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Hi all,
A group of coffee producers in Oaxaca City, Mexico, in the midst of a coffee tasting. Photo by Clemente Santiago.
Earlier this week, I had the unusual opportunity to speak, via Skype video, to a group of budding coffee cuppers in Oaxaca City, Mexico. Gathered around a conference table at the offices of Sustainable Harvest – one of our importer partners – were representatives of the 21st de Septiembre cooperative, the Union of Oaxacan Organic Coffee Producers and Processors (UNOPCAFE) dry mill, and another Oaxacan cooperative named Un Sueño de Tantos. (Un Sueño de Tantos translates as A Dream of Many, which is a fantastic name for a cooperative, if you ask me.) These farmers journeyed to Oaxaca City from around the region to participate in a cupping training, and, after we had all made our introductions and waved at our respective cameras, Clemente Santiago of Sustainable Harvest asked if I would speak to the group about what cupping means to us at Counter Culture Coffee.
Ruperto and Ulises of the 21st with green coffee classification instructions. Photo by Clemente Santiago.
I jumped at the chance, of course. I explained that we cup coffee every day. We cup every coffee that we purchase multiple times before we make the decision to purchase it. We cup with coffee growers, and we cup with coffee consumers so that we all learn to taste coffee the same way. As farmers and cuppers, they have the unique ability to connect the flavors of their coffee that result from their work in growing, harvesting, and processing coffees: any trained cupper can recognize the flavors that result from on-farm problems like picking under-ripe cherries, over-fermentation, and improper drying, but without the farmer, none of us can affect the changes necessary to fix such problems. Cupping skills will also empower them in negotiation, as they will have the language of taste in common with the buyers of their coffee.
Romualdo of the 21st learning how to roast on Sustainable Harvest's sample roaster. Photo by Clemente Santiago.
In some ways, I was preaching to the choir – all of these folks had already made the decision to come to the week-long training. That said, the heads nodding around the table as I spoke reminded me that we can't emphasize cupping too much! The 21st has talked about cupping, a prerequisite for microlot selection, for the past two years, but other projects have taken precedence. I am so happy and proud that they've taken that commitment a step further this year!
Kim Elena
Burundi fruit stand. Photo by Tim Hill.
Since February 2007, when Counter Culture first visited the country of Burundi, we knew this was a country on the brink of great things. The decades of strife and years of civil war that mirrored the horrific events of Rwanda haven’t been forgotten here, but a new era of reconciliation and rebuilding seems to budding quickly. Even the violence and turmoil that was still occurring back when we first visited in 2007 seems limited today. Part of the rebuilding is without question taking place in Burundi’s largest export, coffee.
In the past, the perception of Burundian coffee has been as commercial grade filler that commands bottom-of-the-market prices. The people from Burundi and outside aid agencies knew though that with high quality coffee varieties and remarkable altitude throughout the country, the coffee here had so much more potential. Realizing this potential and the possibility to improve the income of the 800,000 families involved in coffee, USAID and other organizations have put together plans to make sweeping changes. Training along with new techniques to improve picking, fermentation, drying, and even traceability to the producers have been implemented. It hasn't stopped there, though. Advocates of change along with the Burundian government are in the middle of changing the whole system of coffee.
This whole system change can be summed up in one word, privatization. This is the word in almost every conversation that has to do with Burundi and coffee. In very basic terms, the government has run almost everything coffee since the late 1970's. They controlled everything from the price the farmers get paid for their cherry, to the management of over 100 washing stations scattered throughout the country. It all has been under their leadership, and now the government is looking to pass the control to private investors. This means that all the washing stations are going to be sold, and businessmen and women are going to invest in the growing market. Producers will be able to receive premiums for their coffee, and hopefully friendly market competition will better the industry. There is so much to work out and make happen, but this a huge step and the government is looking to do much of this over the next 6 months. Keep your ears to the ground, because it is an exciting prospect, and things are going to happen quickly.
Photo by Tim Hill.
A very small glimpse of this happened this past year. One of our importing partners told us they had finally managed to ship a single washing station's production of super-high-quality coffee. They had been able to pay premiums to the farmers for it, and some of this coffee would be available to us. We were more than ecstatic. As many of you know, that coffee came from the washing station of Bwayi in Northern province of Kayanaza. Brimming with refined acidity, sweet fruit notes, and a delicate syrupy mouth feel, Bwayi has impressed almost everyone who has tried it. We were able to finally see what Burundi is capable of and looked forward to what the future was looking like. And, of course, a trip there was certainly in order.
