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A cityscape of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, where our head roaster, Tim Hill, attended the inaugural Ethiopian Commodity Exchange Direct Specialty Trade auction. Photo by Tim Hill.As a few of you know, about a year ago and half ago Ethiopia radically changed the way coffee was traded throughout the country. A trading platform called the Ethiopian Commodity Exchange (ECX for short) emerged and the old auction system was done away with. The new system focused on real-time pricing and trading broken down for virtually every unique region and processing style within Ethiopia. While the new ECX system vastly improved some aspects of coffee trading, it also produced some limitations. One of the limitations was that traceability to a specific lot or producer became much more challenging because different producer’s lots were not necessarily kept separate. Another limitation was that any certification, organic or otherwise, could no longer be attached to the coffee, again because the coffee was being traded in grades and not by a specific producer. Understanding that the exchange was a good platform for many coffees – but that there needed to be another venue for high quality, traceable, and certified coffees for specialty coffee buyers – the leadership of the ECX started building the framework for a branch of the exchange to make those things possible. And this is how the Direct Specialty Trade auction was born.

To make the auction a reality in such a short time, the leaders of the ECX – in particular, a gentleman named Bemnet Aschenaki – have been visiting as many producers as possible from all over the country looking for the best coffees. The idea is that the coffees they found would be separated and set aside at ECX warehouses around the country. Then, international buyers would have the opportunity to taste these hand-selected coffees and purchase them transparently through the Direct Specialty Trade auction. This system gives producers the opportunity to market their coffee to buyers they never would have had access to before. It also provides a transparent contract with the buyer that stipulates exactly how much of the purchase price will go to the exporter and, more importantly, how much will go to the producer. For Counter Culture, seeing this new platform in action was a can’t-miss opportunity and, of course, also a chance to purchase a spectacular lot of coffee. The first thing to do was to taste the coffees that ECX scoured Ethiopia for.

On the Morning of February 16th, I made my way to the ECX’s main facility in Addis Ababa for a full day of cupping coffee. The ECX was able to assemble 44 different coffees for this first auction, and this was my opportunity to cup through them all. Having that many coffees to cup in one day can be somewhat daunting in any circumstance, but especially cupping at origin. Many cupping labs at origin lack the necessary protocol or equipment to keep everything consistent, and when things are not consistent it can be hard to gauge to quality. Prepared for possibly one of the longest cupping days of my career, I was overjoyed when I walked into a brand new and meticulously organized cupping lab that we would be using. All the coffees buyers were quickly able to dive into cupping and after a solid 7 hour day of tasting we now had a very good idea what the Direct Specialty Trade auction had to offer.

A new and meticulously organized cupping lab made the process of evaluating the quality of the 44 different coffees assembled for the auction a manageable and effective process. After the cupping, all the buyers met with Dr. Eleni Gabre-Madhin, CEO of the ECX, and all the producers that were selling their coffee in the auction to talk about how the bidding process and logistics of the coffee being sold was going to work. One of the major challenges of the auction was that many of the lots represented less than the standard shipping amount; so a few options needed to be discussed. For instance, did buyers want to take the extra expense for shipping less than the standard amount of coffee – adding an extra 20% or more to the cost? Or did it make more sense to work with the producer to purchase more coffee outside of the auction and ship it with coffee from the auction? Or was it possible to purchase coffee from a few producers and have them work to ship all of their coffee together? Those questions are what I like call the somewhat boring side of coffee sourcing, but in reality without figuring them out before the auction, it could make or break what is bought and at what price it could be purchased. After 3 hours of discussing protocol and logistics and getting everything out on the table, the only next step to take was to see the auction live the next day.

