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Peru, July 2010. Photo by Peter Giuliano. Here I am, swimming upstream. You see, great coffees are created on a farm. Coffee is a miracle of nature, and at its perfect point of ripeness, it is full of potential flavor. The farmer then carefully prepares the coffee for export, pulping, fermenting, washing, and drying to enhance the coffee’s natural greatness. At that point, the coffee has all of its deliciousness locked up inside of it – and it must be protected and preserved during its long journey from the farm to our roastery.

My job this week is to work my way backwards along the long road that coffee takes to get to us. I’m swimming upstream, towards the farm, making sure that the great coffees we work with farmers to create are safe during that long journey. And so, after landing in Peru last week, my first stop was the port town of Piura, where our Valle del Santuario coffee is loaded on ships bound for the U.S. Our first stop was the dry mill where the coffee gets its final peeling, sorting, and bagging before export. This is the least romantic part of a coffee buyer’s job – inspecting the mill, talking about containers and logistics and bags – but it’s impossible to have perfect coffee without perfecting the process of getting it to us. We seek to improve every year, and this year we’re streamlining the process to get the coffee to us sooner, fresher, and even closer to coffee perfection!

Away from the coast and through the foothills of the Andes – up and over the spectacular peaks of South America – is little valley where the greatest coffee in Peru is grown. Photo by Peter Giuliano. I then set out East, away from the coast and through the foothills of the Andes – driving up and over the spectacular peaks of South America to get to the little valley where the greatest coffee in Peru is grown. I will risk using the word “spectacular” again to describe the massive and beautiful mountains that span Peru’s northern border and tower between the farms where our coffee is grown and the port. The road is long and treacherous and winds for countless miles – at times clinging to the side of a valley, with hundreds of feet falling away below. After hours of driving, we finally made it to Jaen – in the heart of coffee country. There, I was met by the leadership of CENFROCAFE, the co-op which helps us export the coffee, and Elias and Alex – the two cuppers who are such an important part of identifying the great coffees of this area. After a night of rest, we set out again for 4 more hours of driving to get to Ihuamaca, one of the towns that produces Valle del Santuario.

In Ihuamaca, Peru, the children of the town welcomed Peter with a traditional dance. Photo by Peter Giuliano. I received a warm welcome; the children of the town performed a traditional dance, and afterwards we proceeded to the home of Zacharias Neyra for a meal. Zacharias is a community leader, great spirit, and wonderful coffee farmer – coffee from his farm was one of the coffees that made up our Valle del Santuario “3 Farmers” microlot this year. After lunch, as we walked his farm, Zacharias explained that he had expanded his farm this year – growing from 1.5 hectares to 2. He told me he was able to make the purchase, in part, with the extra premium we paid for his spectacular coffee. I could not have been happier.

Zacharias Neyra expanded his farm this year – from 1.5 hectares to 2 – in part, with the extra premium Counter Culture paid for his spectacular coffee. Photo by Peter Giuliano. We hiked other farms in the village, occasionally stopping for a passion fruit or tangerine from trees on these diverse, organic farms. We walked together as a group, and I realized I was surrounded by the all-stars of Peruvian coffee. These farmers create the greatest coffee in Peru, and one of the greatest in all of Latin America. I had finally made it home, to the birthplace of this great coffee. It’s going to be another great year for Valle del Santuario, and we’ll make sure the coffee is safe on its long journey from that little valley to your cup.

Next week, Cuzco!

-Peter
The Thiriku Coffee Growers Co-op Society Ltd. Sign in Nyeri, Kenya. Photo by Counter Culture Coffee. Kenya is so interesting. In the United States, we know Kenya mainly for two of its cash crops, coffee and tea, and for its unparalleled wildlife-viewing opportunities (have you seen the lion-versus-buffalo-versus-crocodile video on YouTube?) in the country's network of national parks. Europe increasingly relies on Kenya for other agricultural products, including fruit and cut flowers, and within Africa – particularly East Africa – Kenya is a manufacturing powerhouse.

While this wasn't my first time to Kenya, I had never seen a Kenyan coffee farm or any of the numerous washing stations from which Counter Culture has purchased coffee, and I felt more than a little bit in awe as I headed north from Nairobi to the famous coffee-producing region of Nyeri. It seemed as though I recognized the name of every village we passed through – Kangocho! Gitchathaini! Tegu! – from countless cuppings, and I had to control my urge to take photographs of every road sign. With only a day in Kenya on this trip, I was limited to visiting one farmer cooperative society, and I naturally chose Thiriku, one of the co-ops from which we purchased coffee in 2009. I arrived at the washing station full of excitement and questions, of course! How many growers are in the co-op? What is the average yield per plant? Why does this coffee taste so amazing? And such.

Washed coffee drying on raised beds at the Thiriku co-op in Nyeri, Kenya. Thiriku just began receiving coffee from their producer members for this year's fly crop – the smaller, between-harvests-harvest that is the equivalent of Colombia's mitaca – last week. There was a tiny amount of coffee on the drying table for me to photograph, but things were pretty quiet overall, and after touring the co-op's impressively-organized wet-milling operation, I sat down with the management of Thiriku in their offices and, over cups of milky tea (which I totally wasn't expecting, even though I can hear myself telling customers that Kenyan coffee growers don't drink coffee, but rather tea) discussed the desires of their 2,400 members, our coffee-purchasing philosophies, and some of the challenges that Thiriku and Counter Culture face if we want to work together in the future to buy larger amounts of coffee and develop a long-term relationship. We have all become accustomed to drinking a variety of small, exquisite lots from different Kenyan producer groups, including the ones I mentioned, each year. While we love the variety and exploration of flavor that this approach affords us, we also look longingly toward a day when we find the equivalent of our La Golondrina or 21st de Septiembre in a Kenyan cooperative.

