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I have never felt such love for an airport as I felt upon setting foot in Managua Thursday morning after our plane spent NINE HOURS on the tarmac between the gate and the runway in Houston, TX, caught in a the earliest snowstorm the city has seen since 1944. Thankfully, no one faked a heart condition to get off the plane or attacked a flight attendant over peanuts, and we arrived in one very relieved piece. I was tired and achy, but I was also excited to be back in Nicaragua and eager to get to Matagalpa, so I grabbed my backpack, walked out to the highway, and caught the first north-bound bus that passed. Giff Laube, the manager of Finca Esperanza Verde, met me in town and immediately started to fill me in on what's been going on with our grower partners here in Matagalpa.
As some of you know from personal experience visiting this group of coffee farmers over the years, they have struggled with issues that range from the viability of organic agriculture to their membership to the payments received – or more specifically, not received – from the co-op that exports their coffee. By January 2008, they had reached a point of no return in their frustration over these payments and approached Counter Culture, their buyer of five years, about selling coffee to us through some other means than co-op.
[Note: the use of the term "co-op" can be confusing because in a system like this one, there are various tiers of co-op that build upon one another. For the purposes of explanation, when I use the term, I will be referring to the export co-op, which is organized for the purpose of marketing and exporting the coffee of many small farmer co-ops, including the one from which Counter Culture Coffee has purchased coffee for our Café San Ramón for the past five years.]
While we understood their frustrations and wanted to support their decision, we felt hesitant to encourage them to leave the co-op because we knew that doing so would require a lot of work by every member, unity among them, and trust in their buyer. We discussed the actions that they would have to undertake over the course of the year. They felt confident that they could do it, so we promised to support them along the way and to see how we could make the new arrangement work for us, as well as for them.
Now, it's December. The harvest is in full swing and 11 of the growers, plus Finca Esperanza Verde, have done the legwork necessary to sell coffee to Counter Culture through a system that we all hope will lead to more transparency in the chain, better quality in the cup and more money paid to the growers. Giff and Javier Martinez, one of the founders of the co-op's organic program, are the architects of the new system, and they have put a ton of time and energy into keeping the group on track this year. Seriously, none of this could have happened without their leadership. So, as soon as they requested that Counter Culture visit before the end of 2008 to discuss some of the challenges they're facing, I was itching to talk things over in person. Since I have been here, I have visited a few farms and cupped early coffee samples from some of the growers at the mill, but the thrust of the trip is different from most of my origin trips in that I really came here to sit down and, as Giff says, "talk turkey." What is the group's plan for organic certification? How much will it cost? What are their costs, and how can we make sure that more money reaches them this year than in years past? Where is their financing coming from?
After an initial group meeting, coordination (between Counter Culture Coffee in Nicaragua, the mill in Nicaragua, Counter Culture stateside, and the importing company stateside – go team!) some strategizing and a second group meeting this morning, things look good. We've overcome many obstacles in securing access to credit for the farmers, reestablishing Counter Culture Coffee's coffee quality standards, and setting prices that will deliver more money to the farmers than ever before. It feels good, and I am excited to be returning here soon – in less than a month, in fact – to see how things are going. This is a big step for a group of farmers who describe themselves as poor and marginalized, and I am both proud of them and proud that Counter Culture is a part of it. Our mutual dedication to seeing if this new model works, and helping to make it work, is a great example of what it means to have real relationships with coffee growers. In order for a long-term relationship to work, both parties must allow for change, assess the ups and downs of prior years, and support each other through challenges. I believe that at the end of this year, our relationship with the growers of Café San Ramón will be stronger than ever and the coffee will taste better than ever, as well, which is inspiring!
