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Aida Batlle's farms in Santa Ana, El Savlador, include Finca Mauritania, Finca Kilimanjaro, and Finca Los Alpes. Photo by Kim Elena Bullock. I arrived in El Salvador two weeks ago on the first day of the coffee harvest at Finca Mauritania! It was purely coincidental, of course, but I like the correlation because it reinforces the feeling that we have gotten the year off to an auspicious beginning. Speaking of beginnings, this trip was my first to El Salvador and to the venerable Finca Mauritania, if you can believe it. I met Aida Batlle on her first trip to visit Counter Culture in 2004, only a few months after I joined the company, and since that time Counter Culture's relationship with Aida has become a model for relationships we have constructed elsewhere in the world. Various Counter Culture Coffee employees and customers have visited Aida's farms over the years to learn about the work that goes into producing her extraordinary coffee, so I headed to El Salvador with high expectations. Thankfully, I was not disappointed.

Our first order of business was to visit Aida's farms. We stopped by Finca Kilimanjaro and Finca Los Alpes before making our way to Finca Mauritania, where we arrived just as the pickers congregated to weigh and sort the day's coffee harvest. As I crouched to take photographs of the pile of beautiful, ripe coffee cherries, it occurred to me that I felt like I already knew the farm manager, Adonai, and his wife. I have seen countless photos of the perfectly-picked cherries at Finca Mauritania, and I have shown these photos to other coffee producers from around the world, only to watch them gape with disbelief: they can't believe that anyone would invest the effort in picking such uniformly ripe coffee! I hate to echo other trip reports, but it bears repeating that Aida's dedication to quality and perfectionism is unsurpassed (and maybe unsurpassable).

The harvest had just begun in early December when Kim Elena made her first-ever visit to the farms of Aida Batlle in Santa Ana, El Savlador. Photo by Kim Elena Bullock.Different versions of coffee perfectionism were on view at two other farms we visited in other parts of Santa Ana: first, on a farm owned by Alejandro Duarte, we saw a plot of "BLC," or Bourbon Low Caffeine, planted for the famous Illy company. The experimental variety was technically a secret until about a year ago, and if you're wondering whether I got to taste it, the answer is no: this coffee is Illy's property through and through, and, in fact, if the company decides to pull out of the experiment, the producer must destroy the plants! The second version of coffee perfectionism was yet another experiment unlike any I have seen in coffee, this time in grafting: at a lower-altitude farm owned by the J. Hill Company (which owns the mill where Aida processes her coffees) they are experimenting with grafts of Bourbon-type coffea Arabica plants onto coffea Canephora, or Robusta, roots, in hopes of improving the Bourbon's drought and disease resistance. Again, I can't make any judgments on cup quality, but I felt lucky to get a sneak peak at these experiments.

Aida Batlle's dedication to quality and perfectionism is unsurpassed. Photo by Kim Elena Bullock.But back to Aida's coffee! This year's crop of Finca Mauritania will be the seventh that Counter Culture purchases from Aida, and each year we work together to broaden the scope of our coffee experiments and to deepen our commitment to one another. This year, Aida and I picked December for a visit because the coffee harvest is not yet in full swing, and we have an unusual new coffee-related project to work on: carbon.

About six months ago, after conversations here at Counter Culture and with Meredith Taylor of Washington, DC's Peregrine Espresso (who had just begun a long-distance, sustainability-focused internship with Counter Culture), I approached Aida with a proposal to calculate the seed-to-cup carbon footprint of Finca Mauritania's coffee and to plant trees that would sequester the carbon produced at each step in the chain. Though I couldn't give her many details—at that point, I hardly even knew what I was asking for—Aida good-naturedly agreed to let us make Finca Mauritania the carbon guinea pig and to help me however she could. Meredith and I spent months learning about carbon, researching carbon calculators, testing carbon calculators, talking to carbon auditing organizations, and following just about every lead you can imagine that has the word “carbon” in it, before creating a worksheet of our own to quantify the energy used at each step in the creation and preparation of Finca Mauritania's coffee, right up to the brewing. From gallons of diesel to therms of natural gas to kilowatt hours of electricity, I haven't done this much math since high school! As we neared completion of the energy-consumption puzzle, we realized that the most challenging information to obtain was that information coming from our supply-chain partners at origin.

