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In this post, I'd like to dive in to what I mentioned in the first post as a good indicator of a coffee's sustainability: certifications. Wouldn't it be great if there were a certification and corresponding label that could simply tell us whether a coffee is sustainable or not? The good news is that certifications related to sustainability do exist. The bad news is that no one certification covers all the aspects of environmental, social, and fiscal sustainability. The chart below is my attempt to make sense of the most common coffee certifications.

Environmental

  Rainforest Alliance Fair Trade Utz Bird Friendly Organic CCC Direct Trade 4C
Water Conservation Y   Y Y Y    
Soil Conservation       Y Y    
Integrated Pest Management       Y Y    
Ecosystem Conservation Y     Y Y    
Wildlife Protection Y     Y      
Waste Management Y            

Social

  Rainforest Alliance Fair Trade Utz Bird Friendly Organic CCC Direct Trade 4C
Community Relations Y            
Working Conditions Y Y Y        
Occupational Health Y Y          

Fiscal

  Rainforest Alliance Fair Trade Utz Bird Friendly Organic CCC Direct Trade 4C
Guaranteed Quality Premium           Y  
Guaranteed Price Premium   Y       Y  
Transparency           Y  

* Topic is addressed, but is either not required for certification or not measured/quantified.

I'll be the first to admit that this chart is a massive oversimplification, but I hope it illustrates my main point: No one certification indicates a sustainable coffee. While it's true that a coffee could theoretically get to "yes" in every category by obtaining multiple certifications, the reality is that certifications have costs. The supply of certified coffee is much greater than the demand, so producers aren't guaranteed a premium, even if they meet all of the criteria.

Individual drawbacks aside, certifications do offer benefits. Each of the certifications in the chart invokes a third party (i.e., not the buyer or the seller) to audit the operations of the farm, cooperative, or association of farmers seeking certification. This independent verification not only authenticates the operation, but also brings a level of scientific and technical expertise not possessed by most coffee buyers. Finally, though they may be imperfect, certifications allow consumers to compare the relative sustainability of products at a glance, which is extremely valuable.

In short, for Counter Culture, certifications are a good place to begin when assessing a coffee's sustainability. Visits to producers and cooperatives help fill in some of the gaps left by certifications, as does developing supply chain relationships—which can help to facilitate information sharing.

In the coming months, we'll be field testing an environmental scorecard from our friends at Root Capital that should help us to develop a more nuanced understanding of our understanding of sustainable coffee.

Up next: what it means to be a sustainable roaster.

Meredith


Click here to see this photo set on Flickr.

Our annual Origin Field lab trip is an opportunity for  Counter Culture wholesale customers to learn about coffee cultivation in an immersive environment. We host this lab, in part, because we recognize that the dedicated professionals preparing our coffees for the end consumer can reach people directly with the knowledge and information they get from the experience.

The 2015 Origin Field lab included two Counter Intelligence instructors, two Counter Culture staffers, two Culinary Institute of America folks, and a handful of awesome coffee people from Counter Culture accounts Little Skips, Midtown Scholar Bookstore, Peregrine Espresso, Rex NYC, and Washington, DC's Tryst.

The lab addressed the complexities of coffee farming in general—and, in particular, in Honduras—and with on-site experiences from farm to port.

Our group was lucky enough to spend the better part of a week with Moisés Herrera and Marysabel Caballero of Finca el Puente in Marcala, Honduras. Moisés and Marysabel welcomed us into their home, nursed one of us back to health, fed us (over + over again), and, often, helped to make certain that our group had what we needed and got where we needed to go. Huge thanks to both of them!

We were also fortunate enough to learn from coffee farmers, co-op representatives, exporters, port operators, and so on.
Sam Lewontin and Lem Butler won their respective regional barista competitions (Northeast and Southeast) at the 2015 Big Eastern Coffee Competitions in Durham, NC!Congratulations to Jenny Bonchak of Slingshot Coffee Company in Raleigh for a second place finish in the 2015 US Brewers Cup!

And congratulations to Sam Lewontin from Everyman Espresso in New York for his fourth place finish in the 2015 US Barista Championship!

Dozens of hard-working, super-talented coffee professionals from around the country competed this weekend. We're especially proud of the folks who chose to compete with our coffees: our very own Lem Butler; Carlos Morales from New York's Third Rail Coffee; Jack Snyder of Northside Social in Arlington, VA; Erika Vonie of Everyman Espresso; and independent barista Anna Utevsky.