Finally, in deference to the season, Felices Fiestas! (Happy Holidays!) It feels funny to hear American Christmas carols on the radio in tropical Nicaragua, but, then again, North Carolina is rarely a winter wonderland around this time of year. Not to mention, I love Mariah Carey's "All I Want for Christmas is You," regardless of the season. I don't want a lot for Christmas …
Kim Elena
P.S. The first photo shows the dry mill, Beneficio La Pita, where the growers are tendering their coffee this year; the second is Javier and the third is Carmen, who is the head cupper at La Pita. She has worked with Counter Culture coffees since the beginning and has great affection for us – note the apron – and I have enormous respect for her as a person and as one of the best cuppers in Nicaragua! We are so lucky to work with such great people every step of the way.
Saludos compadres,
Jacinto distributing organic radishes to be used later in delicious tacos. Photo by Counter Culture Coffee.
Today is a holiday across Mexico in observance of the Day of the Revolution, which commemorates the beginning of the Mexican Revolution in 1910. The revolution is not to be confused with independence, which occurred in 1810. (See the pattern? Mexicans joke that the government will hold its breath for an entire year in 2010.) The Mexican Revolution led to widespread agrarian reform, gave birth to the Mexican constitution and laid the foundation for Mexican politics as we know them now: think populism, Zapatistas and the PRI that ran the country for 80 consecutive years after the revolution ended in 1920. ¡Viva la revolución!
But let's move from Mexico's fascinating history to the 21st of September's fascinating coffee: I am writing from the town of Putla de Guerrero in western Oaxaca, Mexico, where the 21st of September co-op has its offices, warehouse, and soon-to-be cupping lab (more on that in a later dispatch). For the past few days, I have enjoyed the company of Clemente Santiago and Laura Tilghman of Sustainable Harvest, our importer partner, as well as Chris Thorns and Jorge Quintanilla of Allegro Coffee, which is one of the 21st's buyers, along with Counter Culture Coffee and Taylor Maid Farms. We're all here to work together with the leadership of the co-op to set a course for the harvest that's just now beginning. My goal is to share Counter Culture's experiences with last year's coffee – from taste profile to contract discussion to lot separation – and get perspective from the 21st on the same subjects so that we agree on how to make progress in coffee quality and our relationship.
Alvertano on his coffee farm in Zimatlán. Photo by Counter Culture Coffee.
We had the unusual opportunity today to participate, along with representatives from all 23 of the 21st's member communities, in a visit to a small coffee farm in the town of Zimatlán that recently completed a biogas-and-sustainable-miscellany project. The project began with the collaboration of the farm's owner, Jacinto, and the 21st's agronomist-in-charge, Gerardo, to use hog waste from the farm's seven pigs to create and capture methane gas for cooking and became, over six months, a system that integrates tilapia raised on animal and food waste, vegetables irrigated with the waste water from the tilapia pond, and specific ornamental plants that provide food for the hogs. Jacinto wants the farm to be a demonstration farm for other growers interested in incorporating these sustainable and efficient farm processes, and I believe that he is the perfect person to present these ideas because he represents the average member of the 21st in income, age, indigenous background, education, and experience. I loved listening to him talk about his journey toward greater self-sufficiency on his farm and observing the visiting growers of the 21st discuss which technologies they could incorporate and how to continue improving upon the model. It's also a good reminder to me, and all of us, that these opportunities are everywhere and for everyone – this system arose out of a few good ideas and the willingness to question the traditional way of doing things.
Tomorrow I will disappear up into the mountains for four days of farm visits, meetings with growers, and, I can only hope, more spicy and delicious tacos. Even if I didn't love the coffee and admire the co-op, I would visit the communities 21st for their food alone. I look forward to good conversations and to further strengthening Counter Culture's connection to this marvelous co-op, and please know that I am thinking of you guys and doing my best to represent Counter Culture Coffee, our customers and all of the coffee-loving consumers of the 21st's coffee while I'm here!
Kim Elena
The western-most major island of the Indonesian Archipelago, Sumatra is a vast, exotic island known to ancient mariners as the sentry to the straits of Malacca – the pirate-infested gateway to the legendary spice islands. Photo by Counter Culture Coffee.
