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Coffee cherries ripening on a shrub in Santa Ana, El Salvador. Photo by Tim Hill.
You might think that the car picking me up from San Salvador breaking down less than 2 miles from the airport would be bad sign of things to come on this trip, but I knew that I was going to see Aida Batlle and Finca Mauritania so that was going to be impossible. After a quick 2 hour drive, well, and a little bit of waiting for alternate transportation, I arrived at Las Cruces – the mill where our Los Luchadores coffee comes from. Immediately upon arriving at Las Cruces, something caught my eye. Kenya drying beds. What? There is only one person that could have been responsible for this. And come to think of it, I believe the very first conversation that Peter had with Aida – over 5 years ago now – was actually about Kenya drying beds for coffee. It turns out Aida had them built to do some experiments with drying coffee and coffee pulp for the now very popular Cascara. But I will talk about that later.
Aida Batlle stands at one of her raised, Kenya-style drying bed in Santa Ana, El Salvador. Photo by Tim Hill.
Aida met me at Las Cruces, and we quickly caught up and talked about the coffee world and El Salvador politics. (If you haven't seen the papers, El Salvador had a presidential election right after I left, and it was in the minds of everyone when I was down there.) We also, of course, talked about her coffees and some of the exciting things she is working on. After a quick walk around the mill it was off to dinner, then bed so we could get a jump on the next day, when we would visit Aida's farms.
In 2007 I visited Finca Mauritania while Aida was in her third year of transitioning to organic production and, while everything looked really good, it didn't look like it does now. Everything now seems just a little bit lusher, a little bit greener, a little bit more shaded, and just a little bit happier. It was a great thing to see, and Aida talked about how the transition to organic was very hard but that was just the beginning. Now, the challenge is to make it really work and to breathe new life into everything through the many things she continues to learn.
After visiting Finca Mauritania, it was a quick little drive up the side of Santa Ana volcano to visit Finca Kilimanjaro. From first glance, it was apparent that Aida had been very busy. Finca Kilimanjaro also looked better, as well, much better. Aida said that Kilimanjaro and Los Alpes (another one of her farms) had been even more challenging than Mauritania because of the higher altitude, and that there is still a long way to go, but overall she was excited by the progress. Oh, and as a huge, awesome side note: this year Counter Culture is going to be able to purchase coffee from Finca Kilimanjaro!!! If you remember it from 2 years ago, I am sure your mouth is watering already.
Coffee cherries drying on a raised bed in Santa Ana, El Salvador. Photo by Tim Hill.With the all the excitement over the farms and the great things Aida has been working on, I almost forgot to ask about Pasa and Pulp Natural. Before I left for El Salvador, Peter warned me that 2 weeks prior there had been some unseasonable rains that could potentially make Pasa not happen this year. And, sadly that was true. Just like tomatoes, if rain comes at the wrong time, the fruit can split, and if you leave it on the tree (like Aida does for Pasa) the fruit can rot. However, being super-creative, Aida decided that while Pasa wasn't going to be possible, she could do a Sundried Natural more akin to the process in Ethiopia … so, this year, we will have Pulp Natural processed coffee and a natural sundried Finca Mauritania. After seeing and talking about all those coffees, I couldn't wait for the next day when I would actually get to taste them.
So, onward to the tasting. At Las Cruces the next day, the Sundried Natural Finca Mauritania was absolutely delicious – full of creamy fruit and chocolate which I don't think anyone will be disappointed in. I tasted this year's Pulp Natural, as well – and I see espresso in its future. I also got to taste this years washed Finca Mauritania and Finca Kilimanjaro, which were both mind-blowing. And, to my surprise I also got to taste some of this years Cascara. For those of you that didn't get to try it this past year, Aida took the skin from the coffee cherry and dried it out to make a tea. This has been done traditionally in Yemen and Kenya but never have I heard of in El Salvador. The best part about it is that because of Aida's exemplary picking of the coffee to begin with, the tea is so much sweeter and juicier than any of versions I have tasted in the past. This year in particular, she has improved the process, and we are expecting some great Cascara.