The next day, after all the buyers and sellers settled in auction room floor, the auction bell was rung by Dr. Eleni and the very first Ethiopian Direct Specialty trade auction was officially was under way. In the middle of the auction pit (a sunken octagon-shaped part of the auction floor) the first seller stood awaiting open outcry bids for their coffee. For a brief second everyone held their breath and looked around the room. Then bids started going back and forth among the buyers. As the price rose modestly, you could hear people murmuring around the room. After a short time, bidding came to a close and everyone looked over at the auctioneer. The auctioneer then revealed that the seller’s reserve price had not been met. The high bidder and seller negotiated, but could not agree on a price and the coffee went unsold. For the first three coffees this was the outcome. The next five coffees were not bid on at all. Again on the ninth coffee up for bid, the buyer and seller again could not agree upon a price and the coffee went unsold. The tenth was not bid on. Things were starting off slowly, and everyone around the room was starting to get nervous. Being the very first auction of its kind, the kinks needed to be worked out. One of the causes to the slow start was that the quality level, while still very high, represented a greater range than what many buyers in the room were interested in, and many of the first auctioned coffees were in the lower quality range. Also because there was no history for this type of coffee sale, the price levels for what buyer and seller thought was fair needed to come together. So, after a very slow start where almost a fourth of the total coffee went unsold, on the 11th coffee up for bid, the DST auction finally had its first sale. A loud cheer came from the crowd and some of the tension relaxed. The next 20 or so coffees auctioned were hit or miss with six total sales.

The inaugural Ethiopian Commodity Exchange Direct Specialty Trade auction started slowly but shows potential as a venue for high quality, traceable, and certified coffees for specialty coffee buyers. Photo by Tim Hill. The last 10 coffees, however, were a different story. The last 10 coffees represent some of the higher quality coffees the auction had to offer and bidding was much more aggressive. Going back to all the tasting I did of those 44 coffees, one coffee really hit the right notes. That coffee was from the Adado Co-operative (not Idido, just for clarification) in Yirgacheffe. The coffee was sweet, very floral with a good hint of citrus. It is our kind of coffee from Ethiopia. And, now, after waiting for 41 coffees to go through the auction, it was finally time for bidding. I stood hovering over the pit as the bidding started on the Adado Co-operative coffee, and quickly realized that I was not the only one who liked this coffee. Bidding quickly rose higher than all the other coffees in the auction. Four separate buyers bid back and forth until the price forced two to drop out. Still on the floor bidding on behalf of Counter Culture and a few other roasters was Timothy Chapdelaine, a long time importer partner of ours. He bid without hesitation all the way until he reached our cutoff – MORE than 20 percent higher than any other coffee in the auction. In the end someone wanted this coffee just a little bit more than we were willing to spend for the quality, so we would be going home without a purchase.

After the last two coffees were purchased and the auction came to a close, there was a big sigh of relief around the room. While the auction started out very slow, and of course there are many things to work out, I still believe buyer and seller alike saw it as a small success. Overall, 16 coffees sold for a very good average price above the market with the Adado Cooperative lot considerably higher. Also after the bidding session, a great opportunity to talk with producers came up. The conversations I had revealed that some producers were disappointed with the results, in particular a few that received no bids for their coffee, but that even those producers still had great optimism for the system in the future. Their hope was that the ECX would learn from this auction and iron out the system.

One other interesting outcome from the auction was that a partner of ours, Abdullah Bagersh, had the chance to represent another producer's coffee as the exporter. Because Abdullah is not only well-respected for producing great coffee and for making coffees better through his meticulous export preparation, the coffee he represented received the third highest bid at the auction. While that was great in itself, after the auction Abdullah received many phone calls from other producers asking him to represent their coffee in a the next Direct Specialty Trade auction. So, about a month from now the second Direct Specialty Trade auction is going to take place, and from what I understand the bar is going to be raised on quality, logistics and bidding will be better figured out, and the exporters who we love to work with will hopefully have more coffees to represent at the auction. I don’t know what everyone else thinks, but I believe we might be bidding again.

-Tim
Coffee was brought to Indonesia by the Dutch, who first
planted coffee on the volcanic island of Java. Photo by Peter Giuliano.Ok, first, let’s review the history: coffee was brought to Indonesia by the Dutch, who first planted coffee on the volcanic island of Java. Within just a few years, Dutch plantations on Java were more productive than any on earth, and “Java” had become synonymous with coffee itself. Then, disaster struck: in the 1870s, a disease called "coffee rust" appeared and destroyed the Dutch plantations, which were planted in the wet, warm lowlands of Java. In the 1890s, they re-established plantations on the dry, high Ijen plateau in the east of the island. These plantations, or “estates,” called Djampit, Pancoer, Blawan, and Kayumas, were run by the Dutch colonial government for decades. That is, until Indonesian independence in the 1940s, when the new Indonesian government established a special branch to manage the estates called the PPT. Therefore, every coffee buyer knows that all Arabica coffee in Java comes from these 4 estates, is sold by the PPT, and is known as “Estate Java.”