Beneficio Las Tres Puertas is the mill to which Aida brings Finca Mauritania's coffee for processing. Photo by Kim Elena Bullock.Beneficio Las Tres Puertas is the mill to which Aida brings Finca Mauritania's coffee for processing—that is, everything from removing the skin of the cherry to drying, sorting and bagging the coffee for export. Understanding their operation is crucial, both from the perspective of cup quality and from the carbon-footprint perspective. The mill manager, Mario Mendoza, walked us through the ecological features of the mill, including a wastewater treatment system more extensive than any I have ever seen and a unique energy generator that burns the skins of coffee cherries for fuel. It is always important to Counter Culture to meet and build trust with everyone in the supply chain, since transparency is one of the criteria for Counter Culture Direct Trade and our model relationships. This trust becomes all the more important when you're asking for something out of the ordinary, which is exactly what I was there to do: we needed to know how much energy was used to wash, dry, and prepare Finca Mauritania's coffee for export in order to calculate the total pounds of CO2 generated in that process, and Mario was eager to assist us.

Aida Batlle, owner-operator of Finca Mauritania, stands out as one of coffee’s most innovative and passionate individuals, and coffee lovers in the U.S. have celebrated her dedication to growing the heirloom Bourbon coffee variety since Counter Culture began working with her in 2004. Photo by Kim Elena Bullock. Interestingly, I have found that when I tell most people about the carbon-counting project that Counter Culture, Peregrine, and Aida are undertaking together, they are really excited to hear about it and happy to get involved. When it comes to calculating a year's worth of data for the electricity used in one of our training centers or the total gallons of fuel used in transporting the coffee from El Salvador to New Jersey, sometimes the process gets a bit stickier! I keep reminding myself—and telling all of the many supply-chain participants who do the legwork of finding the information I ask for—that when we do finally fill in the blanks, find the total carbon footprint of this coffee from seed to cup, and then plant trees to sequester the carbon we collectively produce, then we will, as a group, have made an inspiring step in the direction of real sustainability. And this group includes everyone at Counter Culture Coffee. The number of miles driven and flown by Counter Culture employees contributes directly to the footprint calculations, while energy-conservation behaviors can help reduce that footprint. It is all connected.

Likewise, we are all participants! Everyone who has had a cup of one of Finca Mauritania's coffees—including Pulp Natural, Pasa, Espresso—has already become involved in this project, and that, to me, is amazing. I raise a cup of Aida's Grand Reserve to all of us in recognition of the dedication, trust and support that makes such amazing things possible!

Kim Elena

Straight away after my trip to Ethiopia, I boarded another plane bound for Guatemala. The timing couldn't have been better – Guatemala is just beginning their harvest season, so enthusiasm was running high. In addition, I arrived on the first of November, which is Dia de los Muertos or “Day of the Dead” in Guatemala. A national holiday where people honor their friends and relatives who have passed away, Guatemalans observe Dia de los Muertos by having graveyard picnics and flying special, traditional kites which symbolize the spirits of loved ones ascending to heaven. It's a beautiful thing, descended from Mayan tradition and rife with pre-Colombian symbolism and spectacle.

I met Jorge Recinosn of Finca Nueva Armenia in Guatemala City, and we began the long drive north to the Huehuetenango region, where Finca Nueva Armenia is located. As we drove, we passed the many small, traditional villages of the Guatemalan countryside, each flying dozens of kites from their jungled hilltops. It was a sight to behold. Southern Guatemala is mountain country, and the Sierra Madre range which covers this area is dramatic and beautiful. Giant volcanoes tower over steep canyons and ravines, and the high mountaintops are home to some of the best coffees in the world.

We arrived at the farm at nightfall, and dark clouds were moving through the canyons, concealing the mountaintops where the coffee is planted. It's a funny feeling to be in the mountains when they are this cloudy – although you can't see them, you can feel the mountaintops looming above you. We went to sleep to the roar of torrential rain on tin rooftops. The next morning, the clouds literally parted, and Jorge and I set out to walk the farm.

Finca Nueva Armenia is a really special farm, for many good reasons. First of all, as any observant coffee drinker already knows, the coffee produced here is delicious and irreplaceable. But visiting the farm, I was reminded of the reality that Finca Nueva Armenia is as much a forest as it is an organic farm; in fact, the farm was declared a “Forest Preserve” by the government of Guatemala! Not content to simply leave things as they are, the Recinos family seeks to actually improve the environment of their farm, and this year embarked upon a reforestation effort to help the spread of native trees throughout their farm. Since tree-planting is such a powerful tool in offsetting carbon use and fighting global climate change, we recognized that this project was an awesome opportunity to support the local environment in Huehuetenango and, at the same time, have a positive effect on the global environment. We've made that the “good work” behind this year's Holiday Blend, and $1.00 from the sale of each pound of 2009 Holiday Blend will go to support this small-scale reforestation project. To the left is a little video of the nursery in action.

