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Thirty-six coffee professionals from around the country participated in the United States Barista Championships in Atlanta last weekend (April 14–17), a competition presented by the Specialty Coffee Association of America and the Barista Guild of America. Lemuel Butler, Counter Culture Coffee wholesale customer support and barista trainer in Durham, NC, won first place and was crowned the 2016 U.S. Barista Champion. This the first national win in Butler's decorated coffee career during which he has won five Southeast regional championships (2005, 2007, 2010, 2012, and 2014)—the most of anyone in competition history. Lem will go on to represent the U.S. in the World Barista Championship in Dublin this year, June 23–25. Lem has been an integral member of Counter Culture's team in Durham since 2007, training countless baristas and staff in coffee excellence and forging relationships with chefs, cafe owners, and members of the industry.
Samuel Lewontin, general manager and barista at NYC's beloved Everyman Espresso, placed fourth in the Barista Championship using Counter Culture coffee. This year, 10 baristas competed using Counter Culture coffees, with Lem and Sam making it to the finals.
At the Barista Championship, baristas competed in front of four sensory judges, two technical judges and one head judge as they prepared and served four espressos, four cappuccinos and four signature espresso beverages during a 15-minute race against the clock. Lem competed with Finca Nuguo, a Gesha variety coffee from Jurutungo, Panama, with big floral notes of jasmine, lime tartness and tropical fruit sweetness, that was roasted by Counter Culture's Kyle Tush. Each competitor's signature beverage is notably the “canvas” of the competition, where baristas show their creativity and innovation. Lem called his drink "SouthernPlayalisticCadillacCoffee," a spring-y ode to his southern roots and the Outkast album that first inspired his love of southern hip-hop, comprising Finca Nuguo espresso, magnolia flower simple syrup, hibiscus, lemongrass and nitrous oxide (for creaminess), served elegantly to judges in beer snifters. Lem's beverages were accompanied by an earnest presentation about specialty coffee's effects on his life and what he will give in return.
"Twelve years in this industry has done so much for my family and me, and now I'm asking myself, 'What will I give back?'" Lem said. "I never fathomed that I'd be representing the U.S. at the World Championship, but beyond that I want to inspire others to perfect this craft, to keep competing and never get discouraged."
"We are so happy for Lem's well-deserved success,” said Counter Culture President and Co-Founder Brett Smith. “He epitomizes how perseverance and hard work pay off and has led the way for so many in this field to push their limits.”
Counter Culture first received an unsolicited bag of green coffee from Finca Nuguo's farmer Jose Manuel Gallardo Mendez in November 2014. Roaster Kyle Tush and Coffee Buyer Tim Hill worked with Jose to refine his processing and quality and in a year's time produced what Counter Culture called “simply the best coffee we sold in 2015.” The particular lot of Finca Nuguo that Lem brought to the US Coffee Championship is a tribute to what can happen through collaboration, dedication and patience—values Counter Culture has been committed to for the past two decades.
Sam competed with a coffee grown by Tito Raúl Quelal in Nariño Columbia that was roasted by Counter Culture's Kyle Tush. Sam credited the farmer Don Tito's washed processing and sun-drying for the coffee's “exceptionally sweet,” “enhanced acidity” and “sparkingly clean” flavors.
The top 12 baristas from a qualifying round held in Kansas, MO, in February earned a first round bye at the US Barista Championship tournament. Open to the public and free to attend, the event also hosted opportunities for attendees to learn more about the world of specialty coffee and to taste coffee from roasters nationwide.
Here is a selection of some of their answers:
What is your day job? I'm a barista, 40-hours a week behind the bar.
How long have you been in the co ffee industry? 3-and-a-half years
What is your spirit animal? Golden Retriever
What is your favorite song on your competition mix? "Sweet Dreams" by the Eurythmics. Annie Lennox is my '80s crush. She is just so regal.
If you win, to whom or what would you dedicate your win? I would dedicate my win to my wife, Abby, for her unending support and all the folks at Counter Culture—especially Kyle Tush—for being a wealth of knowledge and just getting the job done! And, finally, to Jeremiah Cawley for countless hours of training and support during competition prep.
What is your day job? In my everyday life, I'm the General Manager at Everyman Espresso in New York City.
How long have you been in the coffee industry? I've been in coffee for 15 years, though only 9-or-so of those have been in specialty.
