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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.

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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
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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 pourover.

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
NOTE We will not be hosting a weekly tasting on Friday, January 23, at any of our regional Training Centers. We will return to our regular schedule the following week. Thanks!


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We're very (very) softly launching a next Limited-Release Blend (think Holiday Coffee + last summer's Equilibrium) in a few weeks and will be tasting the blend and its components this week at our training centers.A preview of Underdog, our next limited-release blend

Style of Tasting:
Cup the four components, then brew the blend.

Notes on the Coffees: 
I don’t know about you, but I root for the underdog in sports and in life almost exclusively.

Of course, in terms of coffee, like most of you, I love coffees from Ethiopia, Kenya, Colombia, Guatemala, and a host of other countries that hundreds of roasters—including us—carry amazing lots from every year. But when a coffee comes great in from a place that I don't see a lot of other roasters focusing on—or from a producer or place that in the past hasn’t had quite the best coffee—that's when I really celebrate.

This year, the Colbran family in Papua New Guinea delivered the best, most consistent harvest they have ever had—in one of the most difficult years they've had producing coffee—and that's why Tairora became the base for this blend.

Until recently, no one in the specialty industry carried coffee from Burundi. Two years in a row, Mpemba has made a pristinely sweet coffee that is my personal pick on the offerings right now.

East Timor wasn’t even close to being on our radar this year, but, when we starting tasting the coffee from Haupu and Lacau, we were hooked. And now we can't wait to keep exploring how good these coffees can get. (There is certainly a lot of work to get them as good as we think they can be.)

Last but not least: Buziraguhindwa Natural Sundried from Burundi. This is simply the best-prepared natural sundried coffee we have ever seen from a country that, until we bought this coffee last year, never produced this type of coffee—and now other producers in Burundi are imitating this style of processing.

Of course, we are proud of every coffee we source, but these four coffees represent the ones we've had to maintain the most patience with and commitment for, the ones that have surprised us the most, and the ones that might not have the odds in their favor but have come from behind to steal the show.

Tim

Valle del SantuarioTheme

One Cooperative, Many Coffees

The three coffees on this week’s table come from a single cooperative in northern Peru, and our tasting will explore how we buy and allocate similar coffees differently to fit the range of products we offer. 

Notes on the Coffees

If you’ve spent time in one of our training centers or on our website over the past seven years, you’ve undoubtedly heard us rave about Valle del Santuario, the coffee we purchase from five communities of small-scale producers in the San Ignacio region of northern Peru. The level of traceability and price transparency that the farmer cooperative, Cenfrocafe, provides to the farmers who produce this coffee puts them leagues ahead of any other cooperative from Peru, and the cup quality is always exceptional, to boot. When we began working with Cenfrocafe in 2007 we asked them to select a group of villages that had good conditions for coffee growing, and each year reinforces how fortunate we are to have exclusive access to these five communities. This year’s coffee arrived later than we hoped due to unusual weather patterns in Peru, but we’re pleased with how it tastes and excited to have another year of great coffee from these farmers with whom we work so closely.

Valle del Santuario is consistently the best-tasting coffee we purchase from Cenfrocafe, as well as being one of the best coffees that Cenfrocafe sells. The price we pay for Valle and the branding that we apply to it reflect our pride in the coffee’s superlative cup quality, but our relationship with Cenfrocafe is strengthened by the fact that in addition to buying one small-ish lot that requires a lot of logistical coordination on their part, we also buy bigger lots from communities outside the five that contribute to Valle. To build these other lots, the co-op’s cupping staff separates good-tasting coffees from across the regions where they work and compiles them. These represent a greater diversity of farmers than Valle and a larger geographic region, and we buy roughly six times as much coffee in this style from Cenfrocafe as we buy of the exclusive Valle del Santuario. Cenfrocafe is our highest-volume supplier in the southern hemisphere, so during the winter months, these lots underpin many of our year-round products, including Fast Forward, which is roasted slightly darker than Valle to emphasize the caramel sweetness and balance of the coffee, as opposed to its acidity.