Burundi: On the ground
Potential doesn’t even come close to describing this country, nor does simply saying that Burundi is beautiful. From the moment you step off the plane, there is a vibrancy coming from the people, the landscape, and the culture, and as much as you want and try to take in all at once, it is just impossible. Forgetting about the long flights to get there wasn't much of task; I would have happily traveled 10 times what I just had to be there. Waiting for morning to get going was going to be the hard part.
Loading ripe coffee cherries onto raised beds for sorting. Photo by Tim Hill.
Well, first thing in the morning was without question visiting the washing station of Bwayi. With so many questions to be answered: how is the coffee processed, what kind of systems and techniques are in place, and is Bwayi going to be the right partner for Counter Culture in the future? Bwayi was where my journey would start. Driving there was an experience in itself. The streets are full of people and bicycles. The women walking along the roads wore the most beautiful and brightly colored clothing I had seen in any country before. There was a constant procession of people coming to and from the tiny villages hidden among the rolling hills of coffee, tea, and banana trees. Just by driving I got even greater insight of the coffee producers here, as well.
In much of Africa smallholder farmers are who we work with, and many times they produce some of the greatest coffees in the world, but until you see the small plots of land for yourself it is hard visualize. Driving along the roads you see just the few hundred trees the producers grow here, on very tiny plots of land, in most cases just outside their house. These small producers were whom I was thinking of as I pulled up to the washing station of Bwayi.
The people of Bwayi. Photo by Tim Hill.
Elias Ngendakumana, the production manager of the whole region of Kayanza, showed me around the washing station and described all the things they were working on through the help of USAID and others to help improve the coffee quality. One of the very first things implemented at Bwayi, and a few other washing stations in the area, was to use small water tanks to float out any insect damaged coffee beans. These concrete floatation tanks are the very first step for quality. Any cherries that float due to insect damage could potentially ruin an entire day's worth of coffee, so taking these beans out is essential. After using the new floatation tanks, all the unripe coffee beans, overripes, and any other damaged cherries that were not floated out, are hand sorted before being pulped. This further step of sorting the coffee makes these washing stations have some of the ripest cherry selection I have ever seen! Once sorted, the coffee is then pulped and fermented. This is yet another area where lots of experiments have been taking place.
Last year Bwayi, along with many other washing stations, changed from a double fermentation process similar to what we find in Kenya, to a single fermentation more akin to Central America. (It's not exactly like Central America, but close.) This year, however, they have tried both and are now in the process on trying to figure out which produces the higher quality. Also along the lines of innovation, Bwayi, along with a few other washing stations, is using new drying techniques on raised beds to help preserve the quality of the coffee longer.
Two things became very clear through talking with the people at Bwayi about all of these improvements. One was that Bwayi was very receptive to experimentation in the hopes of better quality. And, two, many of the washing stations around Bwayi have adapted these same practices all in the hope of producing better coffee. Which immediately begged the question, were there dozens of washing stations producing quality this high or maybe even better? I had to see this. I thanked Elias for showing me around Bwayi, took some samples of the coffee to taste later, and headed out to see six more washing stations that were all using these amazing practices to produce coffee.
Over the next two and half days, I bounced around the Northern part of Burundi, making my way from the Province of Kayanza to the Provinces of Ngozi, Muyinga, and Muramvya. The next washing station I visited was Kinyovu, followed by Rugerero, Ngogomo, Murambi, Kiryama, Gatare, and, last but not least, Teka. I had the opportunity to talk with many production managers about how positive things are looking, along with some struggles that the producers and washing stations are having. On the positive side of things, all of the washing stations have impeccable systems for coffee cherry selection.
Coffee cherries sorted by hand at Kiryama. Photo by Tim Hill.
One place that really impressed me was Kiryama, another washing station in Kayanza. Here I was able to talk a lot about the coffee and was given a clearer idea on some of things that producers struggle with. The production manager talked about how the number one issue for coffee in Burundi is the year to year, up and down nature of the harvest. He explained that last year had been a very successful year for coffee and the washing stations were receiving lots of cherry. This year however, most of the washing stations had received less than 50 percent of the coffee than they had in 2008. The producers at Kiryama explained that the coffee trees are in some cases 50 years old or more and are slowly losing productivity. In addition to the age of the trees, a very limited amount of fertilizer is applied. Those two factors are making very volatile swings in production. I was told that in the next year the government and other coffee experts will be putting much effort into the production of the trees, and, hopefully, things will get better.
