspired by how he thinks about coffee, how he tastes coffee, and how he presents coffee to new coffee enthusiasts and industry veterans alike. He's such an incredible coffee professional an all-around stellar human. And, of course, there are so many incredible books and articles from lots of coffee professionals for whom I have so much respect, and those are great learning tools. I am so lucky to have Counter Culture as a partner for Slingshot, and I feel like I've gleaned a ton not just from classes, but from simply being able to taste different coffees with some of the best palates out there. There's so many more people I want to meet and have coffee with ... someday it'll happen!

5. What is the biggest challenge in competing?

The biggest challenge in competing is learning to trust your instinct of when to be confident and when to be critical. 

Bonus: Do you get nervous when competing?

I was nervous ... it was my first time competing! But I do enjoy public speaking, so that helped to calm those butterflies a bit.

Lem Butler competing in the 2015 Southeast Regional Barista Competition—which he won (for the fifth time)!In November, our very own Lem Butler won his fifth Southeast Regional Barista Championship at the Big Eastern regional coffee competitions in our home town of Durham, NC. An incredibly experienced—and inspiring!—competitor, Lem gets  a first-round bye at the US Barista Championships (USBC).

1. Why do you compete?

When I first saw a barista competition, I had no idea what went into the preparation, I just wanted to do it because it looked amazing. I wanted to be a part of the specialness of sharing coffee with coffee professionals. The more I compete, the more I feel connected to the industry as a coffee professional. Sharing a stage with some of the best baristas in the country is an impressive feeling, but when it comes down to it, I find myself reconnecting with that neophyte who wanted to compete to share coffee and ideas for the unadulterated fun of it.

2. How much work goes into it?

Preparing for competition is one of the highlights of competing. I enjoy tasting through coffees to find one that appeals to that reason for competing. I often think as I taste a coffee, "Is this something that folks can get excited about?" but more importantly is this a coffee that I can get excited about? Coffee selection can be quick or a longer process.

Sometimes working on technical aspects of the competition for weeks is all I can do while waiting for a coffee to arrive in the country—which can be a gamble because the coffee might not be "the one."

Lem Butler preparing his signature beverage for the judges at the 2015 Southeast Regional Barista Competition.Signature beverage development is another time-consuming facet of preparation. There is a lot of thought and experimentation I find to be frustrating because of the 85% fail rate for most of my creations, but, when something starts to function, the reward is prodigious. Regardless, there still has to be enough time for full run-throughs, and, for me, this is the most important use of time during preparation. I try to allocate two weeks of full run-throughs; a constant barrage of repetitive drills helps fashion a smoother, more fluid presentation.

3. What coffees are you using at the US Coffee Championships?

For the 2015 USBC, I am using a peaberry lot from the same Kenyan co-op that I used in the 2015 SERBC [Thiriku]. I am using the peaberry lot for the espresso round and the signature beverage round. I will use a blend of the AA and AB lots of the same co-op for the cappuccino round.

4. You taught a barista competition workshop in the past. Who do you learn from? Who inspires you?

I had very little help when I first competed, but there was assistance if I looked. I just didn't know how or where until I found that help at Counter Culture Coffee. [Note: Lem started competing before joining Team Durham at Counter Culture.]

With better preparation and understanding of how the competition worked, I improved to a winning level. Later, I wanted to make sure there was enough information—enough assistance—for baristas who were interested in competing, so I created a class to do just that ... to give back what I was taught. I am always willing to help new competitors prepare for competition, I feel more connected to the industry the more I put into the industry.

I have my mentors, and I have my inspiration. It's the inspiration that keeps me rolling, and mentors who keep me from rolling out of control. I am inspired by the two innovators of our industry: the coffee roasters and the coffee farmers.

Lem Butler with his son, Emerson, at the 2015 Big Eastern coffee competitions.5. What is the biggest challenge in competing?

The biggest challenge in competing, for me, is winning. There are so many skilled baristas, so many amazing roasters, and so much beautiful coffee; how can there be only one winner? Did I outshine my colleagues in the SERBC? No. Will I outshine anyone in the USBC? No. We all just do our best, and the scores determine the rest, but we all go home the same skilled baristas with the same amazing roasters still excited about that beautiful coffee from out there.