Huge thanks to the Specialty Coffee Association of America and the Barista Guild of America for making the US Coffee Championships possible. Thanks to the sponsors. hosts, emcees, live feed commentary team, technical teams, judges, and volunteers. And thanks to the the whole Sprudge and Sprudge Live teams for their excellent coverage, as well.

 

 

Lem Butler competing in the 2015 Southeast Regional Barista Competition—which he won (for the fifth time)!In November, our very own Lem Butler won his fifth Southeast Regional Barista Championship at the Big Eastern regional coffee competitions in our home town of Durham, NC. An incredibly experienced—and inspiring!—competitor, Lem gets  a first-round bye at the US Barista Championships (USBC).

1. Why do you compete?

When I first saw a barista competition, I had no idea what went into the preparation, I just wanted to do it because it looked amazing. I wanted to be a part of the specialness of sharing coffee with coffee professionals. The more I compete, the more I feel connected to the industry as a coffee professional. Sharing a stage with some of the best baristas in the country is an impressive feeling, but when it comes down to it, I find myself reconnecting with that neophyte who wanted to compete to share coffee and ideas for the unadulterated fun of it.

2. How much work goes into it?

Preparing for competition is one of the highlights of competing. I enjoy tasting through coffees to find one that appeals to that reason for competing. I often think as I taste a coffee, "Is this something that folks can get excited about?" but more importantly is this a coffee that I can get excited about? Coffee selection can be quick or a longer process.

Sometimes working on technical aspects of the competition for weeks is all I can do while waiting for a coffee to arrive in the country—which can be a gamble because the coffee might not be "the one."

Lem Butler preparing his signature beverage for the judges at the 2015 Southeast Regional Barista Competition.Signature beverage development is another time-consuming facet of preparation. There is a lot of thought and experimentation I find to be frustrating because of the 85% fail rate for most of my creations, but, when something starts to function, the reward is prodigious. Regardless, there still has to be enough time for full run-throughs, and, for me, this is the most important use of time during preparation. I try to allocate two weeks of full run-throughs; a constant barrage of repetitive drills helps fashion a smoother, more fluid presentation.

3. What coffees are you using at the US Coffee Championships?

For the 2015 USBC, I am using a peaberry lot from the same Kenyan co-op that I used in the 2015 SERBC [Thiriku]. I am using the peaberry lot for the espresso round and the signature beverage round. I will use a blend of the AA and AB lots of the same co-op for the cappuccino round.

4. You taught a barista competition workshop in the past. Who do you learn from? Who inspires you?

I had very little help when I first competed, but there was assistance if I looked. I just didn't know how or where until I found that help at Counter Culture Coffee. [Note: Lem started competing before joining Team Durham at Counter Culture.]

With better preparation and understanding of how the competition worked, I improved to a winning level. Later, I wanted to make sure there was enough information—enough assistance—for baristas who were interested in competing, so I created a class to do just that ... to give back what I was taught. I am always willing to help new competitors prepare for competition, I feel more connected to the industry the more I put into the industry.

I have my mentors, and I have my inspiration. It's the inspiration that keeps me rolling, and mentors who keep me from rolling out of control. I am inspired by the two innovators of our industry: the coffee roasters and the coffee farmers.

Lem Butler with his son, Emerson, at the 2015 Big Eastern coffee competitions.5. What is the biggest challenge in competing?

The biggest challenge in competing, for me, is winning. There are so many skilled baristas, so many amazing roasters, and so much beautiful coffee; how can there be only one winner? Did I outshine my colleagues in the SERBC? No. Will I outshine anyone in the USBC? No. We all just do our best, and the scores determine the rest, but we all go home the same skilled baristas with the same amazing roasters still excited about that beautiful coffee from out there.

Bonus question: Do you get nervous when competing?

I'm nervous right now. Anyone who says they are not nervous, is lying or has no heart.

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Tasting @ Ten – Three Year-Round CoffeesThis week, we'll familiarize ourselves with the current versions of three of our year-round products: Big Trouble, Fast Forward, and Slow Motion.

Style of Tasting:
Freestyle! Cup them, pourover compare them, or choose three different brewing methods to emphasize different flavors. It’s your choice.