There are perhaps no coffees more misunderstood than the coffees from the island of Sumatra. The western-most major island of the Indonesian Archipelago, Sumatra is a vast, exotic island known to ancient mariners as the sentry to the straits of Malacca – the pirate-infested gateway to the legendary spice islands. The island was home to exotic animals like the famous Sumatran Tiger and Orangutan (meaning "forest man" in the local language), and ancient and fierce civilizations that amazed European explorers.
After Dutch spice traders established trade with and colonized these remote islands, they founded tropical plantations on the islands of Java and Sumatra. Coffee was among the first crops they cultivated on these plantations, and before long these islands were the largest producers of coffee in the world. Soon, coffee cultivation shifted away from the colonists and towards the indigenous people of Sumatra.
Since Sumatra is a gigantic island rich with cultural and geographic diversity, the coffees from the island were similarly diverse in their flavor and appearance. Photo by Counter Culture Coffee.
It was then that Sumatran coffees began their rise to fame. And, since Sumatra is a gigantic island rich with cultural and geographic diversity, the coffees from the island were similarly diverse in their flavor and appearance. By the 1920s, coffee was being traded with indigenous names like Ankola and Mandailing, two ethnic groups of western Sumatra who traded particularly good coffee. Some coffee was grown in the lowlands of western Sumatra, but the best came overland from the mountains of Northern Sumatra. These mountains, deep in the dark interior of Sumatra, were mysterious to explorers and Sumatrans alike. And the coffees that came out of these highlands were richly diverse and wildly different from each other.
Now, the miracle of modern travel has allowed us to discover and explore the true sources of these amazing coffees. It has been astounding for us to experience the beautiful diversity of Sumatran coffee, Sumatran culture, and the Sumatran environment by traveling the long road to coffee's origins in the mountains of that dark island.
We pay tribute to the Gayo culture by featuring a hallmark of Gayo architecture on each bag, the ornately decorated triangle that fills the gable of each traditional Gayo house. Photo by Counter Culture Coffee.
The best coffees in Sumatra come from two distinct places: the mountains in Central Aceh on the northern tip of Sumatra and the mountains surrounding Lake Toba farther south. These coffees can still be classified according to the ethnic groups that grow the respective coffees; the Gayo and Toba Batak respectively. As part of our mission to uncover the secrets of the most amazing coffees of the world, we offer an example of each of these two very different coffees to our customers.
Our Gayo coffee features a hallmark of Gayo architecture on each bag, the ornately decorated triangle that fills the gable of each traditional Gayo house.
Our Gayo coffee, named after the ethnic group that grows the coffee in the mountains of Aceh, comes from a little valley called Jagong. Small Gayo farmers cultivate this coffee organically using the traditional varietals of Bergundal and Tim-Tim. The result is a syrupy-sweet dark-chocolate and fruit sensation, with a dollop of the deep earthy tones that make Gayo coffees famous. We pay tribute to the Gayo culture by featuring a hallmark of Gayo architecture on each bag, the ornately decorated triangle that fills the gable of each traditional Gayo house. The Gayo speak their own language and maintain their unique culture, including the tradition of coffee cultivation and trade.
Our Dolok Sanggul icon features the silhouette of most ubiquitous symbols of Batak life, the unique, curved-roof boat houses that are the traditional dwelling of the Batak people. Photo by Counter Culture Coffee.
Hundreds of miles south, in a completely different area of Sumatra, the magnificent Lake Toba sits as the centerpiece to the mountain homeland of the Toba Batak people. The Batak have cultivated coffee in these jungled mountains for generations and traded them in the towns of Siborongborong, Lintong Nihuta, and Dolok Sanggul.
Our Dolok Sanggul icon features the silhouette of most ubiquitous symbols of Batak life, the unique, curved-roof boat houses that are the traditional dwelling of the Batak people.
