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In this post, I'm going to shift away from talking about sustainability where we buy coffee and focus on our own operations as a roaster.

A coffee grown sustainably shouldn't necessarily retain that "sustainable" designation if others involved further along the supply chain aren't also acting responsibly. Just as poor roasting can ruin a high-quality green coffee, an unsustainable roasting company can compromise the integrity of a coffee that was grown and processed sustainably. In other words, Counter Culture has a responsibility not only to roast coffee well, but also to uphold the sustainability of the coffees we buy.

Beyond sourcing sustainably grown coffee, I see Counter Culture as having three major responsibilities in continuing this momentum: environmental protection, supporting community viability, and communicating information to consumers.

Thanks in part to the personal interests of Counter Culture co-founder Fred Houk—who was a passionate bird-watcher—we've always had environmental stewardship in our DNA, though sometimes it's expression has been informal. We took a big step forward in creating systems to formalize our environmental sustainability commitments when we started measuring and offsetting our carbon footprint in 2011. The offset part has been especially cool in that it has allowed us to do some really interesting projects in the communities where we purchase coffee.

It's taken a few years to perfect the measuring process; we're now to the point where part of my new job will be not only to measure our footprint, but to work on reducing it and reporting our results. We're also creating systems to track our waste and water usage with an eye on making sure we're using resources as efficiently as possible.

As I mentioned in the first post, a full picture of sustainability encompasses not just environmental concerns, but social issues as well. Much like our environmental efforts up to this point, our social efforts have been largely focused on programs at "origin," i.e. in communities where coffee is grown—like SEEDS and collaborations with non-profits working in coffee communities.

We'll continue to work on social sustainability at origin, but we also want to strengthen our efforts in local communities. With a growing number of training centers in the U.S., it's important to us to support customers and organizations working on projects that contribute to viable livelihoods in those communities. We also have some pretty amazing employees at those training centers who are interested in sustainability and whose efforts we support through our Green Fund, which offers $500 in matching funds annually for personal sustainability-related projects.

Frankly, none of these efforts can achieve their full impact if we don't do a good job at communicating them. Our unique position in the coffee supply chain means that it's our job to tell you not only what we're doing, but also what farmers are working on and what customers can to do to consume our coffee sustainably. That's a lot of information, and, over the years, we've tried presenting it many different ways. This presentation is something we'll always be working to improve, and I see it as one of the most exciting challenges of my new position.

As a corollary to this glimpse of where we're at, the next post will talk about where we've had successes and failures at moving coffees along the sustainability continuum.

-Meredith

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

Environmental

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

Social

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

Fiscal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Meredith
 


Click here to see this photo set on Flickr.

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

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

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

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

We were also fortunate enough to learn from coffee farmers, co-op representatives, exporters, port operators, and so on.
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Tasting @ Ten – Three Year-Round CoffeesThis week, we'll familiarize ourselves with the current versions of three of our year-round products: Big Trouble, Fast Forward, and Slow Motion.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kim Elena
NOTE We will not be hosting a weekly tasting on Friday, January 23, at any of our regional Training Centers. We will return to our regular schedule the following week. Thanks!


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We're very (very) softly launching a next Limited-Release Blend (think Holiday Coffee + last summer's Equilibrium) in a few weeks and will be tasting the blend and its components this week at our training centers.A preview of Underdog, our next limited-release blend

Style of Tasting:
Cup the four components, then brew the blend.

Notes on the Coffees: 
I don’t know about you, but I root for the underdog in sports and in life almost exclusively.

Of course, in terms of coffee, like most of you, I love coffees from Ethiopia, Kenya, Colombia, Guatemala, and a host of other countries that hundreds of roasters—including us—carry amazing lots from every year. But when a coffee comes great in from a place that I don't see a lot of other roasters focusing on—or from a producer or place that in the past hasn’t had quite the best coffee—that's when I really celebrate.

This year, the Colbran family in Papua New Guinea delivered the best, most consistent harvest they have ever had—in one of the most difficult years they've had producing coffee—and that's why Tairora became the base for this blend.

Until recently, no one in the specialty industry carried coffee from Burundi. Two years in a row, Mpemba has made a pristinely sweet coffee that is my personal pick on the offerings right now.