So, first on my list when visiting the farm was to see how preparations for the tree-planting were going! In short, the folks at Finca Nueva Armenia have worked all year to prepare 7,500 seedlings for planting on local mountains. Native plants of all kinds will be spread around the farm, including native trees, flowers, and vines. Once planted, these trees will offset around 375,000 pounds of carbon per year every year for their entire lifetimes! It's an amazingly powerful thing. The seedlings themselves are impressive, lined up and ready for planting over the next few months. Jorge then gave me a tour of the forest, showing me what each tree would look like when grown into an adult. My favorite, of course, was the tree that graces the holiday blend label – the native Guatemalan avocado, which towers above the farm and produces food for birds and other wildlife.

But it wasn't all tree talk. The farm is geographically spectacular, as well – it's planted on a soaring mountainside. The best coffees come from the very top ridge of the farm, and it was there we hiked. Along the way, we walked past a number of the pure-water springs that dot the property, and marveled at the view of the Huehuetenango region that one gets from the top area of the farm. This area is home to the Bourbon Rojo and Typica varieties which help make this coffee so deliciously round and fruity. In addition, the processing at the farm – at their 50 year old washing station – is like going back in time. The Recinos family processes their coffee using techniques unchanged for a hundred years and are slow-fermenting and spring-water washing in the most traditional, handcrafted manner possible.

Towards the end of my visit to the farm, Jorge and I shook hands on next year's purchase, thereby ensuring that we all get to drink this fantastic coffee next year, too. I leave you with another little video, this one, from the top of Finca Nueva Armenia, where the best coffee is from.


Hello, Everyone!

The people of the mountains of the Southern Region of Ethiopia were known to the ancients as 'the people who live in baskets' after the beautiful basketlike huts which line the roads and farms. Photo by Peter Giuliano. Well, I promised another update. As I mentioned before, part 2 of this trip to Ethiopia was exploring the Southern Region of Ethiopia, and the coffee regions of Sidama and the most famous little coffee town in the world, Yirgacheffe.

It’s a long trip from Addis to the mountains of the Southern Region, but making this trip has always felt like a trip to Mecca for me. The landscape is heartbreakingly beautiful, and as the car climbed from Lake Awasa into the mountains of Sidama, I began to feel giddy and excited. Here is the ancient homeland of coffee, where ancient Ethiopians discovered the marvelous coffee bush and its sweet cherries, where they first dried and roasted the coffee seeds, and where the first dark, intoxicatingly fragrant cups of coffee were first shared among friends and family. Everyone in this country drinks coffee every day, and the fragrance of coffee rides along the breezes, along with the ever-present smell of fresh grass, rain, and flowers. The people of this region were known to the ancients as “the people who live in baskets” after the beautiful basketlike huts which line the roads and farms of these hills.

I was on a mission to get to as many villages and coffee mills as I could and talk to as many farmers and mill managers as possible about the upcoming harvest and the changes in the Ethiopian coffee industry over the past year. I’ve lost track of the order by now, but I wound up visiting Bagersh’s Michile, Idido, Biloya, and Fischa Genet mills; Salomon Worka’s Wendo and Koke mills; Ambessa’s Kochere mill; and a couple of smaller Akrabi-owned mills in Sidama and Yirgacheffe. The harvest is just getting underway in the Southern region, and farmers are bringing their first baskets of coffee to the mills. It’s an exciting time, especially because the trees are loaded with fruit—this season appears to be producing a bumper crop, and farmers are celebrating. Women at the drying tables sing as they sort the coffee under the sun, men chant work songs as they use their wooden rakes to wash the coffee beans of their sticky mucilage. In any agricultural community, harvest time is a celebration, and Yirgacheffe is no different. Here are a couple of videos of washing and drying taking place right now at the Idido mill in Yirgacheffe (shown above), and the Michile mill in Sidama.

I was also able to spend time with farmers, learning about coffee varieties, local coffee prices, and their thoughts about quality in coffee. I was able to thank the farmers in the town of Aricha surrounding the Idido mill for producing some of my favorite coffees of all time. In turn, I learned about the Kurume, Dega, and Wolisho varieties, which without question are a huge part of the magnificent flavor of the Idido Royal Washed and Misty Valley Sundried coffees. Which brings up the million dollar question: will Biloya, Wondo, and Idido—now famous producers of incredible-quality coffees—be able to direct-export coffee this year? Well, the answer is complicated. The good news is, they are all producing great quality coffees already, which will be tendered to the Ethiopian Commodity Exchange. And, since the Exchange has established new qualifications for its grades 1 and 2, with extra quality analysis and geographical indication, it is clear that there will be some extraordinary lots coming through the Exchange.