This year's Los Luchadores will come from Finca Las Delicias, a farm in Santa Ana, El Salvador. Photo by Tim Hill.If all that weren't enough, after the Cascara, it was time to taste this year's Los Luchadores. The last two years, we have bought our Los Luchadores Pacamara from a farm in Metapán, El Salvador, called Finca Buenos Aires. This year that particular farm wanted to submit their Pacamara into the Cup of Excellence, and while we were disappointed that we couldn't buy it for Los Luchadores we wish them luck in the competition. Anyway, from the cupping table of Pacamara coffees one stood out immediately. The coffee was floral, full of deep, dark plum, black cherry, prune, savory tomato, with a crisp brightness, and in the end turned out to have that signature syrupy body. After cupping, Aida asked which one I liked best, and I said without hesitation, “Finca Las Delicias.” To which she said “Oh! Perfect that is where we are going right now." I love instant gratification!! So, off we went. We started driving to Finca Las Delicias and I couldn't quite put my finger on it but everything seemed very familiar. It was driving me crazy and then Aida said, “This side of the volcano is really different.” So long story short and oddly enough, Finca Las Delicias is on the Santa Ana volcano … just on the other side than Finca Mauritania. I guess there is something about the microclimates around the volcano.
A beautiful view of volcanic terrain in Santa Ana, El Salvador. Photo by Tim Hill.
When we arrived at the farm – after some rough roads that had clearly been affected by the eruption 2 years ago – I couldn't believe the view from the farm.
The farm was great, I got to see the section where most of the Pacamara is planted and a lot of pre-mill cherry sorting. I can say is it was really all awe-inspiring, and I can't wait for the next lot of Los Luchadores. Wow, what a day. What a four days!
Next: I was off to Guatemala to meet up with Kim Elena and onto Finca Pashapa.
Mango, papaya, and other fresh fruit sold on the street outside the airport in Guatemala City. Photo by Kim Elena Bullock.I arrived to warm, breezy weather in Guatemala City and had just enough time to eat a mango and some papaya on the street outside the airport before I was picked up by Javier Recinos – twin brother and farm-managing partner of
Jorge Recinos, who has been our main contact at the farm – and Javier's wife, Carla. I admit that I didn't immediately recognize that it wasn't Jorge, having not seen them in almost two years and, well, them being twins and all, but it didn't take me too long to figure it out and, thankfully, I didn't embarrass myself. Our first order of business was a big family dinner with Jorge, his wife Ana, and their kids, as well as Noemi and Antonio, the matriarch and patriarch of this warm, friendly family. As you may recall from Counter Culture's past trip reports, Finca Nueva Armenia is pretty remote: an 8-hour trip from Guatemala City, in fact. Jorge and Javier each spend two weeks a month at the farm and two weeks in Guatemala City, and on our last visit Antonio kept us entertained during our journey by eating a gigantic bag of candy, pestering Jorge the whole way, and telling stories of his youthful adventures on the farm. Unfortunately, Antonio's health has deteriorated and his trips to the farm are more rare, and, in order to keep the whole family together for this relationship-building visit, we stayed in Guatemala City, where we would also be able to cup coffee together and visit the mill where the coffee is processed for export.
Rather than make the long trip to Finca Nueva Armenia, Kim Elena stayed in Guatemala City for this visit, where she was able to cup coffee with the Recinos and visit the mill where the coffee is processed for export. Photo by Kim Elena Bullock.
And, although Counter Culture's last trip to Finca Nueva Armenia was a short one (curtailed by a strike on the main highway that forced us to leave earlier than we had planned), it was easy to pick up conversation where we left off at the last visit and over our days together we discussed everything from coffee drying methods to politics to family. Since the last time we sat at a table together, Jorge and his wife Ana had a baby girl, Javier finished his graduate degree, and the farm has decided to submit coffee to the 2009 Cup of Excellence Competition in Guatemala! Big news all around. We have really improved our communication with the Recinos family over the past year and the process has had its challenges: though Javier and Jorge are young (38), they were raised on Finca Nueva Armenia in a culture of roaster-grower relationships that didn't entail visits, e-mail conversation, and supply-chain transparency. Counter Culture has worked hard this year to bring the whole supply chain relationship into line with our Direct Trade purchasing model and gain everyone's trust, and we have high expectations for this relationship and the coffee that comes out of it over the next few years. This year, we have doubled the amount of coffee that we buy from the farm, which is great news for the Recinoses and for all of our customers: this has been one of the most consistent, delicious coffees we have had from Central America and it comes from a farm with an incredible commitment to the environment. In addition to adopting organic certification early (the late 1990s), Finca Nueva Armenia completed the process of certifying the old-growth, diverse canopy of shade on their farm with the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center's Bird-Friendly seal last year and they have also recently joined a national association to designate their farm as a private natural reserve. I often say that organic farming is so much more of a commitment to the soil, water, and environment than most consumers realize when they hear "no synthetic chemicals," but the dedication that these guys have to conservation on their farm is like none I have ever seen.