Kiryama washing station. Photo by Tim Hill.
I continued to learn much about the coffee here as I continued my travels. Every washing station I went to, I learned something new and was greeted by excited, enthusiastic people. I gathered samples from all of the washing stations as I went, and couldn’t wait to cup these all in the lab later in the week.
On the third day of visiting washing stations around the country, I was sad as I arrived at the last washing station of the trip, Teka. Teka is in the province of Muramvya, a province that borders the south of Kayanza. There, Cassien Nibaruta, the production manager of that region greeted me. At 1,938 meters Teka is one of the highest altitude washing stations in the country and has received high marks for their quality. Right from the start I got the impression that Cassien is a very forward-thinking individual. He talked a lot about the fermentation of the coffee and asked what Counter Culture thought produced the best results. He also described how advanced the lot separation is now for many of the washing stations, including Teka. Every single day the washing station is open, they document every producer who brings them coffee cherry and how much that producer brought. On top of that, every single day of production is kept separate, so in the future good lots can be separated from lots that don't meet the highest of standards. Potential microlots could even come out of this system, but the focus this year is keeping it simple and trying to get the best cumulative lot possible. From the talk of quality separation Cassien also talked about partnerships on how this washing station in particular is very interested in having a partner that can work with them over the next few years to keep improving the quality of the coffee, and how valuable that input and communication is.
Sorting for defects at Teka. Photo by Tim Hill.
After such good conversation, I was dragging my feet at Teka, because I did not want to leave. After staying a little bit longer, I said my goodbyes to Cassien and the producers of Teka and headed back to Bujumbura for a day of cupping.
As with almost all things in coffee, the results in the cup would tell us the story. We would learn where to start and what road we need to take. Tasting these coffees would tell us whether or not the floatation of cherry is improving quality, what fermentation style is the best, or what drying technique will have the best results. Everything I had seen for the last five days really came down to this.
Day sorting and new pyramid drying of parchment at Teka. Photo by Tim Hill.
Just like the public tastings that we do at Counter Culture every Friday, I was cupping all 15 samples blind so my results would not be skewed. The first table I tasted had some really nice coffees. All of the samples had notes of tangy fruit, with a nice acidity, and round sweet aftertaste. It was one of the best groups of coffees I have tasted while in origin, no doubt. What I wasn't prepared for was the second table being even better. While a few of the samples didn't shine as much, with maybe slightly less complexity than we would hope for, three samples made my trip. These coffees were super sweet, bright, and crisp, with tropical fruit notes and a perfect finish. These three coffees were from the washing stations we want to work with.
After the cupping, I gathered my notes and looked at the sheet that told me where the coffees came from. As soon as I saw the results, I knew there was going to be a long road ahead, with possibly more work than ever before, but for these coffees it is clearly worth it. On that final note, I will leave you all in suspense as to which coffees Counter Culture will carry this coming year, as we work tirelessly to bring them in.
Hi, all,
Children of farmers in Colombia who are part of Counter Culture Coffee's La Golondrina project.
Many of you met Liliana Pabón, part of our La Golondrina partnership, on her trip to the States with her husband Nelson in February. The other day I received a really nice e-mail from her with news from the farmer group from which Counter Culture Coffee sources our La Golondrina (the Organic Association of Coffee Producers of Cauca, usually referred to as simply Organica). She and Nelson have been doing presentations for growers about their trip to the States which have been very successful at motivating their farmer members. Liliana says:
"We have done a variety of events with the growers and held meetings to recount the experiences of our trip and everything that we shared with all of you in the USA. We showed photographs and short videos and we distributed the certificates that you all sent down, which serve to motivate the growers and help reinforce their commitment to the organization, Organica, that we continue to develop. Even though this year we've seen lower yields in the harvest and the internal market here in Colombia isn't the best for us, we see a lot of optimism and enthusiasm in our producer members. Once again, THANK YOU for everything and we hope to see you and everyone from Counter Culture here in Colombia very soon." [*for the growing number of Spanish speakers and readers, I included the original text at the bottom of the update.]
Certificates were part of a project that Counter Culture Coffee undertook to recognize the 60-plus farmers of Organica around Popayán whose coffee we purchased in 2008 and to build the brand of La Golondrina.