Coffee farmer Gebede Bare at the Idido mill, with whom Peter met to begin building a relationship with the hopes of eventually developing a direct trade buying opportunity. Photo by Peter Giuliano. At the same time, there exist the very beginnings of a new way of trade in Ethiopian coffee. Our negotiations at the national level created an opportunity for direct negotiations with farmers, supported by millers like Bagersh and Worka. I know it sounds intuitive, but it is actually a big step for Ethiopia, where true Direct Trade with farmers has never really been done. I was able to sit down with coffee farmer Gebede Bare at the Idido mill, and start the trust-building process that sets the stage for purchasing his coffee directly. It’s a new dawn for farmers like Gebede, who have never even thought of selling their produce directly to a roaster—they were always able to sell their coffee locally to a co-op or mill, and that was that. So, in the end, the challenges of the new system can wind up bringing buyer and farmer still closer, which is something we love. I left my business card with Gebede, and we shook hands, promising to figure this whole thing out. I popped a coffee cherry into my mouth, and tasted the effervescent sweetness of Idido coffee, fresh off the tree. We’ll be tasting this again soon.

Hello from Ethiopia!

Dr. Eleni Gebre-Medhin. Photo by Peter Giuliano. Well, I’ve been in Ethiopia for about a week now, and haven’t written any reports yet. The reason is, I’ve been super busy! Let me tell you all about it.

I’m here wearing two hats: my first is as Vice President of the Specialty Coffee Association of America. Here’s the story: Last year, the country of Ethiopia made some dramatic changes in the way they manage their national coffee sector. Coffee is both culturally and economically important to Ethiopia—coffee’s birthplace is in Ethiopia, and every Ethiopian regards coffee as part of their national heritage. In addition, coffee exports are by far the largest source of income for the country. So, when the Prime Minister decided to engage in a program of market reform in the Ethiopian coffee sector, it was a big deal. Enter Dr. Eleni Gebre-Medhin, an incredibly charismatic and insightful woman who has made market reform in Ethiopia her life’s work, from her studies at Cornell and Stanford to her career at the World Bank. Dr. Eleni, as she is known in Ethiopia, was given the task of adapting her innovative model of an African-created commodity exchange—developed to improve markets all over Africa—to the Ethiopian coffee industry. This was a monumental and controversial task, and her genius and enthusiasm has made her a celebrity in Ethiopia and abroad—she was the subject of The Market Maker, a PBS documentary, and her work has become a touchstone for economic discussion and research worldwide.

Peter visited Ethiopia with a small delegation representing SCAA and its sister associations in Asia and Europe. Unfortunately, Dr. Eleni’s introduction of the new Ethiopia Commodity Exchange (ECX) was marred by controversy in the coffee world. The introduction of the ECX corresponded to the national government’s tightening of regulations in the coffee industry, which had grown lax over the past few years. The market reacted with suspicion and anger, since certain coffee projects (like our favorite Idido Misty Valley) now fell outside the system and would not be possible. This all began to emerge late last year, and as chair of the SCAA’s Symposium, I was able to add an emergency session to the schedule, where Dr. Eleni came in person to explain the changes to an upset coffee industry. It was a bit of a bloodletting, but what emerged was a working group between the ECX and the SCAA to try and adapt the new Ethiopian system to the needs of the Specialty Coffee marketplace. Sound complex? It is. Dr. Eleni, myself, and a small task force have been engaged since then in work to introduce enhanced quality, transparency, and traceability to the innovative Ethiopian coffee system.

An important coffee conference in Ethiopia would not be complete without coffee ceremonies.Last week, the ECX hosted a conference in Ethiopia to introduce and discuss this work with the Ethiopian coffee sector. About 150 Ethiopian coffee exporters, farmers, traders, and policymakers gathered in Addis for this important conference. I came with a small delegation representing SCAA and our sister associations in Asia and Europe. It was a huge deal here, the conference was constantly covered by national newspapers and television networks! We engaged in a busy four days of discussion and negotiation, and we achieved a lot! I am so proud to have taken part in this work, and I am especially proud that Counter Culture’s innovations in direct trade with coffee farmers had a profound effect on those who work in the coffee industry here, and our direct trade system helped provide some of the groundwork for ECX’s introduction of an innovative “Direct Specialty Trade” auction system where buyers like us will be able to purchase lots directly from farmers and farmer groups in an open, modern marketplace in Addis. Exciting!

The recent ECX conference was constantly covered by national newspapers and television networks. The work itself was thoroughly enjoyable, not least because an important coffee conference in Ethiopia would not be complete without coffee ceremonies. Just before the opening remarks, the main parties of the conference shared a coffee ceremony at the front of the auditorium, demonstrating our understanding and respect for the cultural importance of coffee here. The coffee ceremony never stopped for the next four days, and I could pop out of a policy-making session at any time to sit down for a cup of fragrant, sweet Ethiopian coffee. Awesome! In the end, we emerged with a very positive and concrete set of proposals to the Ethiopian government, which will be rolled out over the next few months. If you’re interested in the details, you can read ‘em here!

