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Uganda: where have you been?Theme

Uganda: where have you been?

For about a decade now the Coffee Department has been tasting Ugandan coffees in the lab. Generally speaking, they have not been very good, showcasing heavy faded qualities every single time we tasted them. This never really made sense to us because the altitudes, varieties, and potential quality all pointed to a product from which we would expect great things.

This past year, the same partners in Africa we work with on Tsheya and Kalungu from the Democratic Republic of Congo started having us taste coffees from a cooperative in the Rwenzori Mountains of Western Uganda. Not only did the original pre-shipment samples of coffee taste good, they exceeded every other Ugandan coffee we'd tasted by multiple points.

Why, you might ask? Our partners there, along with other organizations, helped to set up micro-washing stations for the Bukonzo Joint Cooperative. (Before this, all of the coffee was processed as low-grade natural sundried coffee.) In addition to the micro-washing stations, our partners have been working on cupping training, good processing techniques, and lots of other quality-oriented education. Honestly, it kind of seemed too good to be true.

Remember when I said that the pre-shipment samples tasted amazing? Before we bought this coffee this year, we had the opportunity to taste some arrival samples and not just pre-shipment samples. The outcome was sadly, once again, what we always taste in these coffee: fade. This left us at a crossroad. We could forget we ever tasted the amazing pre-shipment samples or figure out how to get the quality arrived here. Of course, we chose the latter.

Knowing that faded coffee was the main enemy of quality, the goals were to move the coffee faster than any other coffee has left Uganda and to make sure that the moisture was as low as possible to make it more stable.

We committed upfront to buying from our three favorite washing stations based upon the past pre-shipments, and the cooperative dried all the coffee to 8.9-9.4%. The coffee was approved on November 22, 2013, when the coffee was still in Western Uganda and arrived in the US on January 23, 2014. This coffee was harvested from late-September through December and arrived in January! The result: it doesn’t taste like stale bread.

Let’s get real for a moment, though. We still face a lot of challenges. From pre-shipment to arrival we still saw a quality loss. Overall, the milling, sorting, processing, and storage of this coffee need to be improved. And, of course, the dreaded potato defect that we thought was going to be very minor is there. (It is low – at about 2.5% of 12 oz single serving brews. For reference, Buziraguhindwa, Remera, Mpemba are at about 5%.)

Regardless, it still should feel pretty great to be tasting two of the lots that represent the best tasting arrivals of Ugandan coffee we have ever seen.

Notes on the Coffees

St. Goret

St. Goret is located in the Kasungu village on the Rwenzori Mountains. Fifty-five famers are a part of this cooperative. Varieties grown are the same as the other cooperative: Nyasaland, SL14, and SL28. (Nyasaland is supposedly a descendant from the original Jamaican Blue Mountain Typica, but that is unconfirmed.) Processing is dry fermentation, but we don’t know for how long, yet.


Buthale

Buthale is a located in the village of Buthale – hence the name – and also in the Rwenzori Mountains. The cooperative has 221 members. Dry fermentation and same varieties.


Rollout Dates and Availability

Currently we are reviewing these coffees for instances of defect and consistency. While the Buthale has a cleaner flavor profile, the St. Goret is more dynamic and interesting. We will likely roll out one of these on March 3, if the quality and consistency is fair.

Theme

Building Toscano

This week we are hoping to give people a glimpse into the development of our year-round products, in particular Toscano. The focus of the conversation will be around the idea of flavor profile, as well as the idea of building year-round products at the farm level. Increasingly, we are working with skilled farmers who are manipulating processing, variety, and doing specific lots to make very specific flavors. This is our mission in coffee: to make producers into craftsmen. This also allows us to focus on single-origins that may or may not be single coffees.

Style of Tasting

Cupping

While, of course, pulling this as espresso would have seemed logical, it is good to remember that Toscano is a good coffee option for those looking for something full-bodied, nutty, and chocolate-y.

