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A country, a mountain, a saint

This week we’ll cup Finca Mauritania, Finca Kilimanjaro and St. Goret, which three coffees have in common that they’re all newly available for sale this week and tasting great.

Notes on the Coffees

Finca Mauritania is in top form this year with all the buttery sweetness you could want from a cup of coffee. All of Aida Batlle’s farms in Santa Ana, El Salvador suffered during 2013’s outbreak of coffee leaf rust and Mauritania, which sits lower on the mountain than Kilimanjaro and Los Alpes and tends to be the most productive of the three farms, lost the highest percentage of its total production. Though Aida decided to sacrifice her organic certification to mitigate the effects of rust, our relationship with her remains strong and we are excited to celebrate ten years of buying coffee from Finca Mauritania this year! Also, since this coffee arrived a week and a half ago, it’s been really interesting to taste Finca Mauritania next to other coffees from similar geographies across Central America. Increasingly across Latin America, older trees at 1,400 meters have been replaced by rust-resistant varieties like Catimor and the quality of the coffee has plummeted accordingly, to the point that we almost always end up blending with the coffees we do purchase from these elevations. Not so with Mauritania, where Aida has stuck with the bourbon variety, continued picking perfectly ripe coffee and processing it meticulously to remind us of how a farmer’s choices realize the potential of the coffee plant.

While the bourbon variety at Finca Mauritania is super sweet, it can’t hold a candle to the complexity of the variety planted higher up the Ilamatepec volcano at the Batlle’s Finca Kilimanjaro. Colloquially called “kenia” in El Salvador, the appearance—or morphology, for you word nerds—of the coffee plants at Finca Kilimanjaro is reminiscent of the SL varieties that have made Kenyan coffee famous. Since this coffee won El Salvador’s Cup of Excellence competition in 2003, it has been sold to a select few roasting companies around the world and we have slowly but surely managed to secure a larger percentage of Kilimanjaro’s coffee every year. I always look forward to its arrival and this year’s wine-like profile doesn’t disappoint.

Another place we find SL-28 and SL-34 varieties growing is in Uganda, a country which is better-known for producing low-quality robusta than the stellar flavors we associate with neighboring Kenya. We’ve spent the past two years getting to know the Bukonzo Joint Co-operative of the Kasese district in western Uganda and this year we’re thrilled to feature coffee from the farmer co-op of St. Goret, named for the parish in which it’s located, as a single-origin offering. The elevation of St. Goret is comparable to Finca Mauritania, and in addition to the SL varieties I mentioned, they also grow Nyasaland, which is the Ugandan term for its oldest coffee, which was brought to the country in 1903 from Malawi—known as Nyasaland back in the colonial days. I’ll be curious to hear what similarities you taste between St. Goret and Kilimanjaro that might be attributable to variety, because their prototypical descriptors tend to sit near one another on the flavor wheel.

Over the past five years, as our approach to buying coffee has evolved, we have differentiated ourselves from many of our peers in the specialty coffee industry through our ability to recognize potential and contribute to its development. In quality terms, that means exploring geographies with good varieties and elevation, sometimes in lesser-known countries of origin, and in relationship terms, that means finding small producers on the fringes of the quality market and building trust over time. When we started buying from Aida in 2004, we were just beginning to figure out what made great coffees great, and over the past decade, we’ve learned invaluable lessons about the significance of varieties, picking and processing through experiments done by Aida and other market-savvy, globally-connected coffee producers like her. As we’ve figured out what to look for and how to make good coffee better, we’ve been able to use what we’ve learned to enter into relationships in places like Uganda with marginalized smallholder farmers with clear goals and the knowledge of how to succeed. It’s been a heck of a journey so far and I can’t wait to see where we go next.

Rollout Dates and Availability

All three coffees rolled out on Friday, September 5, and I hope to assuage any potential concerns about the speed at which we have been known to sell Finca Kilimanjaro’s coffee by telling you we have more of this coffee than we’ve ever had, so it should last longer than a few weeks.