The certificates that she mentions were a project that Counter Culture Coffee undertook to recognize the 60-plus farmers of Organica around Popayán whose coffee we purchased in 2008 and to build the brand of La Golondrina. Remember that last year was the first year in which we stepped out of the competition to commit to a relationship with one association, Organica, and work on getting to know them and improving quality with them over the years to come. We are thrilled to have made this progress, and we hope that the growers feel the same way about leaving the competition behind for a more secure, sustainable model. We believe that a long-term relationship benefits all of us and it seems to be working: from what we know of the harvest that's underway, the farmers of Organica that Counter Culture works with are tendering more coffee than anyone else! ¡Espectacular!
Enjoy the attached pictures and enjoy drinking La Golondrina, while it lasts. I know I'm already looking forward to our 2009 lot!
Volando directo,
Kim Elena
* En español: Hemos estado en diferentes eventos y reuniones contando la experiencia de nuestro viaje y todo lo que pudimos compartir con ustedes alla en USA. Les mostramos muchas fotografias y algunos videos cortos e hicimos la entrega de los certificados enviados por ustedes eso sirvio mucho para motivar y lograr mayor compromiso de ellos en todo el proceso organizativo que desde ORGANICA venimos desarrollando. Aun cuando en este año los volumenes de cosecha y la situacion del mercado interno de cafe (En Colombia) no es la mejor, vemos que hay mucho animo y optimismo por parte de nuestros productores. Nuevamente GRACIAS por todo ... esperamos poder verte a ti y a toda la gente de COUNTER CULTURE muy pronto aca en Colombia.
Brian Ludviksen (center) with 2009 World Barista Champ Gwilym Davies and 2007 winner James Hoffmann.
Source or origin trips often bring us to coffee farms and washing stations, but I recently traveled afar to make a different kind of source trip; an espresso machine source trip. Most, if not all, of you are familiar with La Marzocco, the espresso machine manufacturer that Counter Culture has worked with for many years, which is located in Florence, Italy. I spent a week with the La Marzocco family in early June, with a brief stop in London to visit with Square Mile Roastery and our old friend and World Barista Championship Executive Director, Cindy Chang. The trip was very informative. l learned a lot, experienced a lot, and snapped a lot of pictures. I want to share this with all of you with the hopes of bringing a little of this source back to everyone at Counter Culture Coffee.
Before heading directly to our espresso machine source in Firenze, I spent a little time with our friends James Hoffman and Anette Moldvaer at Square Mile Roastery. We were lucky enough to be joined for much of our mischief by 2009 World Barista champ Gwilym Davies and WBC exec-director, Cindy Chang. I often hear horror stories about culinary experiences in London, but I found that the city and its denizens had a myriad of pleasures for the palate. Aside from tasty local favorites like Toad-in-a-hole and crackerlings and apple sauce, London has wonderful markets teeming with savory sausages and a moon's worth of cheese. Neal's Yard Dairy was one of the more spectacular places we visited and is to cheese what Counter Culture is to coffee. Oddly enough, one of the favorites during our tastings was a recent import from Wisconsin! Teasmith, located in Spitalfields Market, also brought to mind the Counter Culture ethos as we cupped various teas and learned about the cultivation and processing that makes teas distinct and unique.
Terra Cotta rooftops in Italy near Florence and the La Marzocco factory. Photo by Biran Ludviksen,
As I hobbled down cobblestone streets from market to market, I was fortunate enough to get taste of Square Mile's coffee at a number of great coffee spots in London; Dose, Flat White, Milkbar, Bitter Taste of Love, to name a few. Gwilym's coffee cart in the Columbia Road flower market was one of the more charming coffee experiences of the trip. Pictured in this month's issue of Barista magazine and nestled in a colorful labyrinth of flower vendors, Gwilym is serving up scores of "flat whites" next to a constant line of locals that venture out on the only day the market is open. A little deeper into the city, Milkbar and its sister shop, Flat White, offered great coffee with in a more urban and traditional coffee shop style. With celebrity sightings (like, OMG, I hear Kiera Knightley was totally here the other day) and England holding the current "cup" in the industry, it's no surprise that London's coffee scene is very hot!
The folks at the La Marzocco factory welcomed Brian with open arms and made him feel right at home with a cookout. Photo by Brian Ludviksen.