Notes on the Coffees: 
With a menu that changes as often as ours does, it is easy to get so caught up in tasting new things that we forget to check in on our year-round friends. Although their names remain the same, the ingredients change with the seasons, and fans will notice subtle shifts in flavor as coffees come and go.

Big Trouble's goal in life is to taste sweet and nutty, and right now we achieve that with a 70/30 percent blend of coffees from CENCOIC in Colombia and the exciting new Lacau from East Timor. CENCOIC is a cooperative of indigenous farmers in Cauca, and we tentatively committed to buying their coffee this year before we had tasted it because we believe they have potential to be a good supplier for us over the long term. Happily for all of us, the coffee turned out to be good, and now we have a platform for working together in the future! All of our year-round coffees provide a staging ground for new coffees and relationships, but Big Trouble is especially good in this respect because the roast level is slightly darker than a few of the others.

Fast Forward is one of those lighter-roasted contemporaries of Big Trouble, and its components tend to be higher-quality coffees and to represent more advanced relationships. As of a few weeks ago, Fast Forward is made of coffee from the inimitable Cenfrocafe cooperative in Peru—in this case, one of their lots that represents many communities, as opposed to the specific micro-regions of Valle del Santuario or Huabal—blended with 10 percent of coffee from the Hama washing station in Yirgacheffe, Ethiopia.

Whenever decaffeinated coffees grace our Friday tasting tables, my instinct is to talk about and taste them last, which might be perceived as an insult to both these coffees and to the die-hard decaf drinkers who love them. Given that, put Slow Motion toward the front of the lineup today, will you? Our only year-round decaf coffee is the flavor counterpart of Fast Forward (the name is a clue), and right now they are a near-perfect match, as Slow Motion comes entirely from the same Cenfrocafe cooperative of Peru mentioned above.

Kim Elena
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Tasting @ Ten – Three from Nariño, Colombia!This week’s tasting offers a us tour of Nariño, Colombia, which is arguably the coffee giant’s best region for the production of high-quality coffee, in three coffees: La Florida, Rosales, and Jorge Avilio Cabrera.

Style of Tasting:
Set up a cupping of the three coffees and brew the favorite (or the Cabrera, if you want to make the call as to what is going to be most worthy of extra attention) as a pourover.

Notes on the Coffees: 
On my first trip to Colombia in 2007, I participated in a cupping event that included coffees from a variety of regions: Cauca, Tolima, Huila, and Nariño. (As an aside, my favorite was actually from the farm of Nelson Melo!) All of the coffees were delicious, and, while the Colombian coffee experts and experienced cuppers agreed that every one of the four regions had fantastic growing conditions, over and over again, I heard that Nariño had amazing potential. In the same breath, however, they’d comment that it was "difficult," or even "too difficult" to work in the southernmost region of Nariño because large buyers—Nespresso chief among them—dominated the region. Though the price premiums Nespresso offered weren’t as high as what a buyer like Counter Culture could offer, the volume they could commit to buying and their existing relationships made it seem, for years, like working in the region would be paddling upstream, at best, and at worst, a total waste of time.

Our perspective on Nariño changed in 2012 when buyer Tim Hill joined the advisory board of Catholic Relief Services’ (CRS) Borderlands project. The project’s mandate includes accessing and developing markets for coffee growers who want to differentiate their product from the standard stuff leaving the region, and, as Tim began to visit particular communities and meet individual farmers, it quickly became clear that what was true of the region on a macro scale didn’t apply to every farmer, and that, in fact, many farmers were eager to explore opportunities afforded by differentiation even if it meant a lot of extra work.

Over the three years of the project, we’ve tasted hundreds of coffees (some of them more than a dozen times) and, with help and guidance from Borderlands staff, we identified the community of La Florida for purchasing. For a description of the coffee and its significance, I'm going to direct you all to this post by Michael Sheridan, the director of the Borderlands project, who is an extraordinary thinker and writer working at the intersection of development and coffee.

In addition to investigating coffee varieties and linking coffee producers with buyers, the Borderlands project has devoted a lot of time and resources to separating coffees from individual farmers. The lot we have from Jorge Avilio Cabrera is one of those standouts that not only gives Counter Culture a chance to showcase the best-tasting coffees from within a community or cooperative we work with, but also gives us the opportunity to deliver a tangible reward to farmers as a demonstration of the potential of our market.