Our favorite coffees come from Dolok Sanggul, and we buy coffees exclusively from this community. Our icon for this coffee features the silhouette of most ubiquitous symbols of Batak life, the unique, curved-roof "boat houses" that are the traditional dwelling of the Batak people. Dolok Sanggul coffees are spicy and resinous, complex and fragrant, bringing to mind the reality that Sumatra was known to the ancients as a spice island, home to pepper and cloves. The coffee is extraordinarily well prepared and clean as a whistle, a rarity in an island which is unfortunately notorious for dirty, moldy coffees.
These two coffees could not be more different than each other, and we think it's a shame that many still lump them together using the generic "Sumatran" descriptor. Both are amazing examples of an authentic tradition, and we couldn't imagine choosing between them. So try them both, and experience the diverse land of Sumatra from two unique perspectives.
Slow Food nation brought together coffee people active in the farm-to-cup coffee movement, giving those attending Slow Food Nation an unforgettable coffee experience, with a special focus on the coffee producer.
I just returned from San Francisco, where I attended Slow Food Nation, the first-ever conference/meeting/food fair dedicated to the slow food movement. Basically, the idea was this: bring together a bunch of folks who were active in crafted, traditional, and delicious foods, and present their work to the general public on a large scale. We've known about this for a while, and were thrilled when we were approached to participate in the event. Here was the idea: bring together coffee people who are most active in the farm to cup coffee movement, and give those attending Slow Food Nation an unforgettable coffee experience, with a special focus on the coffee producer.
The coffee portion of the event was "curated" by the coffee team of Eilee Hassi, of Ritual Coffee Roasters, Tony Konecny, known to the coffee world as Tonx, and Andrew Barnett of Ecco Caffe. These folks organized an incredible team of coffee people, too long to list, who brought wonderful coffees and amazing expertise to the table. I arrived in San Francisco on Friday morning, not entirely knowing what to expect. I was a little early, so I was able to spend time visiting such bay area coffee landmarks as Ritual in the mission district, Four Barrel coffee roasters just down the street, and Blue Bottle coffee. All had incredible coffee and were wonderful folks, but that is another story entirely.
Slow Food Nation's coffee pavilion was comprised of two hallways with wooden tables that served as coffee tasting areas where guests would be guided through a tasting of three different coffees out of small, beautiful, ceramic cups (by Heath Ceramics).
I finally made my way over to the "Taste Pavilion," where we were to do our coffee presentations. I was astounded by the space: a large warehouse on a dock at San Francisco's Fort Mason was filled with whimsically designed structures dedicated to the foodstuffs to be featured at the event: bread, native American foods, fish, pickles, honey and preserves, charcuterie, cheese, chocolate, ice cream, wine, olive oil, tea, and of course coffee (fresh produce and prepared foods were featured at the "victory garden" locale, in the plaza facing San Francisco City Hall.) Anyway, I went straight to the amazing coffee pavilion, which was designed by architect Douglas Burnham. The more than 2,000 square foot space was designed as an intimate place for thousands of people to taste coffee. Two hallways with wooden tables would serve as coffee tasting areas, where guests would be guided through a tasting of three different coffees out of small, beautiful, ceramic cups (by Heath Ceramics). The coffee was brewed by a platoon of 6 Clovers. In front, another hallway housed 4 La Marzocco GB5 3 groups, where 8 baristas could simultaneously pull espressos and macchiatos into Nuova Point brown bettys (espresso equipment provided by Espresso Parts NW). To get to the coffee tasting halls, adventurers needed to make their way down a passage lined with words and photographs related to the long journey coffee makes from seed to beverage. My breath was taken away by this amazing space.
The first thing I saw upon entering the space were boxes of Counter Culture coffee. Mark Overbay and Tim Hill had perfectly orchestrated the roasting and shipping of coffee to arrive at the perfect time for the event. Thanks! We soon began our preparations: getting everything squared away, machines dialed in, and getting all the "taste captains," our word for tasting leaders, well informed on the coffees we would be serving. We had a wide array of coffees at our disposal; all producer-specific lots from roasters like Ritual, Terroir, Intelligentsia, Ecco Caffe, Verve, Stumptown, Barefoot, and Counter Culture Coffee.