Smaller between-harvest harvest are referred to as 'fly crops' in Kenya. Photo by Counter Culture Coffee. So what's stopping us? Well, like I said, Kenya is interesting, not least because we consistently pay double, triple, or quadruple the price we pay for other Direct Trade coffees for our Kenyan coffees. These prices owe, in part, to the spectacularly complex, savory, and citrusy flavor profile of the best Kenyan coffees (like this year's Thiriku), which are unmistakable and impossible to substitute. Even more than the flavor profile, though, the prices result from the unique Kenyan coffee auction system that regulated all of Kenya's coffee sales for almost 70 years, until the opening of the "second window system" in 2006. Since then, Counter Culture has purchased most of our coffees through that window, which allows for direct negotiation and price discovery outside of the auction. Because the weekly coffee auction in Nairobi still exists and tempts growers every year with the possibility, however remote, of some random buyers falling in love with a coffee and bidding up its price at auction, we have found ourselves paying higher prices for the privilege of buying coffees directly than these coffees could ever fetch at an auction! This instability and lack of commitment can be frustrating, and don't lend themselves to the formation of a long-term relationship.

Kim Elena with representatives of the Thiriku co-op in Nyeri, Kenya, in June, 2010. The lot we purchased from Thiriku this year is one of those top-dollar lots: exquisite in the cup and limited in quantity. In my travels and negotiations, I often explain to groups of growers that we could buy coffee from them at any price, but that a higher-priced coffee is more difficult to sell. Happily, I was able to share our experiences and puzzle over this predicament with the leadership of the Thiriku co-op.

Unfortunately, I had to leave our discussion earlier than I would have liked to in order to make my way back to the bustling capital before dark. We expect the arrival of new-crop coffees from Thiriku and a few other farmer co-op societies in the very near future, and I know that it won't be a moment too soon for lovers of these complex, savory coffees! I am excited to know Thiriku and to communicate over the course of this year, hopefully in the name of finding more great lots and building on this year's strategizing in the years to come.

Saludos,
Kim Elena
Burundi, June 2010. Hello from Burundi! This is my first trip to Burundi, and my first trip to the African continent since I was 17. I am giddy with excitement, and I don't know where to begin!

I suppose I should begin with the coffee, huh? Last year, Counter Culture Coffee purchased coffee from three washing stations in Burundi: Kiryama, Nemba, and Teka. I loved them all, if you're wondering, but my secret favorite was Kiryama. In Burundi, as in Rwanda and Kenya, we have traditionally called our coffees by the names of the washing stations – as opposed to co-op or farm, as we do in Latin America – and I was thrilled to spend the past few days visiting washing stations in the Kayanza and Muyinga provinces to the northeast of the capital city of Bujumbura. The washing station plays a very important role in the greatness of Burundi's coffee: every morning during the harvest season, across the hills of this tiny country, farmers harvest coffee from the (mostly Bourbon-variety) trees on their small plots of land. And every afternoon, they hoist the morning's coffee cherries onto their heads, or backs, or, occasionally, bicycles, and bring their loads to the nearest coffee washing station, where the coffee is sorted and weighed, and the weight of the coffee recorded for payment. At that point, the coffee ceases to belong to the grower and becomes the property of the washing station, and the washing station takes responsibility for preserving and creating quality by keeping the de-pulping machine calibrated, by controlling the fermentation of the coffee, by washing the coffee in clean water, by drying the coffee evenly, and by running a generally well-organized operation.

Kim Elena at the Buziraguhindwa washing station. As a result of Tim Hill's visit to Burundi in February (2010), as well as his relentless pursuit of great coffee and information from our partners in the coffee sector of Burundi, Counter Culture signed a contract in advance of this year's harvest with a brand-spanking-new washing station named Buziraguhindwa (boo-zee-rah-goo-HEEN-dwa). In addition to its tongue-twisting name, Buziraguhindwa interested us for a couple of reasons: first, it is located in Kayanza province, a stone's throw from Nemba; second, the owners recruited Cassien Nibaruta, whom we knew from his work managing Teka, to run the new operation; and, third, Buziraguhindwa was willing to sign a Transparency Contract with us. In the simple, two-page contract, we define the prices and premiums to be paid by Counter Culture to each actor in the coffee supply chain: from the importer to the exporter to the washing station to the farmer. For a washing station that works with more than 1,000 growers, that is a big commitment and requires a high degree of organization.

I arrived at Buziraguhindwa during a meeting of producer representatives from the collines (colline is the French word for hill, and the hill is the unit that defines communities here in Burundi) around the washing station. One of the field agents for the Burundi Agribusiness Project was instructing these colline leaders about good agricultural practices and strategizing with them about ways in which more growers can actively engage with the washing station. This meeting brought into focus a crucial difference between Burundi's culture of coffee growing and the culture of Latin America that has shaped my vision of producers and relationships: the washing station is not a substitute for a co-operative, but rather an ENTIRELY DIFFERENT way of approaching coffee and people! This might seem obvious to some of you, but I kind of always imagined that Burundian coffee growers identified with their washing stations like Latin Americans identified with their co-ops. Having visited a few, I now believe that sort of identification is only beginning to take place. Coffee farmers from the hills surrounding the Buziraguhindwa
washing station bring their coffee here because of price and proximity
rather than out of a sense of loyalty or obligation.At Buziraguhindwa, I introduced myself and Counter Culture, to the assembly, and I spoke, as I always do, about why we believe that quality and long-term relationships benefit everyone from coffee producers to coffee drinkers. I asked questions about why growers bring coffee to Buziraguhindwa instead of other washing stations and found that the choice consistently came down to price and proximity, more than any sense of loyalty. On one hand, flexibility is not a bad thing, especially in a coffee industry still growing and maturing, in a country still stabilizing after a generation of turmoil. Likewise, plenty of growers in Latin America abandon commitments to their cooperatives and sell to other buyers if they can get a higher price by doing so. But even understanding all of that, it's still awfully hard to feel complete confidence building on a system that isn't necessarily consistent from one year to the next. Well, then, what to do?

Interestingly, while Burundi's specialty coffee industry may be young, it's learning quickly. Following the visit to Buziraguhindwa , we traveled further north to the Rwandan border to visit Ruhororo, the first washing station in the country to be purchased by a co-operative of coffee farmers. Ruhororo is generating a lot of discussion across Burundi's coffee sector because it represents a shift toward grower empowerment and responsibility. The importance of the washing station will not diminish anytime soon – and that's a very, very good thing from a quality perspective – so it is crucial to use the washing stations to incorporate growers into the coffee supply chain. Examples like Ruhororo, active management of washing stations, and more cupping throughout the country are all pieces of this puzzle.