Notes on the Coffees

Toscano Ecuador

First on the table will be coffee from Ecuador. This coffee is from our partners at Fapecafes in Loja, Ecuador. This year, the coffee did not meet the standards we set for our El Gavilan coffee, and that is why we will not see an El Gavilan main lot offering. While the coffee didn’t meet the single-origin standards, it was still good and had great notes leaning towards cocoa, nut, and also with less acidity. Based on that, we worked with the cooperative to buy this lot solely for use in Toscano, and this roast is the first attempt. It is roasted to an Agtron 60. Overall, this is a good attempt, but it is not all the way there. We will likely slow the roast down a minute or two and lighten the roast by about 2 points. 

Toscano Bolivia

Second on the table is the coffee from Bolivia. One of our favorite trial versions for Toscano in 2013 was with Illimani, from Caranavi, Bolivia. NOTE: this coffee does not come from Nueva Llusta, but rather a different area and group. This particular lot is a total experiment. It is 70% washed and 30% pulp natural processed from a single producer named Silverio Nina around the area of Illimani. We contracted this coffee solely as an experiment – hoping that the pulp natural would bring some sweetness and body to the the mix. Overall, we are happy with the sweetness, but think that the fruit notes are too far from the profile we hope for for Toscano. We will likely go back to the drawing board on the blend, and introduce yet another washed coffee from Bolivia into the mix to make this ready for production.

Rollout Dates and Availability

The Ecuador version of Toscano is going to start being roasted on February 6, and will continue to be Toscano for approximately 5-6 weeks. The Bolivia version of Toscano will actually go into production likely in April. So, you are likely asking what will be in the middle: Costa Rica. Say what! Yes, indeed – but you will just have to wait for that story.

– Tim
Despite the widespread perception to the contrary, any roasted coffee can be brewed with pretty much any brewer to make great coffee as long as you start with high-quality coffee and pay attention to your brewing parameter. We put together a short video with Team NYC's Meister to elaborate.

And, for the month of February, we're hosting an Instagram offer with a chance to win a bag of our current featured coffee, Remera. Check out the #anycoffeeanybrew page for more information.

Where We Started

As many of you may recall, we started an inquiry about microlots back in the Winter of 2011 when we spoke with 13 farmers from the Cenfrocafe in Peru about their experiences. While we learned a lot, one of the major challenges with this study was that none of the producers interviewed had repeat success as microlot producers. The common sentiment that microlot premiums were a result of luck was understandable but did not point – from a quality perspective – to how we could encourage other producers with concrete suggestions. And, we knew that producers with repeat microlot premiums exist in other areas where we purchased.

Phase II

While we felt we received valuable feedback from our partners in Peru, we were still looking for more streamlined feedback for producers. Ideally we would have more quantitative metrics in regard to farm and investment practices – as well as greater proof of the positive impacts of microlots. So, with this in mind we hatched a plan with one of our exporting partners, Virmax, in the fall of 2012. As a purveyor of microlot coffees who have built their business model on high-quality, differentiated small lots, they had many of the same questions we did about the repeatability and common characteristics of microlot producers. This time, because of Virmax’s long-established, data-rich microlot program in Colombia, we decided to focus our inquiry there. What made this group different as well was that all producers interviewed were previous recipients of the microlot premium.

Together, we designed the survey instrument (going through about seven iterations) and helped train promotores (technicians) who would be going into the field to interview producers. From January – February of 2013 surveys were administered, and, at the end of February, Kim Elena visited some of the producers interviewed, as well, to gain more of an understanding.

Analysis

The spring found us realizing just how much data we were now sitting on with 122 coffee producers interviewed. Though starting to sift through the data was fascinating, neither one of us had the time or the full expertise to do the analysis required for a study of this scale. So, thanks to a mutually serendipitous meeting, we were able to partner with Ruth Ann Church, a woman who is both a coffee buyer – who also buys from Virmax – and who is currently working on her Master's Degree in Community Sustainability, to assist in the analysis and reporting part of the project. Ruth Ann and I recently did a live webcast moderated by Kim that talked about the research process and further research questions that you can check out anytime.

