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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 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


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

Chris Colbran of Baroida in the Eastern Highlands of Papua New Guinea.Theme

Kudos to the Colbrans

This week, we’ll taste and celebrate the first roasts of this year’s Baroida and Tairora from the Eastern Highlands region of Papua New Guinea.

Style of Tasting

Brew Two

As we only have two coffees and they come from the same place, I suggest brewing them both through paper and putting the emphasis on the farm and the freshness of these two lots, as opposed to the cupping ritual.

Notes on the Coffees

Papua New Guinea is a long way from Durham, NC, and, until we started buying coffee from the Colbran family four years ago, Counter Culture hadn’t had a relationship there last more than a year or two. We persisted in trying to find a foothold there because the geography, climate, and varieties are all excellent, and we knew the coffees could be excellent, too.

With that history in mind, we feel extra appreciation for the relationship that we have built with Chris Colbran and his family since 2010—which was the first year they ventured into marketing their coffee directly to buyers instead of selling it to an exporter to blend. The coffee we purchase from their farm, Baroida, and the surrounding Tairora tribe are consistently great and only getting better as the family continues to refine their work.

Though they come from similar geography and varieties, Baroida has typically been more savory and fuller in body than Tairora, which seems true again this year. It’s early yet, though, and this is our first tasting, so please do share your feedback and questions now and as we continue to taste this coffee in the months to come.

Rollout Dates and Availability

Baroida and Tairora roll out on Monday and, between this first container and the late-harvest lots that will arrive in a month or so, we have a good volume of both. Thank goodness for that, too, because we count on these coffees to get us through the dark days of winter and into the springtime, when we begin to anticipate the return of coffees from the northern hemisphere.


Year Round Coffees: New bags / New names


Notes on the Coffees

As you’ve likely heard by now, on Monday, October 6, all our coffee will be in new packaging. We’d like to take a moment today to celebrate the packaging and taste our offerings that stay consistent throughout the year.

As our new packaging designs were coming together, we began to consider whether or not the rustic names of some of our year-round products would make sense in bright, modern-looking bags.

We put all of the year-round coffee names up for consideration. Rather than try to update them based upon existing names, we approached the daunting task from the perspective of how the names related to the coffees themselves. What they taste like. What we're trying to do with them from a buying perspective and so on.

Hologram (formerly Rustico) is a name we feel captures the spirit of the coffee: complex, dynamic, and vibrant.

Big Trouble (formerly Toscano) offers a bit of levity. Probably the most tongue-in-cheek thing we've done in a long time. It's a lark, of sorts. Not disingenuous, but playful. Easy to brew, challenging to source.

Fast Forward and Slow Motion (formerly Farmhouse and Decaf Farmhouse) continue to be companion pieces. Fast Forward lets us move quickly through new Latin American coffee offerings. While Slow Motion is about slowing down to enjoy a cup of coffee just because it's delicious.

46 (formerly No. 46) shows us that great coffees roasted dark can still be great: complex, sweet, clean and nuanced.

Apollo got to keep it’s name and with it we continue to get the opportunity to highlight Ethiopian coffees and what we love within them - floral, citrusy, bright notes.

Rollout Dates and Availability

Here’s the thing about year round coffees—you can always get them! The components or main coffee will change slightly throughout the year, but the flavor profile will remain steady. You can always find the detailed info on what’s in the bag either on our website or on the back of the bag!


Find a Huehue

We’ve got four coffees on the table again this week! To what do we owe this good fortune? The country of Guatemala is the size of Louisiana and Counter Culture’s four relationships are all to the west of the capital city, but similar to last week’s tasting, the geographic proximity belies the diversity of flavor that this week’s table showcases.

Notes on the Coffees

Finca Nueva Armenia is our longest-running relationship in Guatemala and we have been unwavering in our commitment to celebrating this beautiful farm and the work of the Recinos brothers. Climate change and coffee leaf rust have conspired to diminish the quality of a large portion of the farm’s lower elevation coffee, while our standards for single-origin coffee just keep getting higher, and over the past few years we have sold less of the farm’s coffee straight and used more of it for blending. We have an especially small amount of Finca Nueva Armenia’s coffee straight this year, but we are working on next year’s contracts, plans, and expectations this week and believe we’ll see more, better coffee from Finca Nueva Armenia next year. What we do have comes from Grotto, the highest part of the farm, which we’ve consistently found to be fruitier, sweeter, and more complex than the coffees from lower down the mountain.