Here’s where the story gets personal: in 1987, while working my first job as a barista, a coworker handed me a cup of coffee and said, “Taste this.” I did, and experienced my first coffee epiphany: the coffee was deep, chocolaty, and velvety, and had a kind of savory, dark cherry undertone that I found incredibly delicious. The memory of that cup of coffee is burned in my mind. It was, of course, an Estate Java – from the Kayumas estate. And, there you have it – my first coffee crush was Kayumas Estate Java. By the mid-1990s, however, good Estate Javas seemed impossible to find. There wasn’t much coffee available, and what was available was lackluster and had none of that delicious character I remembered. When I visited Java for the first time in 2003, I discovered the reason: the PPT had grown bureaucratic and apathetic, caring little for quality or tradition. “Why should we care about quality?” one official actually said to me, “We sell everything we produce anyway.” Touring the estates, I saw firsthand what had become of a formerly grand coffee tradition: casual picking and processing, the elimination of shade trees, contempt for sustainability, and little quality control. Bitterly disappointed, I gave up on Java coffee altogether, and resolved never to return.

Employees of the 4 estates in java who lived in the mountains surrounding the Ijen plateau would occasionally pocket a few coffee seeds, and plant their own coffee trees in their own backyards. Photo by Peter Giuliano. So why am I here? Well, there is an interesting twist: it turns out that over the past 100 years, employees of the 4 estates who lived in the mountains surrounding the Ijen plateau would occasionally pocket a few coffee seeds, and plant their own coffee trees in their own backyards. Intended initially for their own consumption, these estate workers soon learned that they could roast and sell the coffee to nearby townspeople for a little extra cash. It needed to be kept on the lowdown, since everyone knew that Java Arabica was officially grown by the government on the estates, so even most Javans didn’t know about these hidden coffee farms. Over the years, these secret coffee farms spread, and by the time I visited in 2003 there were hundreds of hidden coffee farms in the mountains surrounding the very estates I was visiting – I just couldn’t see them. When I asked my hosts – from the PPT, of course – if there were any other Arabica coffee farms in Java besides the estates, they told me flatly no. That wasn’t true.

Enter a coffee trader named Asnawi. Asnawi was a buyer and seller of Robusta coffee; the lower quality, disease-resistant variety of coffee with which the Dutch replanted the lowlands in the 1880s. Asnawi had a good relationship with Robusta farmers, and was helping support quality improvement and development in family farms. One day, a farmer came to him and said, “Mr. Asnawi, why don’t you buy coffee from us, too?” He was, of course, a leader of a group of secret Arabica coffee farmers near the Kayumas estate. Asnawi contacted the Indonesian Coffee and Cocoa Research Institute to learn more about Arabica coffee, and together they put together a project to help the secret farmers process high-quality Arabica coffees, instead of the poorly-prepared coffees they were selling to the local market. When I heard this story, I immediately arranged a side trip from Sumatra to Java to check it out.

Samsul Arfin and his son have lived in the mountains surrounding the Ijen plateau their entire lives. Samsul owns 8 hectares, which he has planted with coffee, ginger, cloves, avocado, jackfruit, vanilla, mango, and starfruit, among indigenous albasia, mahogany, and teak trees. Photo by Peter Giuliano. I flew from Medan to Jakarta, and then to the East Java capital of Surabaya (which gets my vote for favorite place-name: it means basically “crocodile vs. shark”). I then made the loooooong trip up to the mountains surrounding the Ijen plateau. When I arrived at the outskirts of the Kayumas estate, you could have knocked me over with a feather: there, hidden under abundant shade trees were the glorious little secret Arabica farms, in the backyards of the workers who planted them. I visited a number of these farmers, some quite old by now, to hear their stories. First, I met Samsul Arfin and his son. Samsul has lived in these hills his entire life – his father worked on the Kayumas estate. When Samsul got his own farm when he was 25, he obtained some coffee seeds from his father and planted them behind his house. He now owns 8 hectares, which he has planted with coffee, ginger, cloves, avocado, jackfruit, vanilla, mango, and starfruit, among indigenous albasia, mahogany, and teak trees. In 2005, he began learning about quality coffee production, and he now sells his coffee to Asnawi for export, more than doubling his previous income.

