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Uganda: where have you been?Theme

Uganda: where have you been?

For about a decade now the Coffee Department has been tasting Ugandan coffees in the lab. Generally speaking, they have not been very good, showcasing heavy faded qualities every single time we tasted them. This never really made sense to us because the altitudes, varieties, and potential quality all pointed to a product from which we would expect great things.

This past year, the same partners in Africa we work with on Tsheya and Kalungu from the Democratic Republic of Congo started having us taste coffees from a cooperative in the Rwenzori Mountains of Western Uganda. Not only did the original pre-shipment samples of coffee taste good, they exceeded every other Ugandan coffee we'd tasted by multiple points.

Why, you might ask? Our partners there, along with other organizations, helped to set up micro-washing stations for the Bukonzo Joint Cooperative. (Before this, all of the coffee was processed as low-grade natural sundried coffee.) In addition to the micro-washing stations, our partners have been working on cupping training, good processing techniques, and lots of other quality-oriented education. Honestly, it kind of seemed too good to be true.

Remember when I said that the pre-shipment samples tasted amazing? Before we bought this coffee this year, we had the opportunity to taste some arrival samples and not just pre-shipment samples. The outcome was sadly, once again, what we always taste in these coffee: fade. This left us at a crossroad. We could forget we ever tasted the amazing pre-shipment samples or figure out how to get the quality arrived here. Of course, we chose the latter.

Knowing that faded coffee was the main enemy of quality, the goals were to move the coffee faster than any other coffee has left Uganda and to make sure that the moisture was as low as possible to make it more stable.

We committed upfront to buying from our three favorite washing stations based upon the past pre-shipments, and the cooperative dried all the coffee to 8.9-9.4%. The coffee was approved on November 22, 2013, when the coffee was still in Western Uganda and arrived in the US on January 23, 2014. This coffee was harvested from late-September through December and arrived in January! The result: it doesn’t taste like stale bread.

Let’s get real for a moment, though. We still face a lot of challenges. From pre-shipment to arrival we still saw a quality loss. Overall, the milling, sorting, processing, and storage of this coffee need to be improved. And, of course, the dreaded potato defect that we thought was going to be very minor is there. (It is low – at about 2.5% of 12 oz single serving brews. For reference, Buziraguhindwa, Remera, Mpemba are at about 5%.)

Regardless, it still should feel pretty great to be tasting two of the lots that represent the best tasting arrivals of Ugandan coffee we have ever seen.

Notes on the Coffees

St. Goret

St. Goret is located in the Kasungu village on the Rwenzori Mountains. Fifty-five famers are a part of this cooperative. Varieties grown are the same as the other cooperative: Nyasaland, SL14, and SL28. (Nyasaland is supposedly a descendant from the original Jamaican Blue Mountain Typica, but that is unconfirmed.) Processing is dry fermentation, but we don’t know for how long, yet.


Buthale

Buthale is a located in the village of Buthale – hence the name – and also in the Rwenzori Mountains. The cooperative has 221 members. Dry fermentation and same varieties.


Rollout Dates and Availability

Currently we are reviewing these coffees for instances of defect and consistency. While the Buthale has a cleaner flavor profile, the St. Goret is more dynamic and interesting. We will likely roll out one of these on March 3, if the quality and consistency is fair.

Theme

Building Toscano

This week we are hoping to give people a glimpse into the development of our year-round products, in particular Toscano. The focus of the conversation will be around the idea of flavor profile, as well as the idea of building year-round products at the farm level. Increasingly, we are working with skilled farmers who are manipulating processing, variety, and doing specific lots to make very specific flavors. This is our mission in coffee: to make producers into craftsmen. This also allows us to focus on single-origins that may or may not be single coffees.

Style of Tasting

Cupping

While, of course, pulling this as espresso would have seemed logical, it is good to remember that Toscano is a good coffee option for those looking for something full-bodied, nutty, and chocolate-y.