I spent the rest of my time in Addis learning more about the innovative ECX trading system, which takes coffee trading to a whole new level. It’s truly amazing. I also spent lots of time with the exporting community, including our old friend Abdullah Bagersh, and new friends from across the industry. It was great to talk shop and get the scoop on what is happening with this year’s harvest, which is just getting underway in the countryside.

Peter's final duty with the ECX was an 8-hour drive to the town of Dilla, where the ECX was inaugurating a new regional warehouse and quality laboratory. My final duty with the ECX was an 8-hour drive to the town of Dilla, where the ECX was inaugurating a new regional warehouse and quality laboratory. Dilla is in the south of the country, in the region known as Sidama, and we made the long trip through the dramatic and captivating rift valley by bus. We arrived to a major local event—the unveiling of this new system is a really exciting thing for the coffee community in places like Dilla. The media were in attendance again, as were local government officials, the Minister of Agriculture, and the local elders, the King and Prince of the Gedeo people, the primary ethnicity in this part of Sidama. We were welcomed effusively with dancing and speeches, and Eleni and I were given traditional Gedeo outfits by the elders to make it all official. Excellent! It was a great way to end what I’m sure will go down as a historic meeting in the modern history of the Ethiopian coffee trade. We then embarked on a series of visits and dinners to local traders, who all wanted to celebrate Dr. Eleni’s innovations and the new era of the Ethiopian coffee trade. Many lambs were slaughtered for the occasion, and we attended at least five huge feasts of injira bread, roasted lamb, and coffee ceremony. What an experience.

We all spent the night in beautiful huts in Yirga Alem, and the next day I embarked on the second part of my trip, this time wearing the hat of a coffee buyer, exploring Sidama, Yirga Chefe, and parts beyond. I’ll leave that story for the second part of my report. Until then, Bunafi naga hinabina. (May you never lack coffee or peace.)

I miss you all,

Next: the road to Yirgacheffe!

My love for Colombia is no secret, so it is with even more pleasure than usual that I write to all of you about my recent trip to visit the Orgánica association of Popayán, Colombia, from whom we purchase our La Golondrina coffee. This is the second year that we have purchased coffee exclusively from this group, and I set off with hopes of strengthening the relationship and understanding the issues facing the growers in the coming year.

One of Kim Elena’s favorite people in the wide world of coffee, Nelson Melo. Photo by Kim Elena Bullock.I met up with Giancarlo Ghiretti of Virmax, the exporter of La Golondrina, in Bogotá and together we headed south to Popayán, the beautiful colonial capital of the Cauca region. One of my favorite people in the wide world of coffee, Nelson Melo, picked us up from the airport and as soon as we had exchanged hugs, we began what would become five days of non-stop conversation: news from the growers, news from Counter Culture Coffee and our customers, and news of our families. We picked up his wife, Liliana, and their two children, and departed for the family’s farm, Las Acacias, which is located in the hills just outside the rapidly expanding city.

Nelson and Liliana consistently produce fantastic coffee, in addition to heading the organization of 142 families, and all of us—from Counter Culture Coffee and Virmax to the growers and even Nelson and Liliana themselves—are trying to learn the successes at Las Acacias. To that end, Virmax and Nelson agreed last year that Virmax would purchase land from Nelson in order to set up a model organic coffee farm on which they could test different coffee varietals and growing techniques. Seeds have sprouted, but it will be a few years before we taste any coffee from Virmax’s experiments. In the meantime, Virmax and Orgánica have another project progressing on the land: organic compost production.

Having proved that they can consistently produce great-tasting coffee, the biggest challenge that the growers of Orgánica face is the productivity of their small organic farms. This challenge results from the higher costs of organic compost application as well as the difficulty of creating adequate volumes of organic compost one one’s own farm to nurture the coffee plants every year.

In explaining the differences between organic fertilizers and conventional fertilizers, Giancarlo made a useful analogy between coffee plants and the human body, saying that applying chemical fertilizers to a plant is like taking a pill when you’re sick—not only does the pill include the drug compound to make you feel better, but it also has other compounds that help the body absorb the drug quickly. With chemical fertilizers, you see the coffee plant’s response to fertilization almost immediately. Unfortunately, these plants also go into withdrawal when they don’t receive fertilizer because the soil doesn’t hold onto the nutrients in the chemical fertilizer. Organic fertilizers, on the other hand, act slowly and plants respond to them slowly, but these fertilizers also build nutrients in the soil over time to make the whole ecosystem stronger.