My cupping spoon was confiscated in Rome and my luggage was lost by the time I landed in Florence, but that was definitely not a foreshadowing of the future, as La Marzocco welcomed me with open arms. Many of the remote employees were in town for meetings and there was a company-wide cook out so my timing couldn't have been better. Downtown Florence is a smattering of leather shops, cafes, and gelato shops that trail from the Ufizzi to the Duomo and all along the Arno, but the country side offers a more relaxing view of terracotta tile rooftops and olive tree groves hugging rolling hilltops. It is in these rolling hills that La Marzocco lies, nestled in the scenery as if on a postcard. The factory and the folks that work in it reminded me so much of Counter Culture that it was easy to feel at home amongst all the friendly people and great espresso machines. My first day there was nothing but fun and nothing short of amazing. I was treated to a factory tour followed by a "family dinner" that would have been unrecognizable from a NC cook-out (known as a barbeque to northerners) aside from the folk songs afterwards being sung in Italian. We drank Chianti and listened to La Marzocco's Export Manager, Chris Salierno, play the guitar and sing into the late hours of the night. The next days in the factory were equally entertaining but weren't accompanied by as much wine and music.
The La Marzocco factory. Photo by Brian Ludviksen.
The factory is pretty simple for the caliber of product produced, which also was reminiscent of Counter Culture. The espresso machines are born in the welding and body assembly lines, where the infrastructure is established. The machines are then wired and bench tested at several points before being packaged for shipment. Other than the production operations, the building houses some of the coolest machines from La Marzocco's early days. La Marzocco is considered a small and family-based company compared to other machine manufacturers, with just less than 3,000 units produced in 2008, but they are definitely leading the charge in the espresso machine industry. Started more than 80 years ago by his grandfather, Piero Bambi and his team of machine professionals have continuously raised the bar in the industry. La Marzocco was the first company to use horizontal boilers, separate boilers dedicated for coffee making and steam making, and now a new prototype machine is looking to bring even more to the table in 2010.
Vintage La Marzocco espresso machines. Photo by Brian Ludviksen.
This new prototype was first introduced at the 2009 Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA) show in Atlanta and has been given the working title of the "Barista Machine." Since temperature stability is required to get to bat nowadays, La Marzocco is hoping to hit a home run with honing in on pressure and flow rate profiling. The Barista Machine will have boilers and pumps that are dedicated per group. The pumps are smaller, more efficient pumps that are housed internally (goodbye, external pumps!) and controlled dynamically by the lever that activates the group. As the barista moves the lever, the group valve opens and the pressure and flow rate will increase or decrease as the lever is moved from left to right. A programmable option also allows for the user to save any profile, per group, allowing programmed pours for each individual group. Although most would argue that the pressure profiling is the most exciting and defining characteristic presented by La Marzocco in the Barista Machine, there are several other innovations that will be coming with the new machines that are equally exciting. Cool-touch steam wands are on the near horizon and nearly all steam valves coming out of La Marzocco now have vacuum breakers on them making steam wand cleaning easier than it ever has been. Steam wand tips are also a hot topic, and I saw several prototype designs that will be groundbreaking. The new machine will have exposed groups, meaning that the espresso extracting experience will be in clear view of the operator and have no need for additional lighting. Also, portafilter basket design is under way and the days of the ridged baskets are waning.
This new machine concept is being driven by a highly experienced, talented team at La Marzocco, but has been aided by a new council they've put together, the La Marzocco Street Team. With its inaugural meeting during the SCAA show in Atlanta, the newly formed group of international espresso machine and industry experts will serve as a board of advisory for La Marzocco. As many of you know, Counter Culture Coffee has been asked to be represented on the team, and I am lucky enough to have that honor. In that capacity, Counter Culture is working directly with La Marzocco on everything from machine concept to application to support and truly on the frontier of espresso machine development.
So, taken in spirit, source can mean many things when it comes to excellent coffee, from farmers to roasters to machine manufacturers to shop owners. Hopefully by sharing this experience everyone has some understanding of the efforts involved in making (and choosing) excellent equipment and the detail to which Counter Culture works with companies to ensure that every product Counter Culture endorses embodies the spirit of our company vision statement. I look forward to sharing more of these experiences with each of you in the future; until then … Ciao!