As much as we have learned from and benefited from international development projects in coffee-producing countries around the world, it also can be risky for a business like ours to invest in coffee supply chains built by aid money, because the money and organizations that create the linkages do ultimately disappear. Unfortunately, all too often, farmers and cooperatives don't have a firm enough foundation to continue without international aid. No one wants that outcome, of course, and one way in which Borderlands is working to secure the future of these supply chains beyond the timeframe of the project is by engaging buyers of diverse sizes from abroad and exporters working in Colombia, as well. Virmax, an exporter with whom we work regularly, also has a seat on the project's advisory board and, as they’ve gotten more involved in the region, they've begun building supply chains separate of the project.

Our last coffee, Rosales, comes from a community that CRS is engaged with, but as opposed to going through the same management process as the coffees from La Florida, this coffee took a more traditional route. This year, Rosales is not as refined as La Florida’s coffee, but it’s got the same potential when it comes to coffee geography, climate and varieties, and it’s also a coffee supply chain that exists independent of external funding.

Enjoy today’s dive into Nariño and if you can’t fit everything you want to say into your tasting this week, rest assured that we’ll be getting to know many more coffees from these farms and communities in the future.

Kim Elena

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Hello, East Timor!

After an eight-year hiatus, Counter Culture is bringing coffee from the tiny island nation of East Timor back to our offering list and this week we’ll taste the fantastic specimens we’ve chosen to purchase from the communities of Huapu and Lacau.

Notes on the Coffees

Had you asked us a year ago to describe coffee from East Timor, the answer would probably have begun with vague references to muted acidity and heavy body and ended with the caveat that we haven’t tasted much coffee from the island since Counter Culture stopped buying what long-time customers of ours might remember as Maubesse in 2006. Back then, it was an alternative to Sumatran coffee—the two islands are close geographically and until East Timor’s independence in 2001, they belonged to the same country, Indonesia. Though Sumatra was by far our best-selling single-origin coffee, we never developed much of a market for coffees from East Timor and, eventually, lackluster sales combined with inconsistencies in quality, complex logistics, and distance, led us to stop buying the coffee.

Eight years later, we are happy to re-introduce East Timor to our list of origins in a completely different context: this coffee won’t compete with Sumatra because we don’t currently source coffee from Sumatra, and while the body is still creamy, its undeniable acidity and stone-fruit flavors couldn’t be further from the flat, muted character of the olden days. It comes from smallholder farmers who grow coffee organically between 1,350 and 1,800 meters, which is higher elevation than most island coffees and undoubtedly contributes to the coffee’s tangy brightness. Despite the fact that the infamous Timor variety—the spontaneous hybrid of arabica and canephora coffee species—originates on this island, the farmers in Letefoho grow primarily typica coffee plants, so you should not expect to find the vegetal or woody flavors of the catimor, castillo, lempira or IHCAFE 90 types that we have sampled in our varieties tastings over the past few years.

Never has a representative of Counter Culture visited the country, and compared to other islands in the region like Sumatra and Sulawesi, it hasn’t gotten a lot of attention from quality-focused buyers in the North American coffee industry (when was the last time you read a trip report from East Timor?). We found Huapu and Lacau through the same Hong-Kong-based company, MTC Group, that introduced us our now-beloved coffees from Baroida and Tairora. MTC has built its business by sourcing coffees from the Pacific, including Australia’s few coffee farms, and we feel extremely fortunate to have access to these coffees (and as an aside, if you’re interested in learning more about East Timor from the perspective of MTC, this excellent trip report overfloweth with history and photos).

We bought a container of coffee from these producers this year and would have bought more but for the fact that they’ve never sold it to the United States before and their organic certificate is for the Japanese market, not ours. Next year we’ll be able to sell it as certified organic, which will allow us to buy more of it and use it in more products, and we can’t wait to continue developing this potential.

Rollout Dates and Availability

Both Lacau and Huapu roll out on Friday, and assuming they hold their flavors, they should be available for purchase through the middle of March.

-Kim Elena

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

Kudos to the Colbrans

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

Style of Tasting

Brew Two

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

Notes on the Coffees

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

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

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

Rollout Dates and Availability

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


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