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Find a Huehue

We’ve got four coffees on the table again this week! To what do we owe this good fortune? The country of Guatemala is the size of Louisiana and Counter Culture’s four relationships are all to the west of the capital city, but similar to last week’s tasting, the geographic proximity belies the diversity of flavor that this week’s table showcases.

Notes on the Coffees

Finca Nueva Armenia is our longest-running relationship in Guatemala and we have been unwavering in our commitment to celebrating this beautiful farm and the work of the Recinos brothers. Climate change and coffee leaf rust have conspired to diminish the quality of a large portion of the farm’s lower elevation coffee, while our standards for single-origin coffee just keep getting higher, and over the past few years we have sold less of the farm’s coffee straight and used more of it for blending. We have an especially small amount of Finca Nueva Armenia’s coffee straight this year, but we are working on next year’s contracts, plans, and expectations this week and believe we’ll see more, better coffee from Finca Nueva Armenia next year. What we do have comes from Grotto, the highest part of the farm, which we’ve consistently found to be fruitier, sweeter, and more complex than the coffees from lower down the mountain.

The town of Concepción Huista lies only about an hour’s drive east of Finca Nueva Armenia, but the farms are much newer and the land belongs primarily to smallholder farmers, as opposed to the larger farms in western Huehuetenango. We bought our first coffees from Codech in 2010 and since then we’ve spent a lot of time working with them to improve their coffees—and occasionally competing with others to secure them. The eight hundred families that belong to Codech produce coffees that range in flavor from flat and nutty, to fruit reminiscent of sundried naturals, to an occasional coffee that is floral and almost Kenya-esque in flavor.

La Voz makes a guest appearance today at a lighter roast level than most of you have tasted it since we pulled it out of the single-origin lineup. Since 2012 they have proven a consistent producer of good, sweet coffees, some of which end up in Farmhouse, some of which we decaffeinate and one of which, this year, exceeded our expectations and made the single-origin ranks. The ability of this co-op, whose mill is on the shores of Lake Atitlán, to operate efficiently and ship coffee early is worth a lot to us, so while their coffees aren’t always the equal in complexity to the previous two on the table, we wouldn’t trade it.

Our newest addition is Sipacapa, which comes from San Marcos, a region roughly between Huehuetenango and Atitlán. The mountains in this area of Guatemala reach some impressive elevations and we’ve had our eyes on it for a few years, though this year marked the first that we zeroed in on a particular co-operative in a community. Hannah visited this group for the first time this year and noted that for a young organization, it’s very organized, dedicated to implementing economically sustainable organic agriculture and capable of supporting its members.

We’ve dedicated a lot of time and energy to Guatemala over the past four years and in 2014 we bought more coffee from this country than any other. Good geography, good varieties, good processing techniques and powerful small farmer organizations make this the country in Central America that we keep investing in to suit our growth.

Rollout Dates and Availability

With the exception of La Voz, all of these coffees are available now in the form that you will taste them, and La Voz is roasted a little bit darker in Farmhouse.

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Fab Four

Those of us who attended Wednesday’s “Pro Dev: Ethiopian Varieties” were lucky enough to get a sneak peek at and taste of the four single-farmer coffees that we’ll taste this Friday. I don’t know about you guys, but I can’t wait to taste them again! It’s no exaggeration to say that these are some of the best coffees that we’ll have this year, regardless of how you define “best”.

Notes on the Coffees

Olke Birre is a farmer from the kabele, or village, of Haru, who grows mostly Kudhume-variety coffee at an elevation of over 2000 meters. He was one of the first participants in this single-farmer program that we met (at our organic composting workshop in 2013, to which he arrived wearing a gold medal and a blinding smile) and we are especially pleased to have this coffee this year because last year it was promised to another roaster before we had a chance to express our interest. Also, because it is practically perfect.