I am proud that Counter Culture is here, on the ground, sharing experiences and strategies from our partnerships around the world in order to help Burundi establish systems that work: for its culture, for coffee quality and for the long term. We're exploring, learning and making progress at an exhilarating pace.

Every afternoon, coffee farmers in Burundi hoist the
morning's coffee cherries onto their heads, or backs, or, occasionally,
bicycles, and bring their loads to the nearest coffee washing station,
where the coffee is sorted and weighed, and the weight of the coffee
recorded for payment.Tomorrow, I head to the cupping lab to taste the first round of Buziraguhindwa samples, as well as samples from a few other washing stations. Cassien promised to meet me there to talk about continuing improvements to the infrastructure of Buziraguhindwa, about how price premiums will be delivered, and about how much coffee they have produced so far in comparison to their expectations. I forgot to mention that the harvest is only now hitting its peak! After a wrap-up meeting with Emile and the BAP team, it's early to bed in preparation for my 3 a.m. flight to Kenya and a whole new set of observations from there!

I will leave Burundi more than a little bit enamored of this country, its people, and its coffee, I admit. With a delicious flavor profile, a nimble and fast-growing coffee industry,and heavy investment by the development community, my head spins at Burundi's potential. Plus, can you believe that many people speak four languages? They don't even blink at switching from Kirundi to French to English and throwing in some Swahili. According to an adage in Kirundi, “It is only the cows that speak just one language,” and while I want to be offended when a group of Burundians tells me this as they tease me about my botched French, their laughter is infectious and all I can do is say murakoze (thank you) – for your patience, your affection and your answers to my endless questions – while I keep trying.

Murakoze,
Kim Elena
5-26-10

The 2010 harvest in Cauca, Colombia began at the end of April. Photo by Counter Culture Coffee. The phrase “100% Colombian Coffee” may appear on many a can of supermarket coffee flavor crystals, but over the past couple of years, the world of Colombian coffee has been anything but boring. Unusual weather patterns and high price premiums made for fierce competition in the market for Colombia’s best coffees in 2009, and, last September, after visiting the growers of our La Golondrina coffee from Cauca, Colombia, I wrote in my trip report about some of the challenges – like soil fertility and low productivity – faced by our partners in the Organica association. Sharing heavily-sweetened coffee and sancocho (the delicious chicken stew of Colombia that farmers take pride in preparing for guests), the growers and I comforted ourselves by reassuring one another that the market would would surely calm down before the following year’s harvest.

Eight months later, I returned to beautiful Popayán, this time with Alejandro Cadena of the export company Virmax and my boyfriend, Kieran, to the same coffee farmers and to the same sancocho, and together we marveled at how wrong our predictions were! This year’s rainy season brought a nasty case of roya, or leaf rust, to farms large and small all over the country, and high price premiums continue as a result of factors outside of our control, like currency appreciation. The silver lining to these challenges is that in working through each one, our ability to communicate, to solve problems, and to trust one another improves enormously.

Coffee farmer Arismendes Vargas's mother presented Kim Elena with a cake on behalf of all of the growers in honor of her birthday! This year’s harvest began at the end of April, which is early for the Orgánica growers, and my arrival to Popayán last week coincided with the first week of heavy coffee picking. Visiting farms at the peak of the harvest provides great perspective on the variations in selection, sorting, and processing among the many small farms of the association. After Orgánica leaders Nelson Melo and Liliana Pabón picked us up at the airport, we headed immediately out to revisit the coffee farms that produced Counter Culture’s microlots during the mid-season, or mitaca, harvest: Finca Villa María, owned by Manuel Melenje and Inés Borrero, and Arismendes Vargas’s Finca Villa Nueva. Both of these farms have experimented with the coffee fermentation process, which is unusual for small-scale growers, and, given the success of their coffees, it’s important to us that these growers not only receive recognition from us but also share their experiences with their neighbors and other members of the association who might never have considered trying something new.

After lunch at Finca Villa Nueva, Arismendes’ mother presented me with a cake on behalf of all of the growers and a rousing rendition of Feliz Cumpleaños ensued in honor of my birthday – the birthday which I had purposely tried to keep under wraps! I blushed and cut slices of a (thankfully) gigantic cake for 21 farmers and Arismendes’ five children. Oh, and it was a carrot cake with simple white frosting, if you’re wondering, washed down with cane-sugar Coca-Cola. Mmmmmm, sugar.

We struggled to get growers to pay much attention to recommendations about best practices for coffee quality because a fungal disease called leaf rust has affected their trees dramatically. Photo by Counter Culture Coffee. Although Manuel and Arismendes accompanied me to a number of different farms, we struggled to get growers to pay much attention to recommendations about best practices for coffee quality because a fungal disease called leaf rust has affected their trees dramatically. Coffee historians might recall that in the 1870s, leaf rust (hemileia vastatrix) reduced the production of modern-day Indonesia by 90 percent in just a few years. A fungus that incubates in moist conditions but spreads with heat, leaf rust is almost impossible to control once it reaches the leaves of the coffee plant, which will appear to be covered in a rust-like powder and then fall off, leaving the tree starved for the nutrients it needs to ripen its coffee fruit.

Some of the growers in the association have little to no rust on their farms, whereas others stand to lose up to 50 percent of this year’s crop. Asking about the discrepancies, I discovered that some farmers took heed of warnings from the Colombian Coffee Federation, Virmax, Orgánica’s agronomists, and others to take precautionary measures against rust, while others did not, and that in this case, as in so many things, an ounce of prevention – organic as much as chemical – is worth a pound of cure.

Coffee from Manuel Melenje's Finca Villa María was one of our mid-season microlots from our La Golondrina project.We spent four days on farms around Popayán and, aside from inevitable loss in this year’s crop precipitated by leaf rust, the farmers responsible for La Golondrina are making progress toward even better-tasting coffee and stable productivity levels. Work continues on Virmax’s farm, Belgravia, where they have applied the first “harvest” of worm compost to young coffee plants, and Nelson and Liliana have built a similar set of composting beds at their farm.