Bonus question: Do you get nervous when competing?

I'm nervous right now. Anyone who says they are not nervous, is lying or has no heart.

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
Tasting @ Ten – Three from Nariño, Colombia!This week’s tasting offers a us tour of Nariño, Colombia, which is arguably the coffee giant’s best region for the production of high-quality coffee, in three coffees: La Florida, Rosales, and Jorge Avilio Cabrera.

Style of Tasting:
Set up a cupping of the three coffees and brew the favorite (or the Cabrera, if you want to make the call as to what is going to be most worthy of extra attention) as a pour over.

Notes on the Coffees: 
On my first trip to Colombia in 2007, I participated in a cupping event that included coffees from a variety of regions: Cauca, Tolima, Huila, and Nariño. (As an aside, my favorite was actually from the farm of Nelson Melo!) All of the coffees were delicious, and, while the Colombian coffee experts and experienced cuppers agreed that every one of the four regions had fantastic growing conditions, over and over again, I heard that Nariño had amazing potential. In the same breath, however, they’d comment that it was "difficult," or even "too difficult" to work in the southernmost region of Nariño because large buyers—Nespresso chief among them—dominated the region. Though the price premiums Nespresso offered weren’t as high as what a buyer like Counter Culture could offer, the volume they could commit to buying and their existing relationships made it seem, for years, like working in the region would be paddling upstream, at best, and at worst, a total waste of time.

Our perspective on Nariño changed in 2012 when buyer Tim Hill joined the advisory board of Catholic Relief Services’ (CRS) Borderlands project. The project’s mandate includes accessing and developing markets for coffee growers who want to differentiate their product from the standard stuff leaving the region, and, as Tim began to visit particular communities and meet individual farmers, it quickly became clear that what was true of the region on a macro scale didn’t apply to every farmer, and that, in fact, many farmers were eager to explore opportunities afforded by differentiation even if it meant a lot of extra work.

Over the three years of the project, we’ve tasted hundreds of coffees (some of them more than a dozen times) and, with help and guidance from Borderlands staff, we identified the community of La Florida for purchasing. For a description of the coffee and its significance, I'm going to direct you all to this post by Michael Sheridan, the director of the Borderlands project, who is an extraordinary thinker and writer working at the intersection of development and coffee.

In addition to investigating coffee varieties and linking coffee producers with buyers, the Borderlands project has devoted a lot of time and resources to separating coffees from individual farmers. The lot we have from Jorge Avilio Cabrera is one of those standouts that not only gives Counter Culture a chance to showcase the best-tasting coffees from within a community or cooperative we work with, but also gives us the opportunity to deliver a tangible reward to farmers as a demonstration of the potential of our market.

As much as we have learned from and benefited from international development projects in coffee-producing countries around the world, it also can be risky for a business like ours to invest in coffee supply chains built by aid money, because the money and organizations that create the linkages do ultimately disappear. Unfortunately, all too often, farmers and cooperatives don't have a firm enough foundation to continue without international aid. No one wants that outcome, of course, and one way in which Borderlands is working to secure the future of these supply chains beyond the timeframe of the project is by engaging buyers of diverse sizes from abroad and exporters working in Colombia, as well. Virmax, an exporter with whom we work regularly, also has a seat on the project's advisory board and, as they’ve gotten more involved in the region, they've begun building supply chains separate of the project.

Our last coffee, Rosales, comes from a community that CRS is engaged with, but as opposed to going through the same management process as the coffees from La Florida, this coffee took a more traditional route. This year, Rosales is not as refined as La Florida’s coffee, but it’s got the same potential when it comes to coffee geography, climate and varieties, and it’s also a coffee supply chain that exists independent of external funding.

Enjoy today’s dive into Nariño and if you can’t fit everything you want to say into your tasting this week, rest assured that we’ll be getting to know many more coffees from these farms and communities in the future.

Kim Elena