What is your favorite song on your competition mix? I don't have this year's USBC playlist put together yet, but my favorite song from a prior playlist is probably The Kills' "Future Starts Slow."
If you win, to whom or what would you dedicate your win? However I wind up finishing, my routine is dedicated to my parents, Sarah and David, for too many reasons to count; to Diane Hostetler, who taught me the craft of stage performance and work ethic, and so many other things besides; to Tito Raul Quelal, for growing, picking, and processing such a phenomenal coffee; to the teams at CRS and Caravela, for helping to bring it to the States; to the whole Counter Culture Coffee team, for their tireless support and extraordinary generosity; and to my family at Everyman Espresso, without whom none of this quixotic dream would be possible.
What's your day job? Charm Offender (also known as Customer Relations at Counter Culture Coffee)
How long have you been in the coffee industry? Twelve short years
What is your spirit animal? Lion of Judah
What is your favorite song in your competition mix? If I told you, everyone would have it in their mix.
If you win, to whom or what would you dedicate your win? Family, farmer, roaster, friends
What's your day job? I am a barista for Underline Coffee in New York City.
How long have you been in the coffee industry? I started at Starbucks in 2007, but didn't get serious about coffee until I began working for a local roaster a few years ago.
What is your spirit animal? Owl
What is your favorite song in your competition mix? The Bar-Kays, "Soul Finger"
If you win, to whom or what would you dedicate your win? I would have to say José and his team at Finca Nuguo. This coffee is truly amazing, and I'm just doing my best to carry as much of that through to the cup as I can.
What's your day job? Founder and CEO of Slingshot Coffee Co.
How long have you been in the coffee industry? Ten years in some capacity or another. Five years as a full-time gig.
What is your spirit animal? Dorothy Zbornak
What is your favorite song in your competition mix? I'm stressed out because I can't answer this right now.
If you win, to whom or what would you dedicate your win? Girls. Cuz who run the world?
What’s your day job? My day job is being a barista at Everyman Espresso in New York City.
How long have you been in the coffee industry? I have been working in the coffee industry for five years.
What is your spirit animal? My spirit animal is always stressed by this question.
What is your favorite song in your competition mix? Right now I am enjoying Bob Dylan's "Meet Me in the Morning."
If you win, to whom or what would you dedicate your win? If I were to win the Brewers Cup I would dedicate this victory to the people, because that is why I am doing it.
Sarah Rice Scott
How long have you been in the coffee industry? I have been in the biz since 2014.
What is your spirit animal? A great blue heron.
What is your favorite song in your competition mix? Wait, can brewer’s have music? So, I don’t have a mix (yet?), but I feel like early era REM has been a part of the soundtrack of my practice sessions.
If you win, to who or what would you dedicate your win? My coach, Evan, and team Peregrine. Evan has been so critical to my training. He’s pushed me further as a coffee professional and he’s a pretty great person all around. The rest of my team (including barista legend Jeremy Sterner) are likewise incredible. Despite the stress and anxiety of competing, they have made this process so much fun and so rewarding. It’s a real honor to work with such a great crew.
How long have you been in the coffee industry? 9 years.
What is your spirit animal? Wolf
What is your favorite song in your competition mix? "There is no there" by the Books. It's been in my headphones (and in my head) for like a decade and a half and I'm still not tired of it!
If you win, to who or what would you dedicate your win? Were I to win, I'd dedicate the win to everyone who had a hand in making this coffee so awesome, to everyone who supported me in preparation, and to the employees and regulars at Pavement. And the caturra variety. And Larry Margulies, president/owner of Pavement. ♥ u Larr Bear.
We believe in pushing potential in every aspect of what we do—from employee development to coffee-buying relationships—and we believe improvement is a journey not a destination. We're proud of all of the coffees we sell and we want to celebrate their journey to higher quality and sustainability. With that in mind, we are making a change to Hologram that will impact its organic certification. Starting February 15th, 2016, we will be removing the USDA Certified Organic label from Hologram for all West Coast products. The label was removed from all East Coast products in early January.
Hologram is one of our most popular blends and the vast majority of coffees used in Hologram will still be certified organic, but we saw great potential in a few groups of growers that are not yet certified. To support these coffees, whose flavor profile will work well for Hologram, we are making the choice to remove the certification and work with these growers as they continue on their journey toward greater sustainability.
In summary, changing Hologram to conventional allows the inclusion of coffees that are making progress moving along the continuum towards greater sustainability and we are committed to helping them push their potential.