Most of the growers of La Golondrina apply two pounds of organic compost to each coffee plant every year, which is about half of what they need, so Virmax and Orgánica want to make up the difference at an efficient, centralized worm-composting facility at Virmax’s farm. Orgánica will distribute the resulting compost to its members at a low price and use the money to fund their farmer-support activities (as well as further composting). From a sustainability perspective, this project is killer: helping a grower to increase the volume of coffee he produces will increase his income without increasing costs very much, as well as insuring healthy soil and long-term stability of the farm environment. We are excited at the progress that Virmax and Orgánica have made so far and excited to contribute directly to the costs of creating a distribution system for the compost in the months to come!

After a night at Nelson and Liliana’s farm, we jumped into a couple of days of farm visits in Timbio and Piendamó, small towns to the north and south, respectively, of Popayán where many of the La Golondrina farms are located. The generous farmers who hosted us served us delicious lunches (four in one day) and in our discussions of the environmental commitment of these growers, soil fertility came up time and time again, further reinforcing my enthusiasm for the compost project. We saw a lot of flowers on the coffee trees—which bodes well for next year’s harvest—and a good number of coffee berries maturing on the branches, as well.

Colombia is one of few countries in the coffee-producing world that has two harvests each year instead of one: in addition to the main crop, most farmers have a smaller, “fly” crop in the middle of their year. In the Cauca region, the primary harvest takes place between April and June, and the smaller harvest in November and December. In the past, we have purchased only from the primary harvest, but this year it looks as though we will have the opportunity to purchase La Golondrina fly crop coffee, as well. Are you thinking what I’m thinking? La Golondrina could be in season all year! I look forward to what this winter brings.

One of the highlights of my trip was getting to meet Manuel Melenje and Inés Borrero of Finca Villa María, who are the growers behind this year’s La Golondrina microlot. You heard it here first! Inés is a tiny, hilarious storyteller who recounted her life history to me within a few minutes of meeting me, and Manuel is equally friendly and engaged in pursuing quality on the land they work together. We have tasted coffee from Manuel and Inés in the past, but their coffee didn’t jump off the table until this year, so I had to ask, of course, whether they had changed anything about their process. Not really, Manuel said, they didn’t change anything except the fermentation, which they started to do, get this, underwater!

Manuel Melenje and Inés Borrero of Finca Villa María, the growers behind this year’s La Golondrina microlot, with Kim Elena Bullock.Underwater fermentation, though common practice in Kenya and increasingly in Rwanda and Burundi (following Kenya’s example) is almost unheard of in Latin America. Through the kind of cross-pollination of ideas that comes from coffee-driven people, Manuel and Inés heard about underwater fermentation from one of Virmax’s cuppers and decided to try it. Whether it made all the difference or not, we don’t know, but it’s an experiment worth repeating, both at Finca Villa María and on other farms!

The other highlight of the week was the all-grower meeting, if you can believe it (I mentioned previously that these meetings can be a bit boring). On the morning of the meeting, I awoke at 6 a.m. to the sounds of meringue music blaring from a "chivo," the colorful buses that serve as transportation around the Colombian countryside, and soon thereafter found myself squished between growers on my way to the event facility in Timbio that would host more than 70 of us for a day of discussion of the past year, the year to come, and, significantly, our costs of production.

Counter Culture Coffee set the goal of using a farm’s costs of production as a starting point for price negotiation. Photo by Kim Elena Bullock.Many of you will recall that Counter Culture Coffee has set the goal of using a farm’s costs of production as a starting point for price negotiation, and if you’ve looked at our Sustainability Scorecard this year, you’ll see that we’re making progress toward that goal but that more producers don’t know their costs than do know their costs. Nelson and Liliana are working hard to create a culture of tracking costs among the growers and they requested that Virmax and Counter Culture Coffee share our costs, as well. We happily complied, and this is a great example of our commitment to 100 percent transparency (which is also one of Counter Culture Direct Trade Certification’s tenets). Farmers want to know how the coffee that we purchase for $2.29/lb. ends up costing our customers $8.50/lb. to purchase and $2.00/cup in a shop, and unlike many buyers, we want to tell them! When our grower partners understand the costs of doing business and the investments we make in maintaining the quality of the coffee they grow, they can trust us and trust the relationship we’re building together. This meeting made me proud of the amazing supply chain that can comfortably talk about anything, answer each other’s questions and leave the meeting more committed to our collective success than ever.

I followed up the all-grower meeting with a meeting of the community leaders to strategize for the year ahead, then headed back to Bogotá. As I write this, this year’s lot of La Golondrina (as well as Manuel and Inés’s microlot) is on a boat bound for Counter Culture Coffee, and I can’t wait to share it when it arrives.