The La Marzocco factory in Florence, Italy. Photo by Brian Luviksen.Source or origin trips often bring us to coffee farms and washing stations, but Counter Culture Coffee's Technical Services Manager Brian Ludviksen recently traveled afar to make a different kind of source trip; an espresso machine source trip. Some of you may be familiar with La Marzocco, the espresso machine manufacturer that Counter Culture has worked with for many years, which is located in Florence, Italy. Brian spent a week at the La Marzocco factory in early June, with a brief stop in London to visit with Square Mile Roastery, and our old friend and World Barista Championship Executive Director, Cindy Chang.

It's a different type of "trip to origin" than we're used to, but very interesting, nonetheless. Read Brian's trip report in our Origins section.


Photo taken near Lintong Sumatra, by Counter Culture Coffee.
Happy Holidays, my friends!
Nope, I'm not wishing you a belated Flag Day or an early Summer Solstice; I'm referring to the past-but-not-forgotten holidays of late 2008. You may recall that thanks to the combined efforts of Counter Culture Coffee, our customers, and lovers of deep, delicious Dolok Sanggul everywhere, we raised more money through sales of our Holiday Blend in 2008 than in any prior year! Huzzah!
Counter Culture Coffee teamed up with Volkopi Indonesia, our exporter partner in Medan, Sumatra, to choose a project to fund with the money raised from the sales of Dolok Sanggul and together we chose the Lintong Coffee School in Lintong Nihuta, the town next to Dolok Sanggul. The Coffee School was built in 2007 as a resource for the coffee community of this region and, according to Volkopi's General Manager Dariusz Lewandowski, is "meant for gatherings of farmers and anyone related to the coffee business." In Sumatra, the "coffee business" can be complex, with a supply chain that includes growers, collectors, and processors, and most of these stakeholders have little access to the kind of training infrastructure that could help them improve their coffee quality and thereby obtain higher prices.
The Lintong Coffee School has also become a school for the coffee supply chain's children, who come twice a week to take English classes.
Over the past two years, Volkopi has organized groups of 30 farmers at a time to come to the school for trainings. One ongoing initiative of 20 women, called Kelompok Kartini, has planted 4,000 seedlings under the advisement of Volkopi's agronomist that has become a model for training other growers and building their skills. Unfortunately, the training progress is slow because the growers—in Sumatra, as everywhere—are too busy to meet and quite challenging to organize!
In the meantime, the Lintong Coffee School has also become a school for the coffee supply chain's children, who come twice a week to take English classes. While English is not widely spoken in rural Indonesia, it is increasingly relevant—especially in the coffee business—and the kids and community are excited enough about this opportunity (that they would not otherwise have) to ask for more resources and formal instruction to be dedicated to English than they have thus far received from the English-speaking staff at Volkopi.
The $6,700 raised by the sales of Counter Culture Coffee Dolok Sanggul Holiday Blend to supply the school with 40 desks, a whiteboard, and sets of books and other instructional materials (like audio) that the children can use to continue their studies. Photo by Counter Culture Coffee.
The school still lacks the resources necessary for holding formal classes, so Volkopi suggested that we use the $6,700 raised by our Dolok Sanggul Holiday Blend to supply the school with 40 desks, a whiteboard, and sets of books and other instructional materials (like audio) that the children can use to continue their studies. Hopefully, the small-town school will continue to expand its offering of classes for farmers and their kids!
I have requested updated photographs of the children and the school from Volkopi because I love watching the whole project-development process unfold. Everyone who enjoyed last year's Holiday Coffee has reason to feel proud of the school's continuing success and I'll keep you all in the loop with dispatches as I receive them! Now, go drink some Dolok Sanggul.
raising my glass (mug),
Kim Elena
Fabio and Caballero and his daughter Marysabel of Finca El Puente in Marcala, Honduras, joking around with Kim Elena Bullock over coconuts. Photo by Tim Hill.
Tim and I headed north to the commercial city of San Pedro Sula, where we said farewell to Roberto and greeted Marysabel Caballero and her father, Fabio. Fabio's humor and Marysabel's joie de vivre are infectious, and every time we're together I am reminded of what I mean when I tell people that our grower partners treat us like family, and vice versa.
Though San Pedro Sula is smaller than Honduras' capital city, Tegucigalpa, it plays an undeniably important role in Honduran coffee in general and, more specifically, in Counter Culture Coffee's lot of Finca El Puente. The climate of San Pedro Sula is a source of frustration to anyone who purchases coffee from Honduras, because almost all of the country's coffee is milled and stored here before it ships, and the city's constant heat and humidity is unbelievable and, for coffee, unbearable. Personally, I kind of like it, but coffee needs a cool, dry environment or it risks losing delicate, delicious flavors to woody, flat ones. Buyers like Counter Culture Coffee are bending over backwards to avoid that crash by using special bags to protect the coffee from moist, hot air, and by trying to insure that coffee spends as little time as possible in SPS, but ultimately we know that the city jeopardizes great coffee.