Twin brothers Javier and Jorge Recinos cupping their family coffee from Finca Nueva Armenia in Guatemala City in March 2009. Photo by Kim Elena.
This year's harvest has just ended at Finca Nueva Armenia, and I was lucky enough to cup a few samples from the farm, including their Cup of Excellence lot, with the brothers Recinos at the offices of CAMEC, the exporter. These guys have little experience with lot separation for cup quality, only for size and density of bean, so I did everything I could to get them excited about the cupping process and the potential for recognizing some amazing small lots of coffee if they separate their Typica variety coffee from their Bourbon variety, for example. Both Counter Culture's lot and the Cup of Excellence lot come from a part of the farm that is almost entirely Typica variety and both coffees were deliciously sweet with a juicy, orange-y acidity. We also visited the mill where the Recinoses process their coffee, and I got to see Counter Culture's lot waiting in the all-important reposo, or rest, phase before export in April. I can hardly wait!
After a great few days together, it was time for me to jump on a bus and head east to Esquipulas – home to a famous carving of Christ out of black wood and a major destination for Guatemalan religious tourism – where I would meet Tim Hill for visits to Finca Pashapa and Finca El Puente. More to come from Honduras!
Kim Elena
A simple coffee roasting and brewing kit aimed at helping more Rwandan coffee farmers to consume and appreciate the incredible coffee they grow. Photo by Counter Culture Coffee.Six months ago, Counter Culture started working with our partners at the SPREAD project and RWASHOSCCO, as well as with our friends from Intelligentsia, to sponsor a Roast-Your-Own-Coffee program in Rwandan coffee-growing communities. A great irony of the coffee trade is that most coffee farmers—even some of the world’s most dedicated and talented coffee farmers—are not able to actually taste the coffee they work so hard to produce. Time and time again, we’ve seen that when coffee farmers are able to taste and evaluate their own coffee, they are able to use that immediate feedback to not only better develop quality, but also to better communicate about coffee with partners like us. It’s a good thing.


Launched in February, this program empowers Rwandan coffee farmers with the tools needed to mimic the Ethiopian coffee ritual: kits made up of a bicycle inner tube for removing the parchment from the coffee, a basket for winnowing the parchment away before roasting, roasting pot, and a mortar and pestle for grinding roasted coffee

Counter Culture's Sustainability & Producer Relations Manager Kim Elena Bullock provided an update on how these efforts may help to improve upon the ironic downside of traveling to coffee growing regions.

Read Kim Elena's full update in the Development at Origin portion of our Sustainability coverage.


Long overdue, I am finally putting my notes down to paper from my trip back in June 2008 to Colombia. Just in time because the 2008/2009 La Golondrina recently arrived in our warehouse. It is hard to imagine that I was in Colombia just over six months ago helping to work out details for this year's La Golondrina, and six months later the fruits of what we worked on have now just become a reality. Talk about having to think ahead. Before I go into details of my trip back in June, I feel a little back-story is in order.
Colombian coffee farmer Jesus Fernandez is one of the talented contributors to Counter Culture's La Golondrina project. Photo by Counter Culture Coffee.