Sending coffee from Cenfrocafe to be decaffeinated is another way that we leverage volume to be a good customer. Decaf San Ignacio represents an in-between of the farm-level traceability that Valle provides and the aggregate from an ever-changing combination of the farmer members of Cenfrocafe that Fast Forward represents. We selected three lots this year from sub-regions and the other two, Huabal and Chirinos, we chose to sell in their caffeinated form, while this one made a stop at Swiss Water in Vancouver before arriving in Durham. Though decaf makes up a comparatively small percentage of the coffee we sell, we put a lot of work into meeting the same quality and sustainability standards for these coffees as for our caffeinated coffees. This can be challenging because of the longer waiting time involved between harvest and arrival as well as the small batches we prefer for freshness—we push the limits on the minimum number of pounds Swiss Water will allow, in fact! Decaf San Ignacio is our first of two decaffeinated coffees from Cenfrocafe this year and we’ve been awaiting it eagerly.

Rollout Dates and Availability

Valle should be rolling out soon and will last through the end of February or early March. Decaf San Ignacio is available now and will be replaced by another decaffeinated coffee from the Cenfrocafe when it runs out, probably around March. Fast Forward will probably contain Cenfrocafe’s coffee until around the same time, but will be available all year, of course.

-Kim Elena

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By the Mule of Juan Valdez

We have three coffees from Colombia on our table today, one of which comes from an individual grower we’ve long admired, Nelson Melo, and the other two of which represent single coffee varieties from a community, La Florida, where we’re purchasing coffee for the first time this year.

Style of Tasting

Cup

Cupping these coffees—especially the caturra and castillo from La Florida—will be the best way to appreciate their differences.

Notes on the Coffees

Exploring the flavors that coffee varieties impart to our palates is always a treat, and the fact that this week’s varieties also represent our very first taste of coffees we just received from a brand-new relationship in Nariño, Colombia, makes this week’s exercise all the more special! Coffee-driven souls in Durham and Asheville will be glad they opted for slurping over shopping. The castillo and caturra lots are the varieties of which I speak, and they come from La Florida, which is a community of coffee farmers whom we met in an unusual way: instead of receiving a sample from an importer and exporter or a group of farmers, we instead found this coffee through a development project led by the non-profit organization Catholic Relief Services (CRS). The organization’s Borderlands project was founded in 2011 with the intent to develop differentiated markets for coffee producers and, since we joined the project’s board in 2012, Counter Culture has been tasting coffees and making recommendations about how farmers might improve the quality of their coffee and obtain higher prices.

One of the big questions that farmers globally have to wrestle with is that of what variety of coffee to grow, because variety one has different characteristics to recommend it: some varieties offer disease resistance, some are more productive and others have intense, delicious flavors that make them attractive. Along with the advantages, however, there are inevitable tradeoffs and many of the most productive, disease-resistant varieties don’t taste as good as their more fragile counterparts. In Colombia, the varieties decision has been exemplified by a battle between caturra and castillo, with the former being an older type that is susceptible to the coffee leaf rust fungus but tastes good, while the latter is a newer type developed for rust resistance and a questionable reputation for quality. Many farmers have both varieties planted on their farms because it’s still unclear which offers better financial returns and less risk. As a member of the Borderlands project, we have tasted hundreds of samples of these two varieties and we’ve seen great examples of both. Our preference tends to be caturra, but your tasters might not feel the same way, so I’d love to hear feedback from your audience about preferences.

Just north of Nariño is the region of Cauca, home of the farmers responsible for CCC’s La Golondrina coffee these past seven years. Nelson Melo, who is originally from Nariño’s capital, Pasto, leads the Orgánica association and grows exceptional coffee (of the caturra variety, if you’re curious) on his farm outside the city of Popayán. We have loved Nelson’s coffee since we first tasted it in 2007, but because it was committed to another buyer before we started working with Orgánica, we didn’t have a chance to buy it until 2014. The combination of anticipation, superb cup quality, and Nelson’s personal passion for organic agriculture make this coffee one of the most exciting of our year and we can’t wait to share this extraordinary single-farmer lot in January.