Peter spent 2 days traveling the hills surrounding the Ijen plateau, meeting the farmers, having coffee in their houses, and touring their farms. I spent 2 days traveling these hills, meeting the farmers, having coffee in their houses, and touring their farms. I even got to see one of the backyard roasting plants they still use to sell roasted coffee to neighboring villages – in a homemade, hand-cranked roaster heated with firewood! I was inspired by these farmers and their story, and I can’t wait to try some of this year’s crop – the coffee fruits are still tiny and green on the trees. I spent my final days in Java tasting last year’s crop – past its prime by now – but I leave the island refreshed, my romance for Javan coffees rekindled.

I’m on my way home now, I’ll see you soon.

-Peter
Hello friends and family,

Gayo country is a long way away. It takes more than 40 hours of travel to reach the highlands surrounding Lake Tawar where the Jagong mill turns out some of the best Sumatran coffee available. Photo by Peter Giuliano. Gayo country is a long way away. It takes about 30 hours to get to the island of Sumatra, but once you get to the port city of Medan you’re not there yet. It takes another 11 hours of driving to get to the Gayo highlands surrounding the placid Lake Tawar. Takengon, the city by the lake, is the headquarters of the Gayo people, an ethnicity which has a rich cultural heritage and long history. The Gayo have farmed and fished these highlands for thousands of years, and have their own language, culture, and traditions. It’s a beautiful land – rolling mountains lined with farms and topped with forests, and Gayo villages nestle along the steep, winding roads of this country. This is coffee land – about 90 percent of the Gayo people’s income comes from coffee growing and export.

I’m here to visit our partners, the Gayo Organic Coffee Cooperative, and their leader and exporter, Mr. Irham. Irham is a special person – he has been working in coffee in this area his whole life, growing up collecting coffee from local farmers, driving it down to the port city of Medan, and selling it to exporters. Doing this, he gained the respect and trust of the local farmers, and, about 4 years ago, after the tragic Acehnese civil war ended, Irham was able to start exporting coffee himself. We got the tip and began buying coffee directly from him. In the meantime, Irham led the formation of the Gayo Organic Coffee Cooperative, a democratic cooperative of organic coffee farmers.

The Gayo people have farmed and fished highlands for thousands of years, and have their own language, culture, and traditions. Photo by Peter Giuliano. As we continued to buy the cooperative’s coffee, we wound up discovering something special – coffee Irham marked “Jagong” was distinct from the rest, with a cleaner, more delicious flavor. Turns out, Jagong is a washing station in the valley of the same name, and I visited for the first time in 2007. It was an amazing find – most coffee here is processed casually on the roadsides. The Jagong mill, on the other hand, is a truly artisanal mill where farmers bring their cherry for crafting. The motto of the Jagong Mill “Jagalah Kebershian” which means “keep it clean” is a perfect descriptor for the mill – it’s a completely unique place in the Sumatran highlands – a place where coffees are fully fermented and washed before wet-hulling and drying.

The Jagong mill was apparently built as something as an experiment by the Dutch, trying to develop better, more consistent coffees from the area. During the Achenese war, the mill was abandoned, and Irham was able to negotiate a purchase – so the Jagong mill is now owned by the Gayo Organic Coffee Association, and we are the main buyers of this coffee. In the confusing and chaotic landscape that is coffee from the Gayo highlands, I’ve come to consider this mill and its coffee – grown in the surrounding valleys and washed in Jagong – the treasure of the Gayo mountains.

The farmers who contribute to our Gayo coffee have been working hard in recent years to focus on cherry ripeness, which contributes tremendously to sweetness. Photo by Peter Giuliano. So, of course, Jagong was the first stop on our trip here, and I was also out to solve another mystery: this year, our favorite coffee was marked Atu Lintang. Was this another Jagong? Since Irham speaks no English and I no Gayo, email was no help. I finally figured it out on my first day here – Atu Lintang is the name of the valley right next to the Jagong valley, and the Atu Lintang farmers bring their coffee to Jagong for processing. Jagong wins again! See what I mean about something special? I was therefore able to concentrate my travels on these two valleys. Trekking around was made easier because the roads have been much improved this year – the trip from Takengon which used to take 3 hours now takes an easy one-and-a-half!