For three years, we have been working very hard with the producers of La Golondrina, always with the goal to source the best coffee we can in quality and sustainability. This means the coffee has to taste amazing first and foremost. The producers also need to believe in farming as stewardship of the land and in Counter Culture as a long term partner. Three years ago, when we first heard of producers in Colombia who were dedicated to quality, certified organic (a rarity in Colombia), and working with an amazing exporter, we knew this was going to be revolutionary. There was only one catch: the first year we were only able to purchase 10 percent of what we wanted to buy from the organic producers of La Golondrina. While this was a setback, we supported the farms by buying all we could and started talking about the next year. In the time between the first and second year, the producers worked on getting more farmers involved and worked on many projects to improve quality. And, it worked. Last year was better than the first, and we were able to buy almost 3 times what we had the year before. However, it was still much less than we were hoping for. Again we started planning for the 2008/2009 harvest, and again the producers worked even harder to get more farmers involved and to improve quality. This brings the story to about June 2008, when I arrived in Popayan, Colombia.
The streets of Popayan, Colombia. Counter Culture Coffee has been working with the exporter Virmax there for several years. Photo by Counter Culture Coffee.For a long time Director of Coffee and co-owner Peter Giuliano has been telling these stories of many days travel, 10-hour car rides, and driving on the side of a cliff to get to the farms of many of the producers we work with. So I almost feel left out when a less-than-4 hour flight to Bogota, another quick 45 minute flight, and stroll through the smallest airport I had ever seen, placed me in the heart of the coffee town Popayan.
Driving through the streets of Popayan with Giancarlo Ghiretti, one of the founders of Virmax – our exporting partners in Colombia – we started making our way to their warehouse and cupping lab. Looking down the streets as we drove through Popayan it is hard not to notice all the stark white gorgeous buildings. It is also hard not to notice there are no streetlights downtown directing the chaos of motorcycles, taxis, cars, vendors, and bicycles. At one time I counted 7 motorcycles driving all parallel to each other down a winding tiny road. From that very first drive I knew I was going to like this city.
Processed green coffee beans in burlap bags ready for transport at Virmax in Popayan, Colombia. Photo by Counter Culture Coffee.
When Giarcarlo and I arrived at Virmax we were greeted by Leonardo Henao, who oversees the lab and warehouse for the coffee being received from producers in Popayan, and Diego Bustos, the lead cupper. I knew a lot about how Virmax worked before I came here, but seeing it is whole different story. Giancarlo walked me around and started to take me through the process of what they do and how it all works. He showed me the storage room with hundreds of bags of coffee – stacked almost to the ceiling – every bag catalogued with different information. Once I finished admiring the many coffee bags, he showed me the cupping room – equipped with sample roasters, moisture meters, and, of course, tons of glasses and spoons to slurp coffee all day. Then I was taken step by step through a day's work – literally.
Cupping coffee samples from farmers at Virmax in Popayan, Colombia. Photo by Counter Culture Coffee.
Producers start arriving pretty early in the morning, bringing their coffee still in parchment, by means of car, truck, and bus – whatever way they can. (Fridays actually tend to be the busiest due to better public transportation.) Once the coffee is brought to Virmax it is weighed, checked for moisture, screened, sorted for defects, and then meticulously sample roasted. Once it is roasted, generally within an hour or two it is set up to be tasted along with the all the other coffees that were submitted that morning. This is what I was waiting for: tasting coffee. Diego, Giancarlo, and I went through more than 15 coffees that were submitted that morning and began to rate them. Right from the start I knew some of them were going to be spectacular, one of them I will talk about in a particular. At the end of the cupping, Diego and I compared notes and gave the coffees a score. The ones that were good – scoring above an 86 on a scale of 0-100 – were accepted and would become part of La Golondrina, or if they were from another producer group would become part of someone else's lot. If the coffee was very good – scoring above an 88 – again, they were accepted and were noted to be paid a premium. If the coffee was outstanding – scoring above a 92 – these are lots that would become potential microlots and paid a very, very high premium. During this time it is important to note that the producers that brought in the coffee have an opportunity to taste the coffee alongside Diego, Giancarlo, and myself and talk about it so there are no misconceptions about the score the coffee was given. After the tasting, all the notes are put into a database and the farmers are given the information on their coffee. Based on that information, money is transferred that day often times in cash right there on the spot to the producer. Within a few hours time, coffee was brought in, quality checked in many different facets, tasted, and then paid premiums well over the market price … all right there, that day. For me, this was a truly remarkable system, and they were gracious enough to let me be a part of it.
Preparing burlap bags of green coffee for transport at Virmax in Popayan, Colombia. Photo by Counter Culture Coffee.