Most of La Golondrina’s growers lack the necessary quantities of fertilizer and have disorganized composting operations when they have them at all, so we’re all anxious to see how both plants and farmers respond to the worm compost. Will they see the value in buying it, at subsidized rates, from the association? Will some of them buy worms and begin their own operations? I have my fingers and toes crossed for this … as well as for the recovery from leaf rust … and for stability in the Colombian coffee market … not to mention, as always, for the quality of the harvest! It’s a lot to hope for, but I’m forever an optimist.

Saludos,
Kim Elena
Oaxaca's unique blend of indigenous Mexican and colonial Spanish cultures make semana santa a popular place to watch parades and processions. Photo by Kim Elena Bullock. I arrived in Oaxaca, Mexico, for one of the most exciting weeks of the year: semana santa, or holy week. The days between Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday have a special significance in Catholic communities around the world, and Oaxaca's unique blend of indigenous Mexican and colonial Spanish cultures make it a popular place to watch parades and processions. In Latin America, it also traditionally means vacation! Not so for the young, dedicated leaders of the 21 de Septiembre cooperative who spent semana santa hard at work cupping coffee, visiting farms, and continuing to develop the relationship that the co-op and Counter Culture have built over the past four years.

Our primary challenge has been, and continues to be, that the 21st lacks the ability to separate lots by producer (the way our partners in Colombia and Peru can) because they haven't finished building a cupping lab or trained a cupper. Oaxaca, Mexico, April 2010. Photo by Kim Elena Bullock.We began in the cupping lab at the offices of Sustainable Harvest, our importer, in Oaxaca City. The harvest has all but ended for the 950 members of the cooperative, and the 21st is anxious to divide coffees among their buyers as efficiently as possible. Every year, Counter Culture pays a premium to the co-op for the coffee that we sell as our 21st de Septiembre in order to guarantee access to their best coffees. Our primary challenge has been, and continues to be, that the 21st lacks the ability to separate lots by producer (the way our partners in Colombia and Peru can) because they haven't finished building a cupping lab or trained a cupper. They do separate coffee by community, and we gravitate toward Zaragoza because it has historically produced the best coffees, as well as the most coffee – almost half of the co-op's total comes from this one town! This year, I cupped lots from Zaragoza as well as a few other communities that have contributed coffees to our total lot in years past. When I asked why we didn't focus exclusively on Zaragoza, the 21st explained that the "special lot" they make for Counter Culture Coffee is one of the best tools they have for inspiring growers to work on producing better quality coffee and that, because of that potential, the co-op wants to make sure that we consider other, smaller communities that lack Zaragoza's altitude but have better farming and processing practices. That seemed fair, so we cupped all of the samples without knowing which coffees came from each community. After sorting out the better coffees and making some blends among them, my top-scoring coffee of the day ended up being a blend of 80 percent Zaragoza and 20 percent Nueva Esperanza, which goes to show that sometimes, the whole is better than the sum of its parts. And what a sum it was! Red fruit and orange-y acidity stood out over the classic, chocolate-milk flavor profile and reminded me again that this co-op produces coffee unlike any other coffee we have tasted from Mexico.

Seedlings of heirloom variety coffee shrubs are being cultivated to eventually replace old-growth plants. Photo by Kim Elena Bullock. With coffees chosen, we set off on the long, twisting road from Oaxaca City to Putla, the small city where the co-op has its office. From there, it's a short distance as the crow flies but a long one as the truck crawls up into the mountains, and I felt a familiar sense of relief and awe when we finally made it to the mountaintop town of Zaragoza. As word spread of our arrival, growers congregated in the coffee warehouse at the center of town. I immediately recognized many of the faces – and voices – of the growers in this cooperative, and I was struck by a comment made by the 28-year-old president of the co-op, Diracsema José, who told me that the co-op faced "two age-related challenges," their aging coffee plants and their aging members. These challenges led us directly into a discussion of my current favorite topic: soil fertility.

The harvest has all but ended for the 950 members of the cooperative, and the 21st is anxious to divide coffees among their buyers as efficiently as possible. Photo by Kim Elena Bullock.These days, I sound like a broken record as I ceaselessly encourage farmers, particularly on certified organic farms, to invest in making and applying compost that will help them achieve stable, sustainable yields from their farms. Though it requires time and energy up front, better soil and consistent productivity allow a grower to spread the costs and labors of farming over more coffee. The 21st has begun worm composting projects, which I always love, and they have also invested heavily in starting new coffee plants from seed to replace the sprawling40- to 50-year-old coffee trees on the farms. Replanting efforts usually make me cringe because it often means sacrificing heirloom varieties, but the 21st is replanting with the same Typica and Bourbon varieties that have always grown on these farms and simultaneously preaching the virtues of these great-tasting coffee varieties to farmers! Seldom do growers in any country receive encouragement from agronomists (or anyone else) within their home countries to prioritize cup quality; usually it's high-yielding, flat-tasting coffees that end up replacing the heirlooms.

Addressing an aging membership is a lot more difficult than replacing aging coffee plants. Mexico, April 2010. Photo by Kim Elena Bullock. Of course, addressing an aging membership is a lot more difficult than replacing aging coffee plants. Most of the children of these growers don't see a future in coffee and would rather migrate to cities – or out of Mexico altogether – than take over for their parents. We talked about the potential of cupping as a profession, and I described the growth of the (mostly) young barista culture in the United States – and the enthusiasm and ideas that young people can bring to the industry that these growers, Counter Culture, and the baristas serving 21st de Septiembre single-origin espresso are all a part of. It's a big task, fitting these supply-chain puzzle-pieces together and making them work in unison, but as I looked around at the leaders of the co-op – under 30, full of energy, internet savvy, and lovers of espresso, all of them – I felt excited that maybe, this is just the group to do it. I look forward to the arrival of this year's coffees and to many more years pursuing deliciousness, sustainability, and innovation with this amazing cooperative!