Peter G. (at right) talking about coffee until he became hoarse at Slow Food Nation in San Francisco.
Making a long tale short, over the next three days, we exposed thousands of people to amazing coffees. Attendees got a flight of three coffees to taste against each other, and as many single-farm espressos or macchiatos as they could choke down. I spent all three days engaging with all sorts of folks, talking so much coffee I got hoarse. It was incredible. Deepening the experience were some very special guests: producers from Ethiopia, Mr. Abdullah Bagersh; Guatemala, Mr. Edwin Martinez; and Colombia, Mr. Camilo Merizalde. It was great to have producers there to represent their own coffees. Speaking of representing, I even got the chance to work two shifts on the espresso machine, pulling shots and macchiatos of Finca Mauritania Pulp Natural for the people. Like a dream come true. Meanwhile, I also did a speech on coffee at the Victory Garden Soapbox, led a panel discussion of the visiting coffee producers at the Long Now Foundation's museum space, and touched base with what seemed like the entire food movement.
One thing we coffee people kept saying about the event was how awesome it was to work so collaboratively with great coffee people. There was a large contingent of great baristas, roasters, and producers from all over the place including New York, Portland, L.A., and of course the Bay Area. Every one of these people was incredibly skilled, passionate, and filled with the desire to impress upon the foodie world the importance and value of great coffee. I was so proud to work with these folks, they did us all proud. It is impossible to list everyone, but if you watch this little movie you get a taste of how the experience was for the attendees. [Click here to watch now.]
I could go on and on, but suffice it to say that it was an amazing and exhausting experience. Word on the street is that there will be another Slow Food Nation next year, I'll keep you posted ….
Our friends at Sustainable Harvest put together a slideshow about the women of Zaragoza, Mexico's 21st de Septiembre co-op, who recently met to determine how to use $6,000 donated by Counter Culture Coffee from sales of our 2007 Holiday Blend.
To pick up where I left off last week, I spent Friday in Jaen doing training at Cenfrocafe's new coffee shop in the morning, and yet again, I was impressed by a 100 percent Peruvian espresso blend and by the unabashed enthusiasm of the shop's baristas to learn more and improve their craft. In the afternoon, we cupped a bunch of samples in Cenfrocafe's lab with their crack team of cuppers. We were pretty calibrated last year, but it's always good to take advantage of opportunities to talk about coffee profiles and to taste other coffees from the other regions in which Cenfrocafe works. Of all the samples, my favorite was the one from San Ignacio, followed closely by the sample from Chirinos (Intelligentsia's producer partners). We build our lot from the coffee tendered to Cenfro in July and August, so the process is really just beginning.

Kim Elena with Santos Camizán García and his winning rooster.Saturday, I headed back to San Ignacio for a meeting with representatives of a program called Pro-Santuario that is working to strengthen conservation projects in the Santuario Nacional de Tabaconas-Namballe (the Santuario of our coffee's name). Their means to achieving these goals include building stable economies for the communities of the region and fulfilling basic gaps in infrastructure, because in the absence of stable economies and basic infrastructure (water) drive people to exploit the protected sanctuary for their survival. We strategized about how quality coffee can help foster healthy soil, plant diversity, and a culture of environmental sustainability. It's fair to say that our grower partners in Peru are pioneers in sustainable agriculture as they strive to grow great coffee in harmony with the natural environment but also commit themselves to conservation on a larger scale as stewards of the Santuario.