The climate of San Pedro Sula is a source of frustration to anyone who purchases coffee from Honduras, because almost all of the country’s coffee is milled and stored here before it ships, and the city’s constant heat and humidity is unbelievable and, for coffee, unbearable. Photo by Kim Elena Bullock.
Whenever we're in SPS, we spend time cupping with Boncafe's cuppers, exporter Cristian Lesage, and the Caballero/Herrera family, and this trip was no different: we tasted 30 samples from different parcels and pickings of the farm that ranged in quality from just-okay coffee to truly beautiful coffee. To build our lot of coffee, we cup the best samples again at our lab here in North Carolina, rank them, and purchase the ones at the top of the list. After the morning's focused cupping session, we spent time relaxing, enjoying each other's company and talking about life and all of the Counter Culture Coffee employees, customers and friends that Marysabel and Fabio remember from their trip to North Carolina – for anyone who missed it, Counter Culture Coffee had the great pleasure of hosting Fabio, Marysabel, and Moises and their children, Ezri and Fabio Moises, for events in three of our training centers in August of 2007.
We jumped back into the world of coffee when we arrived at the family's home in Marcala, in the southern region of La Paz. Moises held down the fort around the farm and mill while Marysabel and Fabio met us in San Pedro Sula, and he was ready to talk processing and quality as soon as he saw us: we were immediately whisked away to the farm's mill, Xinacla, where we discussed some of the improvements that they have made over this past season. The biggest changes, and those that we spent the most time discussing on this trip and in the weeks that led up to this trip, were changes in the farm's drying process from all-mechanically-dried processing to some-mechanical-some-patio-dried processing. Why the change? Well, there are a couple of reasons, but the first one is, unsurprisingly, cup quality. This year's coffee from Finca El Puente aged unusually rapidly, and while we're all for seasonality and using coffee while it's at its peak, 2008's lot dropped so precipitously that we chose to pull it out of our rotation even before it went out of season. Mechanical coffee dryers have a bad reputation when it comes to their effect on cup quality and coffee longevity: we suspect that even the greatest coffee, when dried at high temperatures in mechanical dryers, loses positive cup characteristics (like the signature floral, berry, and otherwise "purple" flavors of Finca El Puente) to unpleasant cup characteristics (like woody, papery flavors) much more quickly than it should. It's also important to mention that this bad reputation is somewhat undeserved, because when mechanical dryers run at low temperatures, they can do a good job drying coffee.
But putting the ins and outs of drying aside, this year's cup-quality issue put our whole supply chain on red alert and we have been working, as a group, to insure that we don't have the same problem again this year. Investigating the role of the mechanical dryer is an example of the effort that the growers are making to insure quality in the cup, because drying coffee on patios takes longer and requires more labor, which makes it more expensive than mechanical drying. The family has worked closely with all of the farm's employees to improve the standard of ripeness for coffee picked this year, as well, which should help the coffees' sweetness and endurance. The exporter, Boncafe, has also committed to doing their part by moving Finca El Puente's coffee out of San Pedro Sula's humid climate as quickly as possible and particularly avoiding the delays that may have negatively affected last year's lot. At the mill and on the farm, we spent a lot of time talking through each step of the process together and all of us – Finca El Puente, Boncafe and Counter Culture Coffee – are all confident that this year's coffee will taste better and last longer than last year's coffee.
Tim Hill and Kim Elena Bullock touring the farm that produces Counter Culture Coffee's deicious Finca El Puente.
None of us would have chosen to have a coffee-quality problem, of course, but times like these are good reminders of what strong relationships are like: not only are we not giving up and working on the problem together, we're also promising to be completely honest about the risks we're taking and the reservations we have about the process. We recognize that to move forward, we need to learn from each year's challenges and adjust our actions and expectations accordingly. This coffee, and this relationship, is too important to us to lose over one year's disappointment! So we're pressing ahead with high hopes, lots of communication and copious taste-testing and comparative cupping throughout the year.