Saludos,
Kim Elena
The Buziraguhindwa washing station is a work in progress led by the talented Cassien Nibaruta. Photo by Tim Hill. Maybe it is just my sheer love for goat brochette, or maybe it is the amazing passion fruit, but when I arrived in Burundi it felt like my home away from home. It was also very good to be back after a somewhat-successful year of selecting some amazing coffees. (I mean have you tasted Kiryama yet?) Even though the coffees taste great right now, the work for great coffee is constant and there never seems to be a down moment. So, now is the time of year to go and collaborate with our producer partners and get ready for the harvest that will start this spring.

After spending a night in the town of Kayanza, my first stop was at a coffee washing station called Buziraguhindwa (BOOZ-e-ra-GOO-hind-wa). Buziraguhindwa actually means "never retreat when facing a problem" and was named for famous tribal warriors who inhabited the hillside hundreds of years ago. One of the main reasons Buziraguhindwa was the first place we wanted to go was because it is being run by a gentleman named Cassien Nibaruta. Cassien was the production manager for a coffee we carried just a few months ago called Teka, and when I heard that he has going to be the manager of Buziraguhindwa, I had to go see his new project! The other unique thing about Buziraguhindwa, which made it even more intriguing, is that Buziraguhindwa isn’t finished being built yet.

When I arrived at the washing station with Cassien, the place was swirling with activity. Dozens of people were assembling drying tables, patching concrete, planting grass, and calibrating equipment. I ask Cassien right away whether or not he was going to be ready for this harvest, to which he merely shrugged off what I asked, and said, “Of course.” With that we started talking about all the things that he put in place for this new washing station.

To name just a few of the really impressive developments: they have built a great water filtration system that will drastically reduce ground pollution and water consumption, without affecting the process style; they built the facilities to handle smaller batches of coffee for better separation and better processing; they reserved a piece of the land for a demonstration plot to teach producers about processing and coffee varietals; to help with the low productivity, they also have a nursery that they will use to give farmers free seedlings to plant; and, potentially the most important improvement is that they have designed a system for paying the farmers drastically faster.

Kinyovu was one of the first washing stations that got funding to start improving their facilities a few years ago. Photo by Tim Hill.On top of all the improvements that Cassien has put into place, the location is pretty much perfect. It was built in area that has fewer washing stations than other parts of Burundi, which will be good in that farmers will not have to travel as far to turn in their coffee cherry. It also just so happens to be smack-dab in the middle of all the best coffees we have tasted from Burundi. With amazing altitude, an amazing facility, and a great manager, Buzirguhindwa will no doubt produce some of the best coffees in Burundi. With the scouting of this new mill completed, we got back on the road, and made our way to a few of the places I visited back in July 2009.

The next place I stopped by was Kinyovu. Kinyovu was one of the first washing stations that got funding to start improving their facilities a few years ago, and having tasted the coffee the past 2 years, the improvements certainly show. While we were at Kinyovu, I had time to catch up and talk with Jldephonse the president of the Yagikawa Cooperative. (Yagikawa means “speak” coffee.) He was there to talk with Emile Kamwenubusa – of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) – and me about an idea to promote cooperatives and farmer associations through coffee lot separation. The idea is that groups of farmers will turn in their cherry together on a specific day, and, if the coffee is of high quality, then that group will be rewarded a premium for their coffee. This concept is pretty revolutionary and could potentially be a way to incentivize farmers to produce better coffee. After the good conversation with Emile and Jldephonse, we had to get going to make our way to Kiryama.

Kiryama was one of the washing stations that last year struck Tim as having really high potential. Photo by Tim Hill. Kiryama was one of the washing stations last year that struck me as having really high potential, and when we were actually able to taste the coffee we were not surprised that it was great. Coming back here was a priority to see if Kiryama was working to improve the facilities that produce the coffee. Upon arriving, I met with Nelchiade Niyonkuru, the washing station manager, and started talking about the plans for Kiryama. While Kiryama has great potential, I will say I was slightly disappointed that no improvements have been made to the washing station since I was last there. While I know the coffee will likely be great again this year, it was a little discouraging. Again at Kiryama, Emile talked about producer association lot separation, and the potential that it could have for the quality. In July, after the coffee is harvested, the goal will be to taste all of the different lots from Kiryama to see what the quality is like and if we are interested in any of coffee. We will have to wait and see. After walking around a little longer and more conversation with Nelchiade, we once again got back on the road to head to the next washing stations.

The Gatare washing station is not directly owned by the government, but is owned by the agency that manages the washing stations for the government. Photo by Tim Hill. The fourth washing station we visited is called Gatare. This was another washing station I visited last year, but we did not purchase coffee from. Gatare is really interesting because it is not directly owned by the government, but is owned by the agency that manages the washing stations for the government. To be completely honest, I am not exactly sure how that works, but Kinyovu, Gatare, and – I believe – two other washing stations fall into this category. Like the facilities at Kiryama, not a lot has changed since I was last there in July, so, while the coffee is still very good, it has a lot more potential, as well. This whole stretch in Kayanza – between Kinyovu, Kiryama, and Gatare – always makes me think about the microclimate here. It isn’t a fluke that all of my favorite coffees in the past come from a very small area. After a discussion with the washing station manager, with the sun starting to get lower and lower in the sky, we had to make another quick exit to ensure we made it to Teka, the last washing station to visit for the day.

Teka was one of the standout coffees we bought from the 2009 crop, and I was interested to see what the mill was going to be like since Cassien Niburata was no longer the manger. When I arrived, I was greeted by Bede, the new manager, and he was eager to talk about the coffee for the coming harvest. Last year, there was so little coffee produced all over Burundi that lot separation was not a priority, as they only had a very small amount. This year, though, with the understanding that there will be a lot more coffee, Bede wanted to be on top of what it is going to take to produce the best coffee and keep it separate. For quite a while, we talked about the fermentation methods and which one produced the best results. Which, to be honest, there is still no clear answer. We talked about separation and improvements to the system that he can do. We also talked about some more improvements to facilities that could increases the quality.