Drying coffee is a challenge in the misty climate of San Ignacio, Peru, even with the raised bed systems that Cenfro has helped the farmers construct.I spent the next two days in Alta Ihuamaca, the village that Peter and I visited in September. Sunday afternoon is the time of the week to see and be seen in the village, so after some time among the coffee plants in the morning, we spent the rest of the day between social visits and the weekly cockfight. I shared our photographs, coffee bios, and "Source" bags all over the communities, but in Alta Ihuamaca I had the pleasure of presenting one of our "Source" postcards to the grower who appears in the photo (his name is Silvio). He blushed and smiled, then commented that he wished he had shaved that day! As in the other communities I visited, the farms here look great: healthy, well-fertilized plants with lush, abundant shade. Drying coffee is a challenge in this misty climate, even with the raised bed systems that Cenfro has helped the farmers construct. We will focus some attention on this issue over the next couple of years in order to further overall crop quality.

Zacarías Neyra goes the extra mile to produce quality: varietals, harvesting ripe cherry, attention to detail in processing and constant farm improvement set him apart even in this field of great growers.One of the farms I revisited was that of Zacarías Neyra, one of our three microlot producers from last year. Like Aquino Huachez, Zacarías goes the extra mile to produce quality: varietals, harvesting ripe cherry, attention to detail in processing and constant farm improvement set him apart even in this field of great growers. Zacarías has made himself a leader and set an example for quality among the growers, and I expect that he'll continue to take on more responsibility within the co-operative as well as continuing to improve the quality of his crop. After dinner on Sunday, Zacarías and few other farmers and I stayed up late into the night discussing dream interpretation, witchcraft, and fate by candlelight. As I walked home night under the stars, I couldn't help feeling that this little valley is more than a little bit enchanted.

Leaving Alta Ihuamaca on Monday meant beginning the long, slow trip back to the States. I had one final meeting with Cenfrocafe on Tuesday to talk about project possibilities for the future, and today I'm back at Café Verde in Lima.

I miss you all and I look forward to seeing all of you soon! Until then, que les vaya bien.

Kim Elena


Hi from Jaen, Peru!
Jaen is a bustling city in the Cajamarca region of the north, known for rice and coffee (depending on your interest, I suppose). It's the gateway to San Ignacio and the farms of Valle del Santuario and a natural stopping point in the multi-part journey to the valley.
I arrived in Lima early on Monday morning and spent the day hanging out at Café Verde, a coffee shop founded by our friend K.C. O'Keefe and staffed by a crack team of roasters, cuppers and beautiful-shot pouring baristas. The dedication to quality, freshness, information, and coffee culture at Café Verde really raises the bar for consumers in Peru – their all-Peruvian espresso is delicious – and is one of few of its kind anywhere (you've all heard my complaints about the coffee consumed at origin in Latin America). Sarah Kluth from Intelligentsia and I led the baristas in a latte-art throw down, which I did not win. They have some good baristas, but, in fact, I did pretty poorly by any standard. Oops, sorry guys!
The farms around San Ignacio look great, but this year might be a tough for many in the Cenfrocafe co-op because an early rain damaged the crop and will lower their output.
But lest I wallow in shame, let's get back to the reason I'm here: the farms! We flew to Chiclayo later that day and crossed the Andes to Jaen in the dark, which was beautiful in a whole different way from the drive I recalled from last year: as we reached the top, the moon and stars seemed impossibly bright on the mountainsides as we looked at the dark valleys below. On Tuesday morning, we met with the president and other representatives of Cenfrocafe, the second-level association of farmers to which the first-level co-ops of Valle del Santuario belong. We discussed our shared goals and some potential for joint projects in the farming communities, which I will be following up on with their project manager in another meeting this weekend. The best part of the meeting, however, was getting to show the leadership of the association how we promote our coffee and projects through our website. It's unusual to have access to the internet with anyone on the farming end, so that was a treat, but when I pulled up the Valle del Santuario page and showed links to the Google map, our trip reports, photographs, CCDTC standards and the coffee-person interview with Elmer, my heart almost burst with pride.