I am filled with respect for the farmers of Jagong and neighboring valleys. The Gayo have a reputation for being extraordinary devout and hard-working, and they are fiercely protective of their culture and heritage. Every farmer knows that this coffee is special, and that it is unique to these highlands. Local legend says that this was the very first place in Sumatra where coffee was planted, and I believe it. These are still the spice islands, as well, and farmers grow cinnamon and cloves on their farms, along with fruit trees like tangerine, snakefruit, and the famous spiky durian. Irham and the farmers have been working harder in recent years, focusing on cherry ripeness. Ripeness, of course, means sweetness, and we’ve indeed noticed that the sweetness of Jagong coffee has increased in the past few years. We spent time discussing how Counter Culture can support further forays into coffee perfection, and we're working on some very special coffees from these farms. Stay tuned for that.

Ina, the 24-year-old daughter of the Gayo Organic Coffee Cooperative's their leader and exporter, to the big city of Medan to tend to the coffee exports. Photo by Peter Giuliano. I’ve also had a great time traveling with Irham and his family. Tragically, Irham’s brother, confidant, and partner died suddenly last year, and this has been tough on Irham and the cooperative. Luckily, Irham’s two children, Andi and Ina, were ready to start taking some responsibility. It’s charming to see serious, stern Irham gently showing his children the details of the coffee trade. Andi now sits as the cooperative’s president, and 24-year-old Ina has moved by herself to the big city of Medan to tend to the coffee exports. It’s a big responsibility, but she is ready for it, and she’s especially excited to take coffee quality to new heights in the next generation. It’s exciting and it makes me so happy to be laying the groundwork for a durable relationship in Aceh – a place that has known so much instability. “We work together to improve quality,” Ina said to me in English first thing yesterday morning, a phrase which she had clearly been practicing.

Anyway, I’ve got tons of notes and have been making lots of plans. After 4 days in the highlands, we made the 11-hour drive back to Medan yesterday, and will spend today visiting the dry mills and port facilities. Then, this afternoon, we fly to Java for the next leg of the trip. Yes, you read correctly, Java. I’ll tell you all about it next week.

Meanwhile, I miss you all. See you soon.

-Peter
[Note: Because of a technical issue, Kim Elena's trip photos didn't reach us. The photos included here are from visits to Finca Pashapa from the last two years.]

Roberto Salazar and Kim Elena examine drying coffee beans at Finca Pashapa in 2009. Photo by Tim Hill. I just arrived in Managua, and I’m gearing up for a few days of visits to growers, followed by Counter Culture Coffee’s annual trip to Nicaragua, the Origin Field Lab, which will begin later this week.

Ahh, but I am getting ahead of myself by telling you what’s to come without telling you where I have been! I spent last week in western Honduras, working on a project: namely, to make 2010 the year of Finca Pashapa. This year marks the eighth consecutive year that Counter Culture Coffee will purchase coffee from Finca Pashapa, a 30-acre, certified organic farm owned and run for three generations by the Salazar family. This was my third trip to the farm and with every year that passes, I am more enraptured by Pashapa and its people: where else can I spend a morning learning farming techniques and strategies on a model organic coffee farm, followed by an in-depth cupping and discussion of flavor profiles and nuances with those same growers in the afternoon? The farm’s diverse shade and worm composting set a standard for real environmental sustainability that no farm I know of has yet touched, and the coffee’s eight-year record of consistent cup quality is both laudable and all-too unusual, even among the greatest coffees.

In order to maximize the potential deliciousness of Finca Pashapa’s coffee, the first challenge facing Counter Culture Coffee was to address the mysterious aging of Honduran coffee in general. Among buyers, coffee from Honduras has a unique and unfortunate reputation for tasting flat and “past crop-ish” more quickly than coffees from other countries. Most people attribute this unfortunate tendency to a problem in the way that coffees from Honduras are dried. Between the drying machines common to Honduran mills and the humidity of the Caribbean coast where coffee leaves Honduras for the United States, I cannot deny that the supply chain is rife with hazards to coffee quality and longevity.