Mesele Haile lives about a mile from downtown Yirgacheffe in Hafursa, which is a name that Counter Culture old-timers will remember. He grows mostly Wolisho-variety coffee with a smaller percentage of Kudhume and Dega, and his farm sits at 1,800 meters. We also met Mesele at the composting workshop and, in fact, the culmination of that workshop, the collective building of a composting bin, and a coffee ceremony for forty of us took place on his farm.  This coffee arrived tasting a little flatter than we had hoped, so we are tweaking the roast and looking at this coffee closely before we roll it out.

Elias Benata grows mostly Wolisho, but also has some Dega and Kudhume on his farm, which is in the kebele of Biloya at around 1,800 meters. The first single-farmer lots we committed to purchase from YCFCU last year were sundried natural coffees, which takes just as much skill to produce as washed coffee, but requires less up-front investment in infrastructure than building a full washing station on a farm.

Like Elias, Aleme Wako (note that it’s Aleme - pronounced AL-eh-meh, not Alemu, as previously spelled) is a farmer in Biloya, who produces sundried natural coffees on his farm. In Kochere, which is south of the Yirgacheffe district, the farms tend to be a little bigger and newer than farms in Yirgacheffe, and with sixteen acres each, Elias and Aleme have large farms for co-op members.

While we can’t help but get excited about every delicious single-farmer coffee we taste, it’s also important to us to reinforce the relationships we’ve built over the years, so it’s no coincidence that these lots come from the familiar kabeles of Haru and Biloya.

Rollout Dates and Availability

All of these coffees are slated to roll out Friday, August 29, though the squirrely spelling of Amharic names and our desire to continue finessing Mesele Haile’s coffee might mean we begin with two and roll the other two later in the week.
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New Wave

These are heady times for coffee lovers as we present one new coffee after another. This week, we will taste three freshly arrived coffees, including Finca Nueva Armenia from the lovable Jorge and Javier Recinos, the berry-bomb Banko Gotiti Sundried Natural, and delicious Decaf La Voz.

Style of Tasting

Storytime!

I’m going to suggest that this week you break out the espro presses and really enjoy telling stories and talking about the flavors and provenances of these coffees in a more casual way than cupping allows.

Notes on the Coffees

Finca Nueva Armenia is back and the good news is that it tastes good! You’ll find fruit notes in this week’s coffee that you might have associated with the microlot from Grotto in years past, and this brings us to the bad news, which is that this year, Grotto’s coffee is the only coffee from the farm that made the cut for us to sell as a single-origin offering.

As we have for many years, we purchased all of the farm’s coffee, but we are using all but 25 bags of Grotto in blends and products like Toscano, which is currently 70% Finca Nueva Armenia. The farm’s elevation and old trees left it vulnerable to coffee leaf rust, and we taste the grassy, nutty effects of false maturation more in the 2014 crop than we did in 2013.

Grotto, which is the highest of the farm’s coffee-growing parcels, has fared better and coffee from that area tastes good, so we knew we wanted to sell it. Because it always feels weird to have a microlot without a main lot, we opted to brand it as Finca Nueva Armenia. Heck, when you look at it that way, Finca Nueva Armenia has never tasted so good!

This coming year, your faithful coffee department will work hard with the Recinos brothers to increase the volume of coffee we’re excited to feature, and, thankfully, we have enough years together that neither party has any question whether it’s worthwhile to invest in the work—or whether it’s possible to succeed—in overcoming these obstacles to quality.

Banko Gotiti Sundried Natural is a coffee we want you to be familiar with for a couple of reasons: first,  because its arrival will bring joy not only to those who love to drink straight sundried natural coffees, but also to everyone who regularly drinks Rustico—and that’s got to be a fair number of us, right? Second, this lot of Banko represents the evolution of our strategy for buying coffees in and around Yirgacheffe. (This comes from Gedeb, which is an area south of Kochere, which is south of Yirgacheffe town).