After the meeting, it was back to the tried-and-true white Toyota Corolla for the last leg of the journey: north through San Ignacio to the valley itself, where I arrived in the town of Las Mercedes at the home of Aquino Huachez Huachez, one of last year's microlot winners! Exhausted from two days of travel, I fell asleep that night to the sounds of Aquino's five children laughing and the rain beating steadily on the tin roof. Wednesday began with a meeting of the five community associations to discuss the past year and our and hopes for the future. Rising costs and the falling value of the dollar puts pressure on all of our relationships, so although this is one of the relationships we are most proud of for the prices paid, the quality produced and the transparency we have across the supply chain, it's still full of challenges. Thankfully, navigating those challenges makes relationships stronger and Counter Culture is pretty good at it!
Most of the farmers in our Valle Del Santuario project have between two and five acres of coffee, nestled on misty mountainsides under the shade of fruit, lumber, and native trees.
I was looking forward to hiking around some farms after the meeting, and I was not disappointed, for the day turned into an epic adventure in the pouring rain that included a backside-slide down a muddy trail, whispered discussion about whether the farmer in the lead does, indeed, know where he's going and, of course, some beautiful, beautiful farms. Most of these farmers have between two and five acres of coffee, nestled on misty mountainsides under the shade of fruit, lumber, and native trees. I loved seeing many examples of the native fig trees that give Ihuamaca its name and inspired our Valle Del Santuario icon! These farmers are mid-harvest at the moment, which made the tours more interesting and the accompaniment of 20 or 30 members even more of an honor. We finished the hike on Aquino's farm, where he has planted the Bourbon variety almost exclusively. The farm looks great, but this year might be a tough one for him and for many in the co-op because an early rain damaged the crop and will lower their output.
A spontaneous game of volleyball, organized (and dominated) by the women of the group, was the perfect end to the day. This morning, I visited more farms in the town of Bajo Ihuamaca, then returned to Jaen in anticipation of a day of barista training at Cenfrocafe's new coffee shop here and cupping with Cenfrocafe's cupping team tomorrow. On Saturday, it's back to the chacras (that's Peruvian slang for farms), the fig trees, the guinea pigs, and the sanctuary! I am sharing all of your respect, gratitude and affection with our partners here, and I hope that I can communicate their mutually admiring feelings to all of you. I miss you all and can't wait to share more stories and photographs in the days to come!
Abrazos (hugs),
The Hotel Starbucks, a few hours north of Nairobi in Karatina Town.
Directly after Rwanda, I made a quick trip to Kenya. Kenya is home to one of the most respected coffee traditions in the world, and Kenyan coffees are famous among coffee connoisseurs for their unique quality. Even within the country of Kenya, there is a particular region from which the most famous coffees come: a few hours north of Nairobi, in the foothills to the south of the majestic Kirinyaga (also called Mt. Kenya), coffee farms produce absolutely spectacular coffees filled with winy fruitiness, mouthwatering savory character, and clean perfect coffee flavor.
It is to this area that I drove, immediately after arriving in Kenya. I spent the night in Nyeri Town, the capitol of this region. I didn't stay at the Hotel Starbucks, in nearby Karatina Town. This really must be coffee country – Hotel Starbucks!
Tekangu is an association of cooperatives that includes the Tegu, Karatina, and Ngunguru cooperatives.
It is an exciting time in Kenya. Historically, Kenyan law required that all coffee be tendered to a state-run open auction. Samples were available to licensed bidders, who vied for coffees at the famous Nairobi Coffee Exchange. We've been active in the auction for years now, buying and selling straight auction lots, unblended. 3 years ago, however, a new law was passed in Kenya allowing farmer cooperatives to sell their coffee directly to exporters and roasters, bypassing the auction. This became known as the "second window" through which coffee could leave Kenya, and it set the stage for developing more direct, long term relationships with coffee farmers. As a brand new thing, the second window was not immediately embraced by farmers or exporters, and it is only this year that we bought our first coffees direct. We, and a handful of other roasters, paid such a high price for these direct coffees, that it has created some excitement among farmers. It is with this in mind that I was visiting some of our favorite cooperatives, to explore the idea of buying more coffee directly in the coming year.