On the farm the next day after seeing the changes at Xinacla, we visited some of our favorite parts of Finca El Puente, including Los Cipreses, where the altitude and cool climate contribute to a much later ripening period – I'm talking loads of green coffee on the trees in the middle of March, when the rest of the farm is easing off production – and the beautiful waterfall, ensconced and protected by the farm, that inspired the coffee's icon. We admired Fabio's composting project, which uses coffee pulp and the manure from his cows, toured through downtown Marcala and finished the day with a family dinner, more stories, and a renewed sense of commitment to one another. I'm proud of the work we're doing and our collective dedication (which includes the dedication of the coffee drinkers among you!) to Finca El Puente's delicious coffee. I am looking forward to a great cup when the new crop arrives!
Kim Elena
Roberto Salazar walking the farm at Finca Pashapa in Ocotepeque, Honduras. Photo by Kim Elena Bullock.
The journey continues! After crossing the border between Esquipulas, Guatemala, and Nueva Ocotepeque, Honduras, in a taxi that reeked of gasoline fumes and broke down twice (even the dull moments aren't entirely dull on these trips), Tim and I met up with Roberto Salazar, the man driving the success of the incomparable Finca Pashapa. Counter Culture's relationship with Finca Pashapa is one of our oldest—going on seven years!—and, as we drove to the farm, we reminisced with Roberto about how much both of our operations have grown and changed in the intervening years. Once known as Organic French Roast, we now recognize the Salazar family's coffee as Finca Pashapa, and we've never felt better about the always-sweet, silky-bodied, and balanced coffee the farm produces.
If you remember nothing else about Roberto from Finca Pashapa trip reports and coffee biographies, you probably remember that this farm has the most impressive worm composting system I have ever seen, and, in fact, that system is a major contributing factor to Pashapa's economic sustainability as well as environmental sustainability because it helps them to make all of the compost that their farm requires. All of it! That's amazing!
Finca Pashapa demonstrates that it is possible to manufacture all of the necessary fertilizers on the farm using materials found on the farm. Roberto Salazar's extensive worm cultures contribute tremendously to this end. Photo by Kim Elena Bullock.
I find this so inspiring because organic agriculture requires, of course, that growers comply with rules about what kind of inputs (like fertilizers and herbicides) they can apply to their plants but also stipulates monitoring the health of the soil that they cultivate. Healthy soil (as well as healthy coffee plants) requires a mixture of nutrients and providing those nutrients organically tends to be more expensive for growers than applying synthetic fertilizers. Those higher costs are a major challenge for many certified organic farms as well as an obstacle for many sustainably-minded small farms considering certification.
When a farm like Finca Pashapa demonstrates that it is possible to manufacture all of the necessary fertilizers on the farm using materials found on the farm, my heart soars and I feel a renewed commitment to supporting our certified organic grower partners and further promoting organic agriculture with those partners not yet certified. Did I mention that Finca Pashapa also have some of the highest and most stable yields of coffee per hectare of any organic farm I have seen, anywhere? Double-amazing!
Roberto Salazar and Kim Elena examine drying coffee beans at Finca Pashapa. Photo by Tim Hill.
Finca Pashapa might seem too good to be true except that they came to this holistic approach and integrated farming system by way of multiple generations of chemical-fertilizer, conventional coffee farming. According to Roberto, the family's quest to become the model organic farmers they are today began little over a decade ago when they recognized that in milling coffee at their house without regard for the water and waste created in the process, they had become the biggest polluters in their town. The impact of their actions dawned on them, and they started looking for opportunities to improve, and there's something in the Salazar blood that drives them to grab hold of an idea and not let go until they've figured it out.
Their approach to quality began the same way, with a cupping class that initially made Roberto laugh before he tried it (Slurping? Spitting? Is this for real?), but he enjoyed it and decided that he wanted to be good at it. Since that first day 8 years ago, he has gone on to serve as a judge in Cup of Excellence competitions in Honduras, worked on establishing and promoting the variety of flavor profiles of Honduras's diverse-but-generally-undifferentiated coffee regions, and forged the first farmer-run lot-separation program with the co-operative that he works with in La Labor.
Tim and I had the chance to cup the year's first offerings from this per-producer lot-separation program, and we were thrilled by what we found. We have a treat in store for you all this year! And what is said treat? Well, dear readers, I plan to leave you in suspense knowing that Tim, Roasting Manager and head of Counter Culture Coffee quality control, will surely weigh in on the cupping results and what's in store for all of us. Stay tuned!
Kim Elena