Most of you will remember the first coffee we bought from this village in early 2013: a washed lot from a private mill/exporter, bought because a) our coffees from YCFCU had not arrived and b) it tasted good. We struggled at the time to balance promoting it enthusiastically for having great flavors without confusing this "spot" coffee with the coffees that we actually work on and have an attachment to. Despite the struggle, the quality of Banko Gotitit’s coffee, the elevation of the farms, and the preciseness of the coffee picking wasn’t lost on us, so when YCFCU presented us the option to buy coffee from a burgeoning farmer co-op they were working with in this area, we jumped at the chance. The farmer co-op belonging to YCFCU in Banko Gotiti has only produced sundried natural coffees. Lest you think that’s a strike against them, I’ll add that their sundried natural coffees have won awards among all of the coffees produced in this style by co-ops under the YCFCU umbrella—but they are planning to build a washing station for the coming year’s harvest.

The quality of cherry selection in this area leads to this lot being one of the berriest sundried natural coffees we have tasted, and we look forward to more from this group in the future.

We have put Decaf La Voz back on the table this week because the last time we tasted it, we were still tweaking the roast in anticipation of the roll out, and this represents the coffee and the flavors that our customers—and those of us tough enough for decaf—will be tasting in this coffee. Just like dialing in a coffee for espresso, dialing in a roast is all about tasting, adjusting, and tasting again.

In that vein, it bears noting that both Banko Gotiti and Finca Nueva Armenia are a little bit darker this week than they will be in production, due to, you guessed it, dialing in the roast profiles of these brand-new coffees.

Rollout Dates and Availability

Decaf La Voz rolled out a few weeks ago, Banko Gotiti left the building for the first time on Monday, and Finca Nueva Armenia is slated for August 22.
Counter Culture Coffee and All About Beer Magazine have collaborated with Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. to create “No Middle Ground,” a limited-edition IPA made with cold-brewed coffee. The beer features washed Haru from Ethiopia and an experimental hop known as “291,” giving the beer a bright, fruit-forward flavor profile. No Middle Ground will be available on tap during special tasting events at Counter Culture’s eight regional training centers.

Berkley, CA, on 10/15 from 6:00-8:00 p.m. PT

New York on 10/16 from 6:00-8:00 p.m.

Philadelphia on 10/23 from 6:00-8:00 p.m.

 

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Twice as Nice

Idido and Haru are names that have become very familiar to us as Counter Culture has steadily deepened our relationship with the Yirgacheffe Coffee Farmer Co-operative Union’s washing stations in these two villages near Yirgacheffe, Ethiopia. Every year we aim to increase the amount of coffee we buy from these two groups, as well as to explore the most exciting new coffees and flavors that we can find, and this year we have both more volume and more unique offerings from this incredible region of the coffee-growing world than we have ever had before.

Notes on the Coffees

Haru and Idido represent a shift in Counter Culture’s perspective on coffees from Ethiopia (and, it could probably be argued, from East Africa in general). Until we focused on these washing stations, we were basically just cupping coffees every year to see what we liked, and it was difficult for us to have much of a story to tell about any individual coffee or to feel justified investing time, energy and money in building relationships. By committing to YCFCU and staking a claim to these two washing stations, we weren’t necessarily saying that other washing stations were incapable of producing equally great coffee, or that no one else could buy coffee from these groups, but that we would rather try to get to know these groups and try to realize any untapped potential that they had than to cup through samples to find the best ones.

Over the past four years, we have undertaken experiments at the co-op level with Haru in processing and at both washing stations to sort coffees and gauge the results, and we have also gotten to know some individual farmer members of these washing stations through visits and the organic compost workshop we hosted in 2013. YCFCU’s manager Takele Mammo has always been involved in these projects—if not their coordinator—and he has been, generally, enthusiastic about experiments and ideas for special, unique, higher-value coffees.

When he announced in 2013 that YCFCU would, for the first time, sell coffees from individual members who process their coffee on their own equipment on their farms, we couldn’t wait to try them. We were quite pleased with the lots we bought from Mammo Boki and Tegegu Ocholo, but we did recognize the potential conflict between supporting the co-operatively owned washing stations and diverting attention to these single-producer projects (unlike growers of our single-producer lots from Latin America, farmers like Mammo Boki have infrastructure and scale that is very different than most farms in Yirgacheffe and out of reach of many members of these co-ops).

