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We celebrated the opening of our new Charleston, SC Training Center last weekend. The open house event featured brewing workshops, custom limited-edition giveaways designed by Fuzzco, whole-hog barbecue from The Pig Whistle (Chapel Hill, NC), gelato from Beardcat's Sweet Shop, and more.
Thanks to everyone who joined us, and thanks to the wonderful businesses in Charleston who've given us a reason to have this space.
Please join us for our weekly Tasting@Ten series every Firday morning!
I came across an article from a sustainable business news site this week titled something like, "Would You Want to Read Your Company's Sustainability Report?" Again, a fair question and a good call out against the multi-page, text-heavy reports that no one—including people who work for the company—usually reads.
So why is transparency important to us at Counter Culture? And how do I create a report that conveys the answers to that question in a clear and engaging way? For me, the first and most important step is to consider the audience. I'm not compiling a transparency report so that sustainability managers at other companies can look at and be impressed; my primary audience is our wholesale customers and coffee consumers who want to know more about our coffee.
Why transparency? If I had to pick a one-word answer, I would say authenticity. We work hard to build relationships in our supply chain, not only because they help secure our supply, increase our quality, and improve our sustainability, but also because they facilitate an information flow among participants throughout the buying process that's far from the norm. If we know a lot of information about our coffees, why not pass that on to our consumers? I won't pretend that a few transparency reports are going to cause a huge shift in consumer demand, but I think we owe it to our consumers to give them as much information as possible and to put that information into context so that they can make more-informed decisions about buying coffee. If we want to improve the sustainability of coffee supply chains in general, sharing information—both with other companies and with consumers—is a crucial step to get everyone on the same page.
Presenting this information in a format that's engaging and, therefore, actually gets read is definitely challenging. We experimented with new format for our 2013 Transparency Report, but I think we still have room to evolve, especially as the amount of information we share increases. It's good to share information, but, especially for a product with a somewhat mystifying supply chain like coffee, I think that information has to be presented in a way that actually makes it useful to consumers. I really like the visual approach of this transparency report from 49th Parallel, a coffee roaster in Vancouver. Consider this an inspiration for what's to come!
As I dig into the work required to deliver what I've been talking about with our carbon and transparency reports over the next few weeks, I'm going to take a short break from these regular blog posts so I can return with some awesome material. Talk to you soon!
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.)
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!
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.
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.
This 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.
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.