On my third day in Popayan, after two days of cupping, sorting, and roasting, I was picked up by Liliana Pabón, and we headed to see some of the producers of La Golondrina. Before I talk about going to the farms, this would be a good time to talk about that spectacular coffee I mentioned above. It turns out that coffee is from none other than a producer named Nelson Melo, and as you probably guessed, his wife was the one showing me around the farms. Nelson and Liliana are not only producers of amazing coffee from their farm Las Acacias, but Nelson is the President of the group of producers we work with, and Liliana is very active in helping maintain organic certification and meeting any other needs the farms may have. Before I even left North Carolina, Peter and Producer Relations & Sustainability Manager Kim Elena Bullock both talked about Nelson and Liliana as having an unstoppable drive for producing and helping to produce great coffee, and I was about to experience that first hand. Liliana was happy to show me around, but she also had a lot of work to do, so I was about to get a whirlwind farm tour.
An unused patio next to new green coffee bean drying racks in Popayan, Colombia. Photo by Counter Culture Coffee.
Within two hours I was able to visit five farms, where Liliana was asking other producers how well underway the harvest was and if they were having any issues this year. During that time, I was getting an overview of some of the improvements from the year before. One of the major improvements was that every farmer in La Golondrina received a small grant to build new drying facilities for their coffee. Before, the farmers were drying their coffee on cement patios, which is good for quality but not ideal because in Colombia it often rains during the harvest. What would happen is that the producers would be picking coffee when all of a sudden it would begin to rain, and they would have to run and clear the patio of any coffee that was drying. Now, every farmer has covered raised beds, so they no longer have to worry about rain, and the quality of drying is better, as well.
Famous Colombian coffee farmer Hipolito Pacheco, whom you may recognize from the giant La Golondrina poster at Counter Culture or the Counter Culture Direct Trade pamphlet. Photo by Counter Culture Coffee.
Besides the great drying racks, many producers including the famous Hipolito Pacheco (pictured at left) – who you may recognize from our Counter Culture Direct Trade pamphlet – and a great farmer named Jesus Fernandez talked about their plans for the future and expanding. On both of their farms not only had they really committed to better quality practices over the last year, but they believed in what they were doing so much that both had planted hundreds of new coffee trees.
Every farm I had to the chance to visit was truly beautiful, well-managed, and seemed to have infinite potential. I was sad to have to leave the farms but I knew there was more coffee to taste, and I only had one more day in Popayan, so it was back to the cupping lab for me.
A young coffee shrub on a farm in Colombia. Photo by Counter Culture Coffee.
When we got back to lab we had 12 more coffees to taste without knowing what they were, and little did I know this was going to be one of the most important cuppings I would do my entire time there. We started smelling the fragrance of the coffees, evaluating the aroma, and then cupping around and around the table until we had slurped all the coffees till they were cold. Three of the 12 coffees proved to be some of the best I had tasted all week, making me very excited and anxious to see what they were. The first coffee of the three I really like was citrusy with a good body, and was revealed as a coffee from northeast of Popayan in Canoas. The second coffee tasted slightly fruity with notes of cocoa was from La Plata in Huila. My favorite on the table however, tasted like, honey, peach, and mild citrus, with notes of caramel and cocoa, and just so happened to be revealed as being from Popayan. And in particular a small compiled lot from the producers of La Golondrina!! This moment really made the trip for me, and showcased all the hard work that the producers have been putting in. After one more day of tasting great La Golondrina coffees, I was back on a plane to North Carolina but with a whole new understanding of La Golondrina and the producers who make it possible.
Virmax's Nelson Melo and Counter Culture Coffee's head roaster Tim Hill are excited about the incredible quality of the 2008-2009 lot from La Golondrina. Photo by Counter Culture Coffee.
Once back, and armed with what I learned and tasted in Colombia, the Counter Culture coffee department came to the conclusion that, based upon the last three years of quality, the commitment to being stewards of the land, and with the right leadership in Nelson Melo and Liliana Pabón, we would commit to buying coffee just from the organic producers in Popayan this year!
And a side note: during these last five months the organic producers came through 100 percent this year, producing insanely good quality, but not only that, we were able to purchase for the first time all the coffee we wanted for 2008/2009!
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 ….