At the Tegu washing station, farmers bringi in literal handfuls of cherries, in small plastic bags, carried for miles.
Anyway, first thing in the morning, I went to visit with the Thiriku cooperative at their coffee washing station (which are called "factories" here in Kenya). I first visited Thiriku in 2005, while I was in Kenya teaching cupping classes. That year, some of the best coffees at the auction came from Thiriku, and they have a reputation for being a well-run cooperative. Upon arrival, I shook the hands of Thiriku's board of directors, some of whom I recognized from 3 years ago (that's a good sign). Their spirit, however, is much different now! They have had a pretty successful few years, and they are proud of the prices they have paid the farmers of the cooperative. They were especially happy that I had made a return visit, that I would return twice was proof to them they were doing a good job. The first deliveries of coffee were being washed while I was there, and we talked about Thiriku's approach to quality and farmer outreach as the day broke. I have a good feeling about Thiriku, and if the quality pans out like I think it will, we may very well see some coffees from them in late 2008.
I had to say goodbye to Thiriku in order to make my meeting with Tekangu, the association of cooperatives that includes the Tegu, Karatina, and Ngunguru cooperatives. The most astute among you may recognize these as some of the all-stars of Kenyan coffees – and many (including me) have the indelible memory of a certain Tegu lot from the 2004 crop. I headed right for the Tegu factory – the last time I visited here was in 2006. Amazingly, even though the coffee from this factory has at times achieved greatness, it is not consistent: coffee has sometimes been just mediocre from Tegu. Embarking on a direct relationship will entail partnership and quality feedback, which will (hopefully) help to get our hands around quality control here, and make those great lots intentional rather than accidental. At the same time of my arrival, farmers were arriving with the very first cherries of the 2008 harvest. /div>
Peter with representatives of the Tekangu coffee association.
Farmers were bringing in literal handfuls of cherries, in small plastic bags, carried for miles. It is amazing the amount of work these farmers do each year to bring their coffee to market. Tegu's management took the opportunity to explain to me their new quality initiative – which has to do with bringing ONLY the ripest cherries into the mill. We crouched on the ground with the farmers, picking out slightly ripe, underripe, and overripe cherries in an attempt to really focus on the best of the best – for that is what is going to make it possible for us to pay the really high prices. Ripeness equals sweetness in the cup, and the full, fruity flavor is a great Kenyan is impossible without perfect ripeness. I believe Tegu is on the right track here. They have also divided their farmers into two groups: the "A" group has very well-managed, well-tended farms. Group "B" are farms which have had quality issues in the past or which are less well-managed. Farmers bring their cherry in on different days, allowing Tegu (and us) to keep the best separate, and reward those farmers who are producing the best quality (since those best-of-the-best lots will be sold to us at a premium). I had a great time hanging out at Tegu, filming movies, and planning out the harvest with the leaders of the co-op. I hope for a long, direct relationship with Tegu and the rest of the Tekangu group.
Unripened coffee cherries on the shrub in Kenya.
We went from Tegu to the Karatina factory, where the Tekangu association offices are. We were met by the rest of the Tekangu leadership, and they proudly shared with me the events of the past few years; they have successfully sold a number of the highest-priced lots to the auction, and they are eager to enter into a direct relationship with us, knowing that we have been a great buyer of their coffees in the past. Very exciting! We toured the factory, which was busily being prepared for harvest time. We'll be seeing samples from all three of these factories during the harvest, and giving feedback to the cooperatives. And if greatness emerges, we will be right there and ready to bring the lot home to roast! These would be the first Kenyan coffees which could theoretically qualify for our Direct Trade certification!!
It's an exciting time, all right.
After a friendly goodbye to the Tekangu leadership, I headed back to Nairobi and then homeward.
Until next time,