Kim Elena
As we all know from our Valle del Santuario bio, Peru is a large, rugged country, and the Northern region where the famed Valle is located is distant and remote. While I won't focus too much time extolling this fact, it is entirely true, and is an important factor to keep in mind while discussing this coffee. Peru is larger than all of Central America combined (stop and think about all of the coffee we receive from Central America), and estimates of potential coffee production in Peru have been made at as much as four times more than all of Central America combined. Peru is a rising factor in the world of coffee.
Days 1 and 2
After arriving in Lima at 11 p.m. on Sunday night, the folks in our group woke up early Monday and gathered at Café Verde, for coffee and introductions. Café Verde is a beautiful café owned by KC O'Keefe, our trip leader and relationship liaison with our Valle del Santuario group. KC is well known in the industry as the originator of the term "direct trade", and as the creator of The Transparency Contract, which he trademarked with the express goal of giving it away for free use.
The members of our group included Tim Chapdelaine of Café Imports, the company who imports Valle del Santuario for us, and seven other people from companies as large as Portland's Coffee Beans International (10,000,000 pounds per year) and as small as Arcata, California's Sacred Grounds (less than 100,000 pounds per year). We were a diverse group and we all really enjoyed getting to know one another.
The Cenfrocafe office in San Ignacio, Peru. Photo by Rich Futrell.
After breakfast, we all marched past KC's vintage 10 Kilo roaster up to his third floor cupping lab. We spent a couple of hours cupping coffees and discussing our scores using the Cup of Excellence cupping forms. This was to be the first of several sessions where we all explored the concept of cupping calibration, a very important key for delivering quality in the cup, year after year. Training cuppers and calibrating scoring was to play a very important part in our in-depth discussions and debates during this trip.
After lunch we took a two hour flight north to Chiclayo, where we met up with Elmer, the Sales Manager for Cenfrocafe, and piled into two trucks for a drive to Jaen. When we arrived at 11 p.m. the hotel had dinner waiting for us. Unfortunately, several members of our group had suffered from motion sickness during the dark 5 hour drive over twisting mountain roads, and we had a 7 a.m. wakeup call in the morning, so dinner was quiet, quick, and light.
Day 3
Up and out early, we all made the hour and a half journey by truck further north to San Ignacio, where we met at the Cenfrocafe Beneficio—the regional cooperative headquarters and receiving station for coffee. We met for an hour with the cooperative management, and were joined by a representative from a Belgian NGO who managed an office in San Ignacio and was working with Cenfrocafe on a development plan to build a centralized washing station in the very region where our Valle del Santuario coffee is grown.
This project came as a complete surprise to KC and we had a very spirited conversation about the potential merits and liabilities of such a project as he and I climbed back into a truck with Anne Costello of Café Imports for a very rough, and rainy, two hour ride to our ultimate destination of Alto Ihuamaca, one of the five communities involved in the production of our Valle del Santuario coffee.
A cinderblock meeting hall in Alta Ihuamaca where farmers and buyers discussed mutual industry concerns.  Photo by Rich Futrell.
Upon arrival at Alto Ihuamaca, we were greeted by the president of the association and led into the cinderblock building that was used for association meetings. I was very excited to meet these producers and had an opportunity to make a short speech to the 40 or so producers who made the trek in the rain to meet with us. I expressed gratitude on behalf of all of us at Counter Culture Coffee for the hard work and attention to detail that they have all put into producing this excellent coffee. I made sure to ask our two microlot producers—Yefri Pintado Huaman and Isidro Neira Garcia—to stand up and we all applauded them for such a fantastic job with their coffee. We also acknowledged Zacharias Neira Melendres, who produced last year's microlot. I presented the association president with several bags of roasted Valle del Santuario, T-shirts, and laminated copies of our coffee bio.
Along with KC, Anne, and I, our friend from the Belgian NGO made the trip to Alto Ihuamaca and gave a presentation to the farmers about his plans to build a washing station with the goal of producing "homogenously good" coffee. Unfortunately, he informed the producers, they would need to take out a loan to pay for the $300,000 project.
Lunch break in the mountains of northern Peru. Photo by Rich Futrell.
As you can imagine, a spirited debate ensued between KC, who is in favor of processing at the farm level, and the good doctor from Belgium. The farmers listened intensely. Ultimately, we opened up the meeting to questions and comments from the producers, and it was at this point that I realized that, while we love the warm fuzzies and good vibes of Transparency Contracts and fair and sustainable relationships, this is business, after all. The farmers were full of very organized statements, questions, and, indeed, challenges for us and—to my initial surprise—for me, in particular. As the purchaser of their coffee, they were very intent to let me know how hard they worked, and how they had no idea how their coffee would score, which made them anxious since the amount of money they made was directly tied to the quality in the cup. Initially intimidated, I quickly realized that I needed to let everyone know a few key points:
Covered, raised drying racks for coffee.  Photo by Rich Futrell.