Similar to the first phase of research, much of what we heard about good practices was no surprise. However, the data did begin to point to what microlot producers may have in common with one another, both in their farm practices and in their use of the extra income from the premium.

In particular, the data showed the group of farmers that had 3 microlot years in a row as opposed to 1 or 2 microlot premium years were more likely to fertilize based on soil analysis, use family members for coffee picking, prune intentionally, plant the Colombia variety, and use three specific drying practices (sliding roof, parabolic patio with beds, and patios with net floors). In addition, they are more likely to invest the premium back into on-farm costs, such as fertilizer, than in family needs.

While the data points to some interesting results, there is still more to understand. In particular, understanding exactly which practices are strongly correlated with – not just happening alongside external factors we may not have controlled. An example here is that yes, those who sold microlots 3 years in a row seem to plant more Colombia variety when they are renovating. However, we also know as an aside that Colombia variety does not necessarily result in flavors that we would reward for quality. Thus, we will continue to refine, to filter results through what we know, experience and continue to expect. And, hopefully get still closer to sharing pertinent feedback with producing partners.

The open-ended questions allowed us to get at the experiential side, and we were pleased to continue to understand producers’ motivations, challenges, and higher level perceived community impacts of the microlot premiums. I'm Colombia now sharing the results and hoping to gain still more analysis based on producers’ reactions to the research.

What’s Next

I don’t think either one of us could have imagined that when we embarked on this "microlot question" in 2011 we would be here now – with a lot more information and still more questions. Ideally, what we have put forth over the last two years encourages others within the coffee industry to ask the questions they have always wanted to ask, to find answers that will ultimately be of benefit to those throughout the supply chain. We are also more than happy to be available for others who have questions about the process, about how to create their own mini-research project, or about our findings in general. 
Read on for the full report!

Thanks,
Hannah
Hello, cuppers!

What a week it has been; I hope you're all staying warm. Life continues apace and there are coffees for us to taste, so let's hop to it!

There's not a lot I can say about Valle del Santuario that you haven't all heard before, given the number of times it has appeared on our cupping tables over the past seven years. Our relationship with the Cenfrocafe co-operative of San Ignacio, Peru, is one of our strongest, but it hasn't always been that way - in late 2008, after our second year buying coffee from the five communities of the valley, the coffee department had a serious conversation about whether to continue working with the cooperative because we had heard rumors that they hadn't distributed price premiums in a timely fashion and growers felt dissatisfied. We opted to continue because we were able to address our concerns with the cooperative and, five years later, I'm glad that we didn't react to a rumor we heard through an importer and opted to be patient, work on the relationship, and commit to better, more frequent communication in the future.

Our next coffee is a good one to follow on the heels of that story because Remera represents a long-term bet still in its early stages. We have known Epiphanie and her son Sam, owners of the Bufcafe and Remera mills, for many years, but it was Tim's trip in 2012 that opened our eyes to the family's potential as a collaborator as opposed to simply a supplier. Last year's Bufcafe Natural Sundried was a runaway hit and a subject of much curiosity, especially - judging from online ordering records - among coffee industry folks, and although the washed coffee we're buying from Remera is more in line, flavor-wise with what you might expect from another very good Rwandan coffee, it's still a treat and it's got a lot of potential for growth. Sam is a regular fixture of coffee department discussions as someone who represents the next generation of producer-leaders both in terms of his youth and his vision for quality. His quality improvements and his experiments with sundried naturals continue (we have our fingers crossed that we'll have some sundried natural coffee from Remera in a couple of months). Also, Sam plans to attend the conference on potato defect that we'll be sponsoring with a portion of the proceeds from sales of our holiday coffee, which we are hopeful will help us make progress against this frustrating obstacle.