We understand that some of our customers will still want coffee that has reached the organic certification benchmark and we are committed to offering a large selection of certified organic year-round options that include Apollo, Fast Forward, and Forty Six in addition to the numerous single-origin organic offerings.
"I keep hearing in the news that the bees are dying. Why's that? And what can I do to help?" As a beekeeper, I am on the receiving end of these and many other insect-related questions. These two, in particular, essentially spurred the creation of the Pollinator Project—wildflower seed packets designed to help honeybees and other integral pollinators.
Just how dire is the honeybee situation, anyway? In Pennsylvania alone, beekeepers experienced an average of 60% of honeybee colony loss in the April of 2014–April 2015 season, and, according to Science Daily, the national average of recorded losses was more than 40%. These numbers are staggering, but also considered "normal" over the past decade or so. Extreme losses indicate a larger, more convoluted issue of honeybee health and survival.
These are just a few of the factors of what can cause a colony to die: pesticides, fungicides, herbicides, starvation (due to lack of a variety of nectar and pollen-producing plants), stress of environmental change, agricultural stress (including migratory beekeeping), prematurely failing queen bees, varroa mites, disease (such as American/European foulbrood), tracheal mites, nosema, wax moths, and small hive beetles.
But why do we need pollinators? Pollinators facilitate plant reproduction, and, without them, we wouldn't have more than 85% of both food and plant resources in the world. Honeybees alone are responsible for about 30% of our food resources. Coffee trees are self-pollinating, but studies have shown a 15-50% increase in production when honeybees are aiding that pollination. To state it another way, the loss of pollinating bees would result in about a 33% reduction in coffee production.
Supporting the survival of honeybees is relatively simple for the average citizen: plant pollinator-friendly flowers. That alone provides a more habitable environment for honeybees, bumblebees, hundreds of species of native bees, butterflies, moths, beetles, wasps and hornets (yes, they're important, too), and hummingbirds. Lack of food, aka "forage" to us bee folk, is one of the main contributors of the honeybee's decline, not to mention the vast reduction in populations of other effective and very necessary pollinators we often forget about.
While the idea of sprinkling wildflower seeds to make the world a happier and better place for honeybees seems like a Lisa-Frankean pipe dream, it truly does make a difference in the ecosystem at large. Wildflowers are hearty, they provide habitat for insects and birds, they re-seed easily, and they take minimal resources to maintain and propagate. Pollinator Project seed varieties are selected with the intention of providing forage during all seasons possible.
Since April of 2015, when Pollinator Project came to fruition, enough wildflower seeds have been purchased (and presumably, planted) to cover more than 3 full acres—that's more than 130,000 square feet of land—in solid wildflower mass. This certainly isn't nothing, and the repercussions are great since these wildflowers re-seed and exponentially increase their numbers each season. Another mission of Pollinator Project is to focus on education with the goal of demystifying the role of pollinators—and how we can better support them for their (and our) future. I've hosted presentations for groups ranging from high school students to residents of a boutique hotel, but one common theme rings true: It's inspiring to experience others wanting to make a positive change—for pollinators or otherwise—and I am thankful that Pollinator Project can do just that.
Pollinator Project is a small business in Philadelphia that fills up much of Chelsea's free time. Twenty percent of proceeds go The Xerces Society.
The 2016 Origin Field Lab will cover the complexities of contemporary coffee farming in general, and in Honduras in particular, and with on-site experiences which will illuminate the intricacies of coffee cultivation and processing for farms of varying sizes.
(Application limited to Counter Culture's wholesale customers.)
Setting aside my doubts as to how the article’s author reached his “the farm-to-table trend is over” conclusion, I was pretty rankled by his assertion that people are still supposed to care where their food comes from, just not enough to ask that the restaurant tell them. How is a consumer supposed to develop trust in the restaurant’s sourcing practices without any information on which to base this decision? For me, the only two possible outcomes in this scenario are that the restaurant gives me access to information about how they source their food or I decide that I don’t care if my food is sustainably grown for that particular meal. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve made choice number two plenty of times, but I’d prefer choice number one for both my food and my coffee.
My job would be much easier if I could just say “trust us, our coffee is sustainable.” At Counter Culture, however, we want to make it as easy as possible to make choice number one and I think that means giving consumers as much information about the coffee as we can. We’ve experimented with a few different ways of sharing this information over the years, so I’d like to talk a little about where you can find it now and what we’re planning for the future.