1. All of the coffees were cupped blind by their cooperative representatives first (remember the previous statement about calibrating cuppers). We had no idea whose coffee we were cupping, so there could be no favoritism, and this was a fair process.
2. While we would like to pay everyone for AAA quality or microlot prices, we can only pay them as much as we can charge our customers. The better the coffee, the more we can charge our customers. The more we can charge our customers, the more we can pay our producers. It's as simple as that.
3. We recognize that they are taking a risk by putting time, effort, and money into producing their coffee, but we are also taking a risk by buying it. While we know it is good, we are still buying containers of their coffee based on the belief that our customers will also think it's good and they will buy it. Ultimately, we might be stuck with coffee that no one wants. All along the supply chain, we are all taking—and sharing –a risk.
Washing tanks in northern Peru. Photo by Rich Futrell.
The final point that we all agreed upon that helps me sleep at night is that if we don't buy their coffee based on a low score, then they belong to a Fair Trade Organic cooperative and they will get the Fair Trade base price, which is a fair price, though lower than our Direct Trade Certified base price. We are not leaving a farmer high and dry if their coffee scores an 80. It's not a feast or famine situation. As Tim Chapdelaine was fond of saying during this trip, "Every coffee has a home."
After two hours of conversation in our steamy cinder block building, the rain subsided and we all headed to lunch together, continuing our conversations with reassurances that we will find the best way together. After a very generous lunch of roasted guinea pig and beef tripe stew, we all headed to Zacharias's farm for a tour and, yes, more debate about the washing station.
Tired and muddy, we drove the three hours back to Jaen (stopping several times for one member of our team to get sick from the dark, twisting, rough roads); met up with the rest of our group at the hotel for a quick, late dinner; and crashed hard.
Day 4
Latte art at Cenfrocafe Cafe.  Photo by Rich Futrell.
Up early for a breakfast at the Cenfrocafe Café in Jaen, where baristas pour latte art and delicious ristretto shots of Peruvian Single-Origin Espresso. When the cooperative decided to open a café in Jaen to showcase their product, KC sent his baristas in from Lima to work with the new Cenfrocafe baristas for several days.
At the beneficio, we spent an hour witnessing and recording the coffee reception process from start to finish, and then we focused on cupping about 20 different coffees with the Cenfrocafe cupping staff, working on cupping calibration and feedback for their new staff members. This was hard work and gave me a new-found respect for our coffee department and all of the work they do with the hundreds (thousands?) of samples they cup per year.
Cupping calibration played a recurring an important role in Rich's trip to Peru. Photo by Rich Futrell.
After a lunch of ceviche with the Cenfrocafe staff, we all headed back to cupping lab to continue our calibration with a number of samples of "experimental" coffees—sun dried natural process and semi-washed coffees.
At the end of this day, I was exhausted and had serious palate fatigue.
Day 5
This was our last day together and was the grand finale—after breakfast, we all headed to the Cenfrocafe offices to sit down with the cooperative management and representatives from various coffee communities. Mike McKim of Cuvee Coffee, Tim Chapdelain of Café Imports, and Chris Wade of Coffee Beans International were all going to be signing Transparency Contracts today with their respective producer groups. Before the signing ceremonies, however, the cooperative management wanted us all to have an open conversation about the potential merits and liabilities of the washing station project that had been such a hot topic over the past few days.
Semi-washed coffee beans. Photo by Rich Futrell.
The main concerns KC and Tim expressed were:
  • The elimination or reduction of lot separation
  • The overall reduction of quality of the coffee from blending lots of various qualities
  • Quality issues resulting from transporting cherry long distances and delays in transport due to road wash-outs and poor weather
  • Debt burden taken on by the cooperative and producers
  • Management of washing station (using current issues in Rwanda as an example)
We also talked about the ongoing program that Cenfrocafe has taken on whereby they have chosen 120 young people to begin a training program as cuppers. The goal is to end up with 40 trained, qualified, and certified cuppers who will act as a quality control extension from our cupping lab in Durham (and other roasters' cupping labs), to Tim's cupping lab in Portland, to KC's cupping lab in Lima, to the Cenfrocafe cupping lab,s and out into the various producer communities. This is where the focus on calibration that I've been talking about comes into play—the idea is to have everyone calibrated so that we can have a continual filter from as close to the source of the coffee as possible.
Machu Picchu! Photo by Rich Futrell.
KC's main issue with the washing station has to do with the large price tag. A fully-stocked cupping lab in Peru cost's $3,000. For the price of one washing station, 100 cupping labs can be built around the country and, in his opinion, this would have a greater impact on ultimate cup quality.
After these five exhausting days of talk, trave,l and cupping, I flew to Cusco for a few days of rest and contemplation. Peru is a big, rugged, beautiful, and complex place. I feel very fortunate to have been able to experience it first-hand.
Thank you!
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.