Rollout Dates and Availability

La Florida’s caturra lot rolls out next week and should be around for a couple of months, while the castillo lot is just for Friday fun and not something that will appear on our menu. Nelson Melo’s coffee will inaugurate our new limited-release packaging in early January and we imagine we will sell through it in a month or so.

-Kim Elena

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Hello, East Timor!

After an eight-year hiatus, Counter Culture is bringing coffee from the tiny island nation of East Timor back to our offering list and this week we’ll taste the fantastic specimens we’ve chosen to purchase from the communities of Huapu and Lacau.

Notes on the Coffees

Had you asked us a year ago to describe coffee from East Timor, the answer would probably have begun with vague references to muted acidity and heavy body and ended with the caveat that we haven’t tasted much coffee from the island since Counter Culture stopped buying what long-time customers of ours might remember as Maubesse in 2006. Back then, it was an alternative to Sumatran coffee—the two islands are close geographically and until East Timor’s independence in 2001, they belonged to the same country, Indonesia. Though Sumatra was by far our best-selling single-origin coffee, we never developed much of a market for coffees from East Timor and, eventually, lackluster sales combined with inconsistencies in quality, complex logistics, and distance, led us to stop buying the coffee.

Eight years later, we are happy to re-introduce East Timor to our list of origins in a completely different context: this coffee won’t compete with Sumatra because we don’t currently source coffee from Sumatra, and while the body is still creamy, its undeniable acidity and stone-fruit flavors couldn’t be further from the flat, muted character of the olden days. It comes from smallholder farmers who grow coffee organically between 1,350 and 1,800 meters, which is higher elevation than most island coffees and undoubtedly contributes to the coffee’s tangy brightness. Despite the fact that the infamous Timor variety—the spontaneous hybrid of arabica and canephora coffee species—originates on this island, the farmers in Letefoho grow primarily typica coffee plants, so you should not expect to find the vegetal or woody flavors of the catimor, castillo, lempira or IHCAFE 90 types that we have sampled in our varieties tastings over the past few years.

Never has a representative of Counter Culture visited the country, and compared to other islands in the region like Sumatra and Sulawesi, it hasn’t gotten a lot of attention from quality-focused buyers in the North American coffee industry (when was the last time you read a trip report from East Timor?). We found Huapu and Lacau through the same Hong-Kong-based company, MTC Group, that introduced us our now-beloved coffees from Baroida and Tairora. MTC has built its business by sourcing coffees from the Pacific, including Australia’s few coffee farms, and we feel extremely fortunate to have access to these coffees (and as an aside, if you’re interested in learning more about East Timor from the perspective of MTC, this excellent trip report overfloweth with history and photos).

We bought a container of coffee from these producers this year and would have bought more but for the fact that they’ve never sold it to the United States before and their organic certificate is for the Japanese market, not ours. Next year we’ll be able to sell it as certified organic, which will allow us to buy more of it and use it in more products, and we can’t wait to continue developing this potential.

Rollout Dates and Availability

Both Lacau and Huapu roll out on Friday, and assuming they hold their flavors, they should be available for purchase through the middle of March.

-Kim Elena
Give the coffee lover in your life a lifetime’s worth of better brewing by registering them for a Counter Intelligence coffee course with us at one of our Counter Culture Coffee regional training centers!

We offer many different professional-level classes—from coffee brewing and tasting, to espresso, and even about the origins and training of coffee. Each course is a dynamic mix of coffee theory, tasting, and hands-on experience preparing or comparing coffee in a variety of contexts. Check our course catalogue for more detailed information about our offerings.

While we don’t currently offer vouchers or gift certificates for our courses, you're welcome to reserve a seat in any of our posted classes in advance—check our updated course calendar for dates and availability. Simply register and pay for the course using your own name and e-mail address to keep the gift a secret, and we’ll happily substitute your loved one’s name and contact information after you reveal the present, so they can receive any additional future e-mails or information about the class! 

(If the class you select doesn’t work with your loved one’s schedule, no problem! As long as the space is canceled at least 48 hours before the class start time, you’ll automatically receive a full refund.)

Feel free to email training@counterculturecoffee.com with any questions, and Happy Brew Year!

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