The town of Concepción Huista lies only about an hour’s drive east of Finca Nueva Armenia, but the farms are much newer and the land belongs primarily to smallholder farmers, as opposed to the larger farms in western Huehuetenango. We bought our first coffees from Codech in 2010 and since then we’ve spent a lot of time working with them to improve their coffees—and occasionally competing with others to secure them. The eight hundred families that belong to Codech produce coffees that range in flavor from flat and nutty, to fruit reminiscent of sundried naturals, to an occasional coffee that is floral and almost Kenya-esque in flavor.

La Voz makes a guest appearance today at a lighter roast level than most of you have tasted it since we pulled it out of the single-origin lineup. Since 2012 they have proven a consistent producer of good, sweet coffees, some of which end up in Farmhouse, some of which we decaffeinate and one of which, this year, exceeded our expectations and made the single-origin ranks. The ability of this co-op, whose mill is on the shores of Lake Atitlán, to operate efficiently and ship coffee early is worth a lot to us, so while their coffees aren’t always the equal in complexity to the previous two on the table, we wouldn’t trade it.

Our newest addition is Sipacapa, which comes from San Marcos, a region roughly between Huehuetenango and Atitlán. The mountains in this area of Guatemala reach some impressive elevations and we’ve had our eyes on it for a few years, though this year marked the first that we zeroed in on a particular co-operative in a community. Hannah visited this group for the first time this year and noted that for a young organization, it’s very organized, dedicated to implementing economically sustainable organic agriculture and capable of supporting its members.

We’ve dedicated a lot of time and energy to Guatemala over the past four years and in 2014 we bought more coffee from this country than any other. Good geography, good varieties, good processing techniques and powerful small farmer organizations make this the country in Central America that we keep investing in to suit our growth.

Rollout Dates and Availability

With the exception of La Voz, all of these coffees are available now in the form that you will taste them, and La Voz is roasted a little bit darker in Farmhouse.
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Bryan Duggan and WaterRx Water FiltrationThere have been some notable changes around our company in regard to water filtration. To gain a better understanding of the new facets of filtration and its impact on our facilities and our customers, Hannah Popish, Coffee Buyer’s Agent, sat down with Bryan Duggan, Technical Department Manager and lead mastermind of the new system.

H: What made you realize it was time for a change in regard to how we manage water filtration at our headquarters?
B: Well, we changed filtration here because we started working with WateRx in New York. We were looking for a better option to recommend for our customers (cafes), and a great coffee shop called REX told us about these WateRX. All the units are really customizable so the water qualities can be exactly as you want them to be. The three units we have here are made so that we can change the makeup of the filters internally and thus the taste of the water pretty easily.

H: What can you tell us about WateRx and why did you decide to use them?
B: WaterRx is a company based out of Cincinnati, Ohio, and they are a national water filtration brand. We decided to go with them because the filters are super reliable, they need very little service and upkeep and they last significantly longer than any other filters we’ve used in the past. This ties into the green aspect of the filter—the medium, meaning the filtration material, is all natural minerals and rocks. Once you need a filter change you can dump it outside with no issue and no disturbance to the natural environment. We were really sold when we realized how durable the filtration is and it’s unique ability to process large volumes of water—the filters never break!

H: Can you give us a breakdown of how the filtration works?
B: First, water enters through the top of the unit and then there are three layers of medium (made up of rocks, sand, salt, and resin) that remove unwanted items from the water. Unwanted items include bacteria, rust, dirt, chlorine, arsenic, mercury, odor, and color.

H: What is the key takeaway for people who don’t know much of anything about water, water filtration, and its impact on coffee and the environment?
B: Number one would be that properly filtered water makes your coffee taste better. Second and equally important is that adequately filtered water makes your machines last longer. Sustainably speaking, the tanks we are using now only have to be recharged 50,000 gallons, or every 12-18 months, and can be reused. Our previous filters only lasted 3-6 months and had to be thrown away. 