Notes on the Coffees

Toscano Ecuador

First on the table will be coffee from Ecuador. This coffee is from our partners at Fapecafes in Loja, Ecuador. This year, the coffee did not meet the standards we set for our El Gavilan coffee, and that is why we will not see an El Gavilan main lot offering. While the coffee didn’t meet the single-origin standards, it was still good and had great notes leaning towards cocoa, nut, and also with less acidity. Based on that, we worked with the cooperative to buy this lot solely for use in Toscano, and this roast is the first attempt. It is roasted to an Agtron 60. Overall, this is a good attempt, but it is not all the way there. We will likely slow the roast down a minute or two and lighten the roast by about 2 points. 

Toscano Bolivia

Second on the table is the coffee from Bolivia. One of our favorite trial versions for Toscano in 2013 was with Illimani, from Caranavi, Bolivia. NOTE: this coffee does not come from Nueva Llusta, but rather a different area and group. This particular lot is a total experiment. It is 70% washed and 30% pulp natural processed from a single producer named Silverio Nina around the area of Illimani. We contracted this coffee solely as an experiment – hoping that the pulp natural would bring some sweetness and body to the the mix. Overall, we are happy with the sweetness, but think that the fruit notes are too far from the profile we hope for for Toscano. We will likely go back to the drawing board on the blend, and introduce yet another washed coffee from Bolivia into the mix to make this ready for production.

Rollout Dates and Availability

The Ecuador version of Toscano is going to start being roasted on February 6, and will continue to be Toscano for approximately 5-6 weeks. The Bolivia version of Toscano will actually go into production likely in April. So, you are likely asking what will be in the middle: Costa Rica. Say what! Yes, indeed – but you will just have to wait for that story.

– Tim

Part One


Spending a week in Colombia, my first time in the beautiful country, was truly a whirlwind with multiple purposes. I skirted the countryside, starting in the town of Gigante in the department of Huila, then passing through Guadalupe, Pitalito, La Plata, and ending in Tambo and Timbio, both in the department of Cauca.

The first goal was to deliver results from the survey on microlots that 122 producers in three states participated in during January and February of 2013. Not only were results delivered, but together we dug deeper to uncover greater meaning in some of the results and continue adjusting research questions as well as the greater research purpose. All told I was able to speak with 101 of the 122 participants in a series of 5 meetings in 5 separate towns. As Nelson Ramirez, Virmax’s Director of technical training who accompanied me the first three days, said, “This is a marathon!” The majority of the survey respondents are not ones from whom Counter Culture purchases coffee. However, seeing the overlap in their responses to the survey will only aid us in understanding our supply chain in addition to the overarching situation facing high quality producers in Colombia.

Part two contains reflections that bring together analysis on this segment of the research. Some of their reactions were more surpising than others. Perhaps most surprising to me was their enthusiasm that they would indeed love to participate in a similar study in the future – they are honored that someone down the supply chain values their day-to-day experience enough to ask detailed questions. In addition, I loved hearing what else they thought would be important to study pertaining to the cultivation of specialty coffee. I am sitting on a ton of information – if anyone is looking for a research project, holler!

The second goal was to spend time with our old friends at Organica, purveyors of La Golondrina coffee. This group is one that has truly ridden the waves of hard times, under the strong leadership of Nelson Melo, and continues to prove themselves as fighters and committed to specialty coffee. Not only did I share the survey results with them but we shared meals, sat in on a board of director’s meeting, and, of course, visited producer’s on their farms.

Lastly, Nelson Melo has been building a relationship with a nearby cooperative over the last three years. He was eager to have Counter Culture make the acquaintance of Federación Campesina de Cauca.

The trip was incredibly full in more ways than one and I am excited to share some of that with you here.

Part Two


What follows are some of the overarching themes uncovered by the five meetings held in Gigante, Guadalupe, Pitalito, La Plata, and Tambo.