Roberto Salazar walking the farm at Finca Pashapa in La Labor, Honduras, in march 2009. Photo by Kim Elena Bullock. So what is a lover of Honduran coffees to do? One answer is to accept the risk of premature aging and account for it by purchasing minimal amounts of coffee from Honduras. When we plan for the coming years at Counter Culture Coffee (long-term planning is a huge benefit of our long-term relationships), though, we always agree that the enormous potential of Honduras’s Finca Pashapa is too great a sacrifice to pay to this rapid-aging mystery. Hence, we have no choice but to resolve it! With both short- and long-term futures in mind, this year I called on every member of the supply-chain team – from the coffee’s growers and exporters in Honduras to the importer in San Francisco – to assemble in Honduras and attempt to resolve this problem, at least as it relates to coffee from Finca Pashapa.

Our group convened at the offices of the exporter, Beneficio Santa Rosa, in the mountainous city of Santa Rosa de Copan to taste coffee together and to strategize. After spending hours discussing our experiences with Honduras’s coffees and eliminating factor after factor in search of the answer to the aging mystery, we kept returning to the hot and sticky climates of San Pedro Sula – where most of the country’s coffee is processed – and Puerto Cortes – where it is exported.

It’s no secret that coffee suffers humidity terribly, and together we determined that we would address these challenges in three ways: by adding a special, air-tight bag to our coffee to protect it during its journey down from the mountains and over sea, by avoiding San Pedro Sula completely, and by setting a 24-hour time limit for our coffee to wait to embark at Puerto Cortes. We are on track for 2010!

The second part of the two-part quality project relates to the as-yet unrealized flavor potential of Finca Pashapa’s coffee. Last year, Counter Culture Coffee added a dimension to our relationship with these growers in the form of a microlot from the highest-altitude parcel of the farm, called El Lechero. Roberto Salazar – who, in addition to running the farm with his family, also supports a co-op, manages a mill, and serves on national cupping juries – has methodically tasted the coffee from each part of the farm for years. In El Lechero, he recognized an opportunity to produce exceptional coffee and the family began paying higher wages to the farm’s employees to pick and sort El Lechero’s coffee with special attention to detail. The results of that differentiation – only the pure, ripe, sweet coffee fruit made it into the lot – indubitably made a difference, and since that first tasting of El Lechero’s coffee, we have not been able to stop ourselves from wondering, “What would it be like if ALL of Finca Pashapa’s coffee was harvested and sorted with such attention to detail?”

This year, Roberto and I had an honest discussion about whether it would be possible to apply such standards across the board, and what the costs would be, and I am confident that this farm will continue to produce better coffee every year, and that we will continue to expand the scope of our partnership.

Roberto and his father Jorge examining drying coffee beans in 2008. This year, for the first time, I visited farms around La Labor other than Finca Pashapa, and I met growers who belong to the cooperative that processes coffee with the Salazar family in La Labor. Roberto has been working for years to identify growers with the farming conditions and determination to produce great coffee, and to encourage organic production, as well. We believe that at some point in the not-too-distant future, these farms will produce coffee to rival El Lechero, and in the meantime, Roberto will be cupping coffees like crazy to find those special micro lotes (micro lots).

Though I spent a scant five days in Honduras, I was still able to enjoy the hospitality of Roberto’s parents, Jorge and Coyo, who never fail to make me feel like part of the Salazar clan (in a good way). With six grown children and at least six grandchildren, most of whom live within a stone’s throw of the casa paterna (parents’ house), Coyo’s kitchen is constantly churning out meals of eggs and meat from the family’s hens, beans, tortillas, and vegetable stews made from the spoils of their gardens, juice from their citrus trees, and cheese from their dairy cows. Dinner usually begins around 5:30, when the sun goes down, and I happily spend hours at their table, talking coffee and politics, gossiping about the village, and laughing as the Salazar brothers make fun of one another. As I said, we are very lucky, and as you might imagine, I can’t wait to go back.

Now then, it's Nicaragua time. I miss you all and I look forward to hanging out soon.

abrazos,
Kim Elena
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!

abrazos,
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 Recinos 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.

-Peter
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.

-Peter
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,
-Peter

Next: the road to Yirgacheffe!

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