Last but not least, we have Buziraguhindwa Natural Sundried, which we've been brewing more than ever since it showed so well in competition last weekend. We have been waiting two years for this coffee experiment to materialize and while it paid off handsomely, we have certainly had fits and starts along the way and questioned whether or not the potential was worth the time, effort and, one year, the financial hit of the coffee arriving unsellable. The clean but intense fruit in the flavor of this coffee, however, makes it all feel worthwhile because despite the fact that we don't buy a lot of this style of coffee compared to washed coffee, we do want to have more options than just Ethiopia for this flavor profile and in order to get there, we have to build it patiently and take the long view.

Enjoy the coffees, please!

-Kim

 
We're super-proud of all of the competitors at this year's Big Eastern coffee competitions – which included the Southeast and Northeast Regional Barista and Brewers Cup competitions. And, we are, indeed, incredibly honored to have 29 talented folks representing our coffees. In addition to two top place finishes – see below – eight competitors made the finals of the Big Eastern competitions using our coffees.

Erika Vonie of Ultimo Coffee in Philadelphia took second place in the Northeast Regional Barista Competition (NERBC) with coffee from our Tairora Project from the Eastern Highlands, Papua New Guinea. Corey Reilly of Everyman Espresso in New York finished in third place in the NERBC using Mpemba from Kayanza, Burundi.

In the Northeast Regional Brewers Cup (NERBrC), James Klapp from Ultimo Coffee in Philadelphia came in second with Idido washed processed coffee from Yirgacheffe, Ethiopia. And, Alyssa Azizi of Pavement Coffee in Boston rounded out the NERBrC finalists in sixth place with La Golondrina from Popayán, Colombia.

In the Southeast Regional Barista Competition (SERBC), independent barista Dawn Shanks from Washington, DC, used Counter Culture's Biloya Natural Sundried to earn a third place finish. Tim Jones of Jubala Craft Coffee in Raleigh came in fourth in the SERBC using a blend of Idido washed and Biloya Natural Sundried. And, Nathan Nerswick of 5&10 in Athens, GA, rounded out the SERBC finalists in sixth place.

Krisann Freilino of Peregrine Espresso in Washington, DC, earned the fifth place spot in the Southeast Regional Brewers Cup with Tsheya from the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Other dedicated coffee professionals who used our coffees, included Patricia Bruce of Pavement Coffeehouse in Boston; Matthew Bryce of Peregrine Espresso in Washington, DC; Steph Caronna of La Farm Bakery in Cary, NC; Andrew Cash of Jubala Craft Coffee in Raleigh; Seth Cook of Northside Social in Arlington, VA; Couper Cox of 5&10 in Athens, GA; Helen Flowers of The Morning Times in Raleigh; Tommy Gallagher of Counter Culture Coffee, NY; Jennifer Hall of Sola Coffee Café in Raleigh; Tery Honeyghan of Peregrine Espresso; Dylan Jung of High Five Coffee Bar in Asheville, NC; Dylan McFatrich of The Morning Times; Trevor Patton of The Morning Times; Joe Quinlan of High Five Coffee Bar; Katie Rant of Sola Coffee Café; Bobbi Jo Vandal of Pavement Coffeehouse; Amanda Whitt of Everyman Espresso; and James Yoder of Not Just Coffee in Charlotte.

And, as mentioned on Monday, we are extremely proud that Team NYC's J. Park Brannen won the Northeast Regional Barista Competition and Team Durham's Jonathan "Peaches" Bonchak won his second straight Southeast Regional Brewers Cup!

Thanks,
Nathan
The Big Eastern regional competition is coming to Durham, NC. The 2013 Southeast Regional Brewers Cup Champ – and Counter Culture sales team member – Jonathan Bonchak is competing again. At this year's Southeast Regional Brewers Cup, Jonathan's using a combination of Buziraguhindwa Natural Sundried from Burundi and Idido washed from Ethiopia. And, for a brewer, he's using Counter Culture's Classic #2 Bonmac drip cone!