What to do? Well, we decided that instead of choosing between them, we would choose to both continue growing with and supporting the co-ops and also buy coffee from individual growers, ideally members of these co-ops and communities with whom we have relationships. In addition to the Idido and Haru we’re happily sipping now, we are anticipating the arrival of single-farmer lots from Elias Banata, Olke Birre, Alame Wako and Mesele Haile with excitement. They ought to be great! On that note, though, in our blind cupping of pre-ship samples, Idido still took all the votes for best coffee on the table, so don’t let your appetite for the goodies to come keep you from stopping to smell the roses, or more likely, jasmine, in your cups this week.

Rollout Dates and Availability

Idido and Haru are both rocking and rolling right now, so order up!
Bryan Duggan and WaterRx Water FiltrationThere have been some notable changes around our company in regard to water filtration. To gain a better understanding of the new facets of filtration and its impact on our facilities and our customers, Hannah Popish, Coffee Buyer’s Agent, sat down with Bryan Duggan, Technical Department Manager and lead mastermind of the new system.

H: What made you realize it was time for a change in regard to how we manage water filtration at our headquarters?
B: Well, we changed filtration here because we started working with WateRx in New York. We were looking for a better option to recommend for our customers (cafes), and a great coffee shop called REX told us about these WateRX. All the units are really customizable so the water qualities can be exactly as you want them to be. The three units we have here are made so that we can change the makeup of the filters internally and thus the taste of the water pretty easily.

H: What can you tell us about WateRx and why did you decide to use them?
B: WaterRx is a company based out of Cincinnati, Ohio, and they are a national water filtration brand. We decided to go with them because the filters are super reliable, they need very little service and upkeep and they last significantly longer than any other filters we’ve used in the past. This ties into the green aspect of the filter—the medium, meaning the filtration material, is all natural minerals and rocks. Once you need a filter change you can dump it outside with no issue and no disturbance to the natural environment. We were really sold when we realized how durable the filtration is and it’s unique ability to process large volumes of water—the filters never break!

H: Can you give us a breakdown of how the filtration works?
B: First, water enters through the top of the unit and then there are three layers of medium (made up of rocks, sand, salt, and resin) that remove unwanted items from the water. Unwanted items include bacteria, rust, dirt, chlorine, arsenic, mercury, odor, and color.

H: What is the key takeaway for people who don’t know much of anything about water, water filtration, and its impact on coffee and the environment?
B: Number one would be that properly filtered water makes your coffee taste better. Second and equally important is that adequately filtered water makes your machines last longer. Sustainably speaking, the tanks we are using now only have to be recharged 50,000 gallons, or every 12-18 months, and can be reused. Our previous filters only lasted 3-6 months and had to be thrown away. 

H: What does “adequately filtered water” mean exactly?
B: The simple answer is that it is water that is free of chlorides, arsenic and anything harmful. The water also has a balanced hardness. We have used the set of parameters that La Marzocco recommends for our water.

H: What else do you want us to know about the filters?
B: The big filter that we use in the coffee and tech departments track the amount of water used. The tracking means that you can check on averages used and you can decide if you need to reduce your usage and it allows you to know your carbon impact. Also, this makes it easier to know when you need to “recharge” the system, meaning, swap out the old filtration material.

H: Who currently uses this filtration?
B: A handful of our accounts are already implementing the new filtration: Open City in Washington DC, OK Café in Astoria, NY, Brunswick in Brooklyn, and Big Bear in Washington DC. In terms of our training centers they are in place in NY, Atlanta, Washington DC, and Durham and we are recommending the filtration for all new accounts in those areas.

H: What’s next in the world of water filtration?
B: We will continue to develop our water parameters so that we can make the water taste as delicious as possible for our coffees. As we calibrate we will move this filtration into all of our TCs. WateRx is a great partner to continue to work with!

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