Teka was one of the standout coffees we bought from the 2009 crop. Photo by Tim Hill. Overall, I was really impressed with Bede, and I believe Teka is going to have another great year. Right as I was leaving Teka to head back to Bujumbura, I couldn’t help but notice the people from the community walking around smiling and taking interest in why I was there, which just further cemented why I love coming here so much. The people are just friendly and amazing, and I can tell they just care about the coffee and work they do.

Burundi truly is one of the most under-recognized coffee-producing countries, and the hope is that, with all the work we are putting in and plan to do in the future, the reputation for the coffee and for the country will grow. Over the next few months, we are going to be further planning and waiting to see what these places are capable of. With the promise of lot separation and experimentation really taking hold, I think we are going to see some really impressive lots with the 2010 harvest. For the eager people waiting to see what great things will happen this year, you all will just have to enjoy the 2009 crop and wait until winter to taste the beautiful coffee that will begin being harvested in a few weeks.

-Tim
After four days in Addis Ababa for the Direct Specialty Trade auction, our head roaster, Tim Hill, spent time with Abdullah Bagersh at his office in Addis, and then make my way down to his famous mills in Yirgacheffe. Photo by Tim Hill.After spending 4 days in Addis Ababa for the Direct Specialty Trade auction, the next leg of my trip was to spend some time with Abdullah Bagersh at his office in Addis, and then make my way down to his famous mills in Yirgacheffe. All I could think was that the next few days were going to be like hanging out with my favorite musician, and then going on tour with them. And for lack of more beautiful prose—I was stoked.

In his Addis office, Abdullah explained what he was working on for 2009/2010. He also explained a little bit of the history of his coffees and the Ethiopian coffee trade in general. During that conversation, it occurred to me that while I knew a few of the things that Abdullah was discussing, I wasn’t sure how much of the information has been passed along. With that – in accordance with how I like to start a trip report – I think a little history and back story is in order.

Everyone at the Counter Culture office, and maybe most in specialty coffee industry, knows the coffees Idido Misty Valley and Beloya. These two coffees have showcased a consistency and quality for 5 years that almost single-handedly raised the bar for how good a natural processed Ethiopian coffee can be. What I don’t think people know is that Abdullah and the Bagersh family have been in coffee for generations, and the majority of their business is exporting coffee, not producing coffee in the traditional sense. Speaking to that concept of being a producer, in the case of these coffees, it is a little bit different than we tend to think. Abdullah does not own a farm, but rather he owns the place where the coffee is processed – i.e. the facilities in Idido, Beloya, and his lesser known one at Michile. To get the coffee, he purchases coffee in cherry form from famers around these processing facilities. This type of structure is pretty common all over the world, and coffee buyers understand how big a role these mills play in the overall quality. The people that run facilities, like Idido, have to work with very small producers and help them produce perfect cherry. To guarantee they have access to this perfect cherry, they have to pay more than other mills in the area to ensure that the farmers bring the cherry to them. Then these mills take all the risk to prepare the coffee as best they can and sell it. In the case of Idido, it took Abdullah 8 years of perfecting the way he processed the coffees before he felt they were what he wanted them to taste like. So, after 8 years of Abdullah perfecting his technique and 5 years of Counter Culture purchasing and having this amazing product available, the trade platform for all of Ethiopia changed, making these coffees not possible. This happened not only to Abdullah, but to all owners of these processing facilities that did not own the land the coffee was grown on, or were not part of a cooperative. Coffee buyers who knew how important these places were for the coffee quality were outraged when this happened, and blamed this all on the inception of the Ethiopian Commodity Exchange.