H: What does “adequately filtered water” mean exactly?
B: The simple answer is that it is water that is free of chlorides, arsenic and anything harmful. The water also has a balanced hardness. We have used the set of parameters that La Marzocco recommends for our water.

H: What else do you want us to know about the filters?
B: The big filter that we use in the coffee and tech departments track the amount of water used. The tracking means that you can check on averages used and you can decide if you need to reduce your usage and it allows you to know your carbon impact. Also, this makes it easier to know when you need to “recharge” the system, meaning, swap out the old filtration material.

H: Who currently uses this filtration?
B: A handful of our accounts are already implementing the new filtration: Open City in Washington DC, OK Café in Astoria, NY, Brunswick in Brooklyn, and Big Bear in Washington DC. In terms of our training centers they are in place in NY, Atlanta, Washington DC, and Durham and we are recommending the filtration for all new accounts in those areas.

H: What’s next in the world of water filtration?
B: We will continue to develop our water parameters so that we can make the water taste as delicious as possible for our coffees. As we calibrate we will move this filtration into all of our TCs. WateRx is a great partner to continue to work with!


Seasonal Shift

We chose this week’s three coffees because they’re all new, which is a very good reason for all of us to taste them and a tried-and-true recipe for a fun Friday morning at Counter Culture Coffee.

Style of Tasting


Pretend it’s 2010, back before we began questioning the sanctity of the three-coffee-Friday-cupping formula, and line these suckers up.

Notes on the Coffees

This is the first year we have decaffeinated coffee from La Voz in Guatemala and I’m sure glad we did, because this is a really good decaf from a coffee grower group we really like working with. It’s challenging to keep decaffeinated coffees tasting fresh and we work hard to offer single-origin decafs that meet the same standards for quality, transparency and relationships as our more popular, celebrated, caffeinated single-origin coffees. It takes a while to get coffee to Swiss Water Decaf in Vancouver and then back down here, and in this case, in the time between this coffee’s shipment from Guatemala and its arrival in Durham, we managed to sell through all of this year’s caffeinated coffee from La Voz. Fear not, it will return next year and meanwhile, I encourage you to treat this decaf with respect because it’s a far sight better—by any measure—than what most decaf drinkers are used to imbibing.

We have all become familiar with Concepcion Huista over the past few years, which is the name of the town in northeastern Huehuetenango where the Codech co-operative has its headquarters. Coffee arrives at Codech from a myriad of communities and farmer groups around Concepcion Huista and this year, one of our goals with the co-op was to isolate a few communities where we knew, based on topographical information and our tasting experience, that some of the best coffees were growing. This week we taste coffee from farms in and around Pojtaj (pronounce the j with an exhalation most similar to the h for something resembling pohhh-TAHHH), which is one of two single-community lots we have. We haven’t yet decided whether we want to sell Pojtaj or Tzunhuitz (zoon-WEETS) straight, but regardless, you all have a fruity, community-specific coffee to look forward to, as well as a single-farmer lot from a fellow named Pedro Gomez. We have invested a lot of time and energy into Codech because we have tasted coffees from here that are unique in flavor among other Guatemalan coffees and because their growing conditions are among the best in Central America.

The last time we tasted Apollo, it was 100% Haru and I believe I included as a caveat that it might not stay that way for long. Today we taste Apollo made with Idido Grade 2, which is a perfect harmony between coffee and product. According to the Ethiopian system for grading coffees, grade 2 coffees receive less sorting than grade 1 coffees and as a result are a less expensive and generally a little bit less refined (note that I said generally - in fact, in some years from some places, grade 2 coffees have actually out-scored grade 1 coffees). The jury is still out on whether it’s always worth the extra money for the top grade, but in Idido’s case this year, grade one takes top billing so we are selling the fruitier, cleaner Idido Grade 1 straight right now and roasting Idido Grade 2 a little bit darker for Apollo.

Rollout Dates and Availability

Decaf La Voz is available to sell Friday and will be available for the next few months, while Pojtaj (or Tzunhuitz) will roll out another week or so later and probably not last as long. Apollo is available year-round and will be Idido Grade 2 for a while, unless it changes, in which case, we’ll let you know and you’ll likely taste it.