Last week, we published our 2014 Annual Report, which gives a snapshot into Counter Culture as a whole. The information in the report isn’t meant to be comprehensive or detailed, but as a way to get an idea of the big picture. We’ve also published a few reports, under different titles over the years, to supplement the annual report, including the Sustainability, Direct Trade, and Transparency Reports. The change of nomenclature has been a bit confusing but the general information has stayed the same—trying to describe where and who we buy coffee from and the nature of those relationships. The level of detail included in these reports has gradually increased and this trend will continue with the summer release of our 2014 Transparency Report, giving more information about more coffees than we ever have before. With the publication of the 2015 Transparency Report, we hope to provide information on every single coffee we bought in 2015. Although this arguably covers the coffee we buy, I’m still thinking through how to best convey information about Counter Culture’s internal practices. I’ll be publishing our 2014 carbon footprint results in the next few weeks and I hope I can gradually add more metrics to this report for a more comprehensive look at our internal sustainability.
I love making graphs more than most, but I’ll admit that it’s challenging to convey all of this information in a digestible format. I’ll share the way I see these reports playing a role using the example of a new seasonal blend we released on Friday: Line Drawing. Line Drawing is so named because it blends coffees from two countries, Colombia and Kenya, where farmers have traditionally relied on chemical fertilizer inputs for coffee farming. In the case of the two coffees used for this blend, however, the communities are making big strides to produce and use more organic inputs—a great example of movement along the sustainability continuum. If we draw lines in the sand like defining sustainability through organic certification only, we’re creating a false dichotomy that doesn’t support these incremental successes. I hope folks see Line Drawing on our offering list and go to the product page to read about the coffee in more detail. I hope they then ask themselves why they should trust Counter Culture on how sustainable this coffee is, leading them to dig into our Annual Report, Transparency Report, Carbon Footprint Report, etc. to decide for themselves whether that trust is justified.
High-quality coffee grows in pretty specific conditions. It needs heat during the day, cool evenings, and predictable rainfall to trigger the coffee trees to flower and produce fruit that ripens at the ideal rate. Coffee beans are the seeds of this fruit, and their flavor is highly dependent upon the right combination of these attributes. Often, these ideal conditions occur high on the slopes of mountains, generally above 1,400 meters.
Even very small changes in temperature and precipitation patterns can have a dramatic effect on the viability of coffee trees. For example, a few degree increase in temperature can raise the ideal altitude at which coffee can be grown on a particular mountain. With a temperature increase, a farmer who previously grew coffee at 1,400 meters might have to move further up the mountain—if a higher altitude exists—where that farmer may not own land or already have coffee trees planted.
In 2013, Counter Culture partnered with a group of students from the Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke University to form a partnership around studying climate change impacts and adaptations for coffee farmers. In the summer of 2014, the students from this group went to three co-ops we work with: CODECH in Guatemala, ASORGANICA in Colombia, and CENFROCAFE in Peru. Using various methods to gather input from farmers, co-op leaders, technical experts, and government leaders, the students researched both the effects of climate change on coffee producers and their resiliency strategies. From the data they gathered, the students made specific recommendations of adaptation strategies to each co-op. For year two of the study, a new group of students will hone in on some of the best recommendations and spend two months on the ground with the co-ops doing feasibility studies.
We’ve really appreciated the alternative perspective and expertise of the students, and we’re looking forward to learning how we can best support these co-ops as they adapt to changing climatic conditions.
As I mentioned in the post about our internal sustainability operations, we’ve measured and offset our company’s greenhouse gas footprint since 2010, but I’m especially proud of the purchase we recently made for our 2012 and 2013 emissions. Not only are these offsets independently verified, they also directly benefit coffee farmers—two things we hadn’t been able to achieve in tandem in past years.
Through Cooperativa AMBIO, we purchased enough trees to offset 1,341 tonnes of CO2. The credit to grow these trees will be allocated to coffee farmers in the buffer zone of the Selva El Ocote Biosphere reserve, in Chiapas, Mexico. Not only will this help maintain a biodiversity hotspot, it also provides these farmers with source of income in addition to coffee. According to our contact at Cooperativa AMBIO, our purchase will affect an area roughly the size of 14 soccer fields and directly impact 6 coffee-growing families.
Beyond purchasing high-quality offsets, the next step is to reduce the amount of energy we use and the need to purchase offsets. While we’re on that journey, though, we’re committed to supporting great projects.