Yirgacheffe is lush, beautiful, and certain parts make you dizzy thinking about the altitude. Photo by Tim Hill. Now let me back up a little further and explain how things worked before the Ethiopian Commodity Exchange. Before the exchange, there was an auction system. Producers would bring their coffee to the auction, and exporters would go to the auction and bid on the coffee. In the case of Abdullah, in particular, this was more complicated because in essence he owned two separate businesses. He owned Idido, Beloya, and Michile, on the processing/ producing side; but then he also owned an exporting business. More times than not, the Bagersh company would buy coffee from the auction and export it for customers. When Abdullah started producing amazing coffee out of Idido, Beloya and Michile a few years ago, he wanted to export it himself making things a little bit more complicated. To make it happen, Abdullah would first turn in his coffee from Idido, Beloya, and Michile to the auction like normal. Then because of the high quality of the coffee, he knew which coffee was his, thus it allowed him to purchase it as the exporter. Basically Abdullah was selling coffee to himself. (Talk about complicated and little bit strange.) While overall, this practice was maybe frowned upon in the auction system, everyone seemed to benefit. Farmers received higher payment for cherry, Abdullah was compensated for his hard work, and of course we were able to purchase amazing coffee and offer it to our customers. For those reasons this practice wasn’t really regulated. As time progressed though, officials thought the auction system was outdated and needed to be changed. When the update to the system was put forth last year, and the Ethiopian Commodity Exchange came to give real-time pricing, better grading, and better payment practices, it also did away with the loophole that coffees like Idido and Beloya were going through. While many Counter Culture people were saddened by this event and could certainly understand the outrage people felt in not being able to purchase particular coffees anymore, it was also hard to fault a system for more or less cleaning up a loophole. What was enlightening about everything Abdullah was talking about, is that Abdullah very much felt the same. He explained that, of course, it is very disappointing that he couldn’t export his own coffee but he would rather look forward to the future of Ethiopian coffee, roll with the punches, and see what IS possible than dwell on what isn’t. After the conversation with Abdullah, that was so fascinating I could probably write a few more pages on about it, I headed down to Yirgacheffe to see Idido and Beloya. Traveling from Addis Ababa to southern Ethiopia is simply amazing. You leave the high altitude bustling city, and after a very short time driving you enter the Rift Valley. The dry, barren terrain can only be described as resembling a completely different planet. Once you pass the city of Awasa, slowly every small town starts to come closer and closer to the idea of where you might think coffee would thrive. Photo by Tim Hill. Traveling from Addis Ababa to southern Ethiopia is simply amazing. You leave the high altitude bustling city, and after a very short time driving you enter the Rift Valley. The dry, barren terrain can only be described as resembling a completely different planet. Once you pass the city of Awasa, slowly every small town starts to come closer and closer to the idea of where you might think coffee would thrive. And then there is Yirgacheffe. Yirgacheffe just screams coffee, and I can see why 60 years ago someone decided this would be a great place to try to start doing a washed processed coffee. It is lush, beautiful, and certain parts make you dizzy thinking about the altitude. (We are talking over 2,000 meters.) My first stop after arriving in Yirgacheffe was the Idido Mill. As we passed tiny, little hut-like houses, I was wondering where the mill was going to be. Then, all of a sudden, we stopped. The Idido mill is smack-dab in the middle of these houses, almost perfectly integrated. Even though this time of year is the off-season, I was pretty excited to be at the mill. The first time I tasted coffee from Idido, I had one of those "AHA!" moments in my coffee career. It wasn’t because it was a natural processed coffee, but because of Idido I began to understand coffees that have been taken to a higher level of quality. For that reason, this coffee has held a very special place in heart. At the mill, I quickly got out of the car and took in all the scenery. Then I proceeded to ask the mill manager about 50 questions, which he happily answered, because I think he could tell how excited I was. After walking around the washed processing side and the natural processing side, and talking more about all the experimentation this mill has done over the years, there wasn’t much else to see so we quickly headed off for Beloya. When we arrived at Beloya the processing facility was basically in the middle of town, like Idido. There really could have been anything behind the corrugated steel gate. It is somewhat amazing that this hidden little facility in the middle of a tiny little town produces some of the most amazing coffees in the world. Like Idido, the Beloya the processing facility is situated in the middle of town. Photo by Tim Hill.After walking around again, we all talked a little bit about the flavor differences between Beloya and Idido, and what could cause those differences. It is hard to settle on a varietal difference, although you can certainly see all types of coffee trees around this part of Ethiopia, but one thing we could settle on, was altitude. Idido Misty Valley which is known for its bright citrus, floral, and strawberry notes, is at a staggering 1941 meters (according to the altimeter we were using). Beloya, known for its deeper tones of just about every berry you can think of is just a little bit lower at 1771 meters. After postulating and talking about the coffee, there was only one question I had left: Would any of the coffee coming from Idido or Beloya be available this year? This is the question that I had been holding in for this whole time, not to mention for about a year before I even got here, and it just kind of rolled out. When the mill manger said very plainly, “Probably not,” I wasn’t really surprised. All I could think for a second was the word: brutal. Then I realized “probably” … isn’t exactly "definitely." So the conversation continued. You see, Idido and Beloya DID produce some very high preparation natural coffee, but for the most part the facilities were actually leased to other producers to do some washed coffee.

Idido Misty Valley which is known for its bright citrus, floral, and strawberry notes, is at a staggering 1941 meters (according to the altimeter we were using). Beloya, known for its deeper tones of just about every berry you can think of is just a little bit lower at 1771 meters. Photo b Tim Hill.The problem is of course the same as last year. There really is no avenue for coffees from a privately owned processing facility to be sold directly and then exported. So maybe something will show up through some avenue we are not aware of yet, but I would say this is unlikely. What the focus of the conversation came to – and a topic that Abdullah talked about in Addis – was the possibility of getting the farmers around the mills to form a cooperative. If that were the case, Idido and Beloya could assist the farmers in processing, and then the farmers could decide whether or not they wanted to export the coffee through Abdullah. More than likely they would like to export through Abdullah, and a potential better chain would be established between the farmers, Abdullah, and the roaster. Over the next 5 or 6 months all we can do is hope that a structure like this will come together. In the meantime, our partnership with Abdullah is not totally lost. Like I stated in my last report about the Direct Specialty Trade auction, other ideas have cropped up. The next Direct Specialty Trade auction will be on April 8, and I am drying to see if Abdullah will represent other producers as the exporter of their coffee. Also, Abdullah is not opposed to buying great lots from the Ethiopian Commodity Exchange, and offering those to us as well. We will see.

It is somewhat amazing that these hidden little facilities in the middle of tiny little towns produce some of the most amazing coffees in the world. Photo by Tim Hill. Overall, being able to talk with Abdullah and seeing the mills has been eye opening. Ethiopia without question has the most potential out of any country to produce amazing coffee. I am convinced that while the way coffee is traded here can be challenging, good things are coming, and hopefully a more transparent system with better logistics will continue to emerge. So, to answer the question: Will we see Idido again – I think without a question we will. Likely, it will not be exactly like it was, but hopefully it will be a new and improved partnership, and I can only wait for that time to come.

-Tim
A cityscape of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, where our head roaster, Tim Hill, attended the inaugural Ethiopian Commodity Exchange Direct Specialty Trade auction. Photo by Tim Hill.As a few of you know, about a year ago and half ago Ethiopia radically changed the way coffee was traded throughout the country. A trading platform called the Ethiopian Commodity Exchange (ECX for short) emerged and the old auction system was done away with. The new system focused on real-time pricing and trading broken down for virtually every unique region and processing style within Ethiopia. While the new ECX system vastly improved some aspects of coffee trading, it also produced some limitations. One of the limitations was that traceability to a specific lot or producer became much more challenging because different producer’s lots were not necessarily kept separate. Another limitation was that any certification, organic or otherwise, could no longer be attached to the coffee, again because the coffee was being traded in grades and not by a specific producer. Understanding that the exchange was a good platform for many coffees – but that there needed to be another venue for high quality, traceable, and certified coffees for specialty coffee buyers – the leadership of the ECX started building the framework for a branch of the exchange to make those things possible. And this is how the Direct Specialty Trade auction was born.

To make the auction a reality in such a short time, the leaders of the ECX – in particular, a gentleman named Bemnet Aschenaki – have been visiting as many producers as possible from all over the country looking for the best coffees. The idea is that the coffees they found would be separated and set aside at ECX warehouses around the country. Then, international buyers would have the opportunity to taste these hand-selected coffees and purchase them transparently through the Direct Specialty Trade auction. This system gives producers the opportunity to market their coffee to buyers they never would have had access to before. It also provides a transparent contract with the buyer that stipulates exactly how much of the purchase price will go to the exporter and, more importantly, how much will go to the producer. For Counter Culture, seeing this new platform in action was a can’t-miss opportunity and, of course, also a chance to purchase a spectacular lot of coffee. The first thing to do was to taste the coffees that ECX scoured Ethiopia for.