"My lady gave this to me as a Christmas present years ago," recalls Jonathan. "It was the first time I ever tried to use a pourover cone. I only needed a few tries to make some truly tasty coffee. I still come back to it today as my favorite drip cone, and I recommend it to all of my friends looking into making great pourover coffee at home."

Asked why, Jonathan explains, "It has one small hole that the brewed coffee passes through, and this is helpful if your pour is quick or if your grinder isn't great. I like this slower flow because it can help you extract a little bit more since it prolongs the coffee and water dwell time."

And, of course, we have these available in our store, if you're interested.
Good afternoon and happy new year to all! I am really excited about the possibilities held by 2014 and we are starting the year off on a good foot with this week's single-farmer lots from Bartolo Concha and Nelson Melo.

I wouldn't blame you for calling these coffees microlots on Friday if that's a helpful term, but a few months back we made the decision to drop microlot as a marketing term because it's amorphous and subject to different definitions and qualifications even within a single company. We realized that more specific terms are better indicators for what makes a given coffee noteworthy, given that sometimes microlots denoted individual coffee farms within larger groups, sometimes coffee from one area of a large farm, sometimes coffee from a particular day of harvest, sometimes coffee of a single variety and so forth and so on.

Cup quality unites all of our microlots to some degree, of course, but even that gets tricky because a microlot of 500 pounds from a grower in Nicaragua might score 90 points and blow us away, whereas we expect our coffee from Idido in Ethiopia to score a couple points higher still and at 37,000 pounds, there's nothing micro about it.

Bartolo Concha and Nelson Melo are both members of associations of smallholder farmers we work with and these two individuals' coffees have been separated out, which makes them single-farmer lots. Make sense? Bartolo Concha is one of the seventy – some farmers whose coffee comprises our Valle del Santuario coffee. He has been a member of the co-op for as many years as we have been working with the five communities of the valley and coffee from his two farms, El Limón and El Cedro – named for lime and cedar trees growing on those parcels of land – has always met our minimum cupping score for purchase (an 85, for us), but this is the first year that we have selected it as a single-farmer lot.

The other single-farmer lot from Valle del Santuario, Moisés Vicente, has a similar story, and in fact, so does every other co-op member whose coffee we have selected to stand on its own in years past: they do well consistently but hit that highest-tier mark only once. When Hannah asked Bartolo at a meeting last month what he did differently this year to improve the quality of his coffee, he struggled to pinpoint anything unusual. This seems like a glitch in a system that was designed to both reward quality and to provide incentives for better agricultural practices, and it's one that we wouldn't be so aware of if it weren't for our survey of this co-op back in late 2011 and early 2012. You've all heard plenty about this research by now, but I'll include the link just for kicks.
 
Our research in Peru led to a stronger relationship and more trust with the growers of Valle del Santuario and the Cenfrocafe co-op, but it also left us with questions about why growers weren't achieving repeated success in Peru when we knew it was possible. Hannah and I decided to do a follow-up study focusing on the agricultural practices and behaviors most associated with repeat success and we took up that study with smallholder farmers in southern Colombia including, but not limited to, the members of the Orgánica association behind La Golondrina.

Arismendes Vargas, Gloria Tejada and Manuel Melenje are all members of that group who have received quality premiums multiple times over the years, but no farmer has produced microlots more consistently than Nelson Melo, and your faithful coffee buyers could not possibly be more tickled to have this grower's coffee to share with all of you after many years of knowing and admiring Nelson, his family and his leadership in the Orgánica association. Nelson's coffee has gone to another buyer since 2005 – predating our connection to Orgánica – and every year that we have tasted it, Nelson's coffee has been exceptional even among Orgánica's many laudable single-farmer lots. We have waited patiently for seven years and that patience paid off, but the tiny amount of this coffee we have will only be available to order online. Sales will begin later this month sometime, though I'm not sure quite when.
 
Enjoy, please, and as always, send your questions and feedback my way.

– Kim

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