East Timor wasn’t even close to being on our radar this year, but, when we starting tasting the coffee from Haupu and Lacau, we were hooked. And now we can't wait to keep exploring how good these coffees can get. (There is certainly a lot of work to get them as good as we think they can be.)

Last but not least: Buziraguhindwa Natural Sundried from Burundi. This is simply the best-prepared natural sundried coffee we have ever seen from a country that, until we bought this coffee last year, never produced this type of coffee—and now other producers in Burundi are imitating this style of processing.

Of course, we are proud of every coffee we source, but these four coffees represent the ones we've had to maintain the most patience with and commitment for, the ones that have surprised us the most, and the ones that might not have the odds in their favor but have come from behind to steal the show.

Tim
Give the coffee lover in your life a lifetime’s worth of better brewing by registering them for a Counter Intelligence coffee course with us at one of our Counter Culture Coffee regional training centers!

We offer many different professional-level classes—from coffee brewing and tasting, to espresso, and even about the origins and training of coffee. Each course is a dynamic mix of coffee theory, tasting, and hands-on experience preparing or comparing coffee in a variety of contexts. Check our course catalogue for more detailed information about our offerings.

While we don’t currently offer vouchers or gift certificates for our courses, you're welcome to reserve a seat in any of our posted classes in advance—check our updated course calendar for dates and availability. Simply register and pay for the course using your own name and e-mail address to keep the gift a secret, and we’ll happily substitute your loved one’s name and contact information after you reveal the present, so they can receive any additional future e-mails or information about the class! 

(If the class you select doesn’t work with your loved one’s schedule, no problem! As long as the space is canceled at least 48 hours before the class start time, you’ll automatically receive a full refund.)

Feel free to email training@counterculturecoffee.com with any questions, and Happy Brew Year!

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Competition Is None

The Big Eastern competition opens on Friday and for this week’s tasting we’ve chosen three coffees that have appeared in the routines of competitors in barista and brewer’s cup competitions at the regional and national levels over the past two years.

Notes on the Coffees

After making its competition debut as part of Jonathan Bonchak’s routine for the US Brewer’s Cup in Seattle in April of 2014, Olke Birre’s coffee is the choice of multiple competitors in both brewing and espresso realms this weekend. In blind cuppings of our many Ethiopian coffees, Olke’s coffee consistently takes the top spot for its balance of floral aromatics and clear-as-a-bell citric acidity. In addition to possessing one of the most perfect flavor profiles we can imagine, this coffee’s appeal is compounded by the fact that it hails from a single farmer and that we know him personally, which is unusual in Ethiopia. Plus, as I’ve told you many times before, he is a head taller than most farmers and was wearing a gold medal when we first met him, so he made quite an impression.

Next up is Ngunguru, one of our current offerings from the flavor capital of the coffee world, Kenya. In the spirit of full transparency, I’ll admit that I meant to send Thiriku, on the wings of which Lem Butler soared to victory in the Southeast Barista Championship in 2012, but ended up typing Ngunguru, instead. Oops. But never you mind, for this coffee’s complexity is equal or superior to that of pretty much any other coffee you could imagine. It’s precisely that complexity—the combination of brightness, mouth-watering savory notes, and brothy body—that make Kenyan attractive for competition settings where unique tastes, memorable descriptors, and creative flavor pairings win points.

Papua New Guinea’s Tairora rounds out the lineup with juicy flavors that are reminiscent of today’s other two coffees, but with a fuller body and more notes of nut and sweet spice than we usually find in East African coffee. Erika Lee Vonie, now at Everyman Espresso, took Tairora to the national stage in April of this year and combined it with herbs and fresh cucumber for a delicious signature beverage. Of today’s three coffees, Tairora was harvested most recently, and, after two years of struggling with both shipping delays and inconsistent quality, it arrived early and is tasting great. We are very thankful to have found the Colbran family and their coffee farm, Baroida, four years ago, and Tairora, which comes from smaller farms around Baroida, demonstrates the mostly unrealized quality potential of these highlands.

Rollout Dates and Availability

All three coffees are available now, but Olke Birre’s time is running out, so savor these last sips. Ngunguru will be around through December, at least, and we hope Tairora will last through March, though it's selling like hotcakes, so I’m not making any promises. 

-Kim Elena

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