On the Morning of February 16th, I made my way to the ECX’s main facility in Addis Ababa for a full day of cupping coffee. The ECX was able to assemble 44 different coffees for this first auction, and this was my opportunity to cup through them all. Having that many coffees to cup in one day can be somewhat daunting in any circumstance, but especially cupping at origin. Many cupping labs at origin lack the necessary protocol or equipment to keep everything consistent, and when things are not consistent it can be hard to gauge to quality. Prepared for possibly one of the longest cupping days of my career, I was overjoyed when I walked into a brand new and meticulously organized cupping lab that we would be using. All the coffees buyers were quickly able to dive into cupping and after a solid 7 hour day of tasting we now had a very good idea what the Direct Specialty Trade auction had to offer.

A new and meticulously organized cupping lab made the process of evaluating the quality of the 44 different coffees assembled for the auction a manageable and effective process. After the cupping, all the buyers met with Dr. Eleni Gabre-Madhin, CEO of the ECX, and all the producers that were selling their coffee in the auction to talk about how the bidding process and logistics of the coffee being sold was going to work. One of the major challenges of the auction was that many of the lots represented less than the standard shipping amount; so a few options needed to be discussed. For instance, did buyers want to take the extra expense for shipping less than the standard amount of coffee – adding an extra 20% or more to the cost? Or did it make more sense to work with the producer to purchase more coffee outside of the auction and ship it with coffee from the auction? Or was it possible to purchase coffee from a few producers and have them work to ship all of their coffee together? Those questions are what I like call the somewhat boring side of coffee sourcing, but in reality without figuring them out before the auction, it could make or break what is bought and at what price it could be purchased. After 3 hours of discussing protocol and logistics and getting everything out on the table, the only next step to take was to see the auction live the next day.

The next day, after all the buyers and sellers settled in auction room floor, the auction bell was rung by Dr. Eleni and the very first Ethiopian Direct Specialty trade auction was officially was under way. In the middle of the auction pit (a sunken octagon-shaped part of the auction floor) the first seller stood awaiting open outcry bids for their coffee. For a brief second everyone held their breath and looked around the room. Then bids started going back and forth among the buyers. As the price rose modestly, you could hear people murmuring around the room. After a short time, bidding came to a close and everyone looked over at the auctioneer. The auctioneer then revealed that the seller’s reserve price had not been met. The high bidder and seller negotiated, but could not agree on a price and the coffee went unsold. For the first three coffees this was the outcome. The next five coffees were not bid on at all. Again on the ninth coffee up for bid, the buyer and seller again could not agree upon a price and the coffee went unsold. The tenth was not bid on. Things were starting off slowly, and everyone around the room was starting to get nervous. Being the very first auction of its kind, the kinks needed to be worked out. One of the causes to the slow start was that the quality level, while still very high, represented a greater range than what many buyers in the room were interested in, and many of the first auctioned coffees were in the lower quality range. Also because there was no history for this type of coffee sale, the price levels for what buyer and seller thought was fair needed to come together. So, after a very slow start where almost a fourth of the total coffee went unsold, on the 11th coffee up for bid, the DST auction finally had its first sale. A loud cheer came from the crowd and some of the tension relaxed. The next 20 or so coffees auctioned were hit or miss with six total sales.

The inaugural Ethiopian Commodity Exchange Direct Specialty Trade auction started slowly but shows potential as a venue for high quality, traceable, and certified coffees for specialty coffee buyers. Photo by Tim Hill. The last 10 coffees, however, were a different story. The last 10 coffees represent some of the higher quality coffees the auction had to offer and bidding was much more aggressive. Going back to all the tasting I did of those 44 coffees, one coffee really hit the right notes. That coffee was from the Adado Co-operative (not Idido, just for clarification) in Yirgacheffe. The coffee was sweet, very floral with a good hint of citrus. It is our kind of coffee from Ethiopia. And, now, after waiting for 41 coffees to go through the auction, it was finally time for bidding. I stood hovering over the pit as the bidding started on the Adado Co-operative coffee, and quickly realized that I was not the only one who liked this coffee. Bidding quickly rose higher than all the other coffees in the auction. Four separate buyers bid back and forth until the price forced two to drop out. Still on the floor bidding on behalf of Counter Culture and a few other roasters was Timothy Chapdelaine, a long time importer partner of ours. He bid without hesitation all the way until he reached our cutoff – MORE than 20 percent higher than any other coffee in the auction. In the end someone wanted this coffee just a little bit more than we were willing to spend for the quality, so we would be going home without a purchase.

After the last two coffees were purchased and the auction came to a close, there was a big sigh of relief around the room. While the auction started out very slow, and of course there are many things to work out, I still believe buyer and seller alike saw it as a small success. Overall, 16 coffees sold for a very good average price above the market with the Adado Cooperative lot considerably higher. Also after the bidding session, a great opportunity to talk with producers came up. The conversations I had revealed that some producers were disappointed with the results, in particular a few that received no bids for their coffee, but that even those producers still had great optimism for the system in the future. Their hope was that the ECX would learn from this auction and iron out the system.

One other interesting outcome from the auction was that a partner of ours, Abdullah Bagersh, had the chance to represent another producer's coffee as the exporter. Because Abdullah is not only well-respected for producing great coffee and for making coffees better through his meticulous export preparation, the coffee he represented received the third highest bid at the auction. While that was great in itself, after the auction Abdullah received many phone calls from other producers asking him to represent their coffee in a the next Direct Specialty Trade auction. So, about a month from now the second Direct Specialty Trade auction is going to take place, and from what I understand the bar is going to be raised on quality, logistics and bidding will be better figured out, and the exporters who we love to work with will hopefully have more coffees to represent at the auction. I don’t know what everyone else thinks, but I believe we might be bidding again.

-Tim

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