Over the course of these meetings I delivered results from the survey on microlots that 122 producers participated in during January and February of 2013. Not only were results delivered, but together we dug deeper to uncover greater meaning in some of the results and to continue adjusting research questions – as well as the greater research purpose. All told, I was able to speak with 101 of the 122 participants.

After sharing the research, each group responded to the following questions:
  1. Why did producers invest such a large amount of their premium money into fertilizer?
  2. Why did producers choose to renovate with variety Colombia more frequently than other varieties?
  3. How are producers overcoming current challenges in producing specialty coffee?
  4. What are they doing on their farms for this harvest that are practices they think will lead to higher quality?
  5. How was the process of being interviewed? And of receiving the results of the study in this way?
  6. If you could study anything else in regard to the production of specialty coffee, what would you want to study?

I hope you'll enjoy some of their answers as much as I did.

Saludos!

Hannah

Thanks for the photos, courtesy of Alejandro Cadena and Nelson Ramirez.
Despite the widespread perception to the contrary, any roasted coffee can be brewed with pretty much any brewer to make great coffee as long as you start with high-quality coffee and pay attention to your brewing parameter. We put together a short video with Team NYC's Meister to elaborate.

And, for the month of February, we're hosting an Instagram offer with a chance to win a bag of our current featured coffee, Remera. Check out the #anycoffeeanybrew page for more information.
Hello, cuppers!

What a week it has been; I hope you're all staying warm. Life continues apace and there are coffees for us to taste, so let's hop to it!

There's not a lot I can say about Valle del Santuario that you haven't all heard before, given the number of times it has appeared on our cupping tables over the past seven years. Our relationship with the Cenfrocafe co-operative of San Ignacio, Peru, is one of our strongest, but it hasn't always been that way - in late 2008, after our second year buying coffee from the five communities of the valley, the coffee department had a serious conversation about whether to continue working with the cooperative because we had heard rumors that they hadn't distributed price premiums in a timely fashion and growers felt dissatisfied. We opted to continue because we were able to address our concerns with the cooperative and, five years later, I'm glad that we didn't react to a rumor we heard through an importer and opted to be patient, work on the relationship, and commit to better, more frequent communication in the future.

Our next coffee is a good one to follow on the heels of that story because Remera represents a long-term bet still in its early stages. We have known Epiphanie and her son Sam, owners of the Bufcafe and Remera mills, for many years, but it was Tim's trip in 2012 that opened our eyes to the family's potential as a collaborator as opposed to simply a supplier. Last year's Bufcafe Natural Sundried was a runaway hit and a subject of much curiosity, especially - judging from online ordering records - among coffee industry folks, and although the washed coffee we're buying from Remera is more in line, flavor-wise with what you might expect from another very good Rwandan coffee, it's still a treat and it's got a lot of potential for growth. Sam is a regular fixture of coffee department discussions as someone who represents the next generation of producer-leaders both in terms of his youth and his vision for quality. His quality improvements and his experiments with sundried naturals continue (we have our fingers crossed that we'll have some sundried natural coffee from Remera in a couple of months). Also, Sam plans to attend the conference on potato defect that we'll be sponsoring with a portion of the proceeds from sales of our holiday coffee, which we are hopeful will help us make progress against this frustrating obstacle.

Last but not least, we have Buziraguhindwa Natural Sundried, which we've been brewing more than ever since it showed so well in competition last weekend. We have been waiting two years for this coffee experiment to materialize and while it paid off handsomely, we have certainly had fits and starts along the way and questioned whether or not the potential was worth the time, effort and, one year, the financial hit of the coffee arriving unsellable. The clean but intense fruit in the flavor of this coffee, however, makes it all feel worthwhile because despite the fact that we don't buy a lot of this style of coffee compared to washed coffee, we do want to have more options than just Ethiopia for this flavor profile and in order to get there, we have to build it patiently and take the long view.

Enjoy the coffees, please!

-Kim
The Big Eastern regional competition is coming to Durham, NC. The 2013 Southeast Regional Brewers Cup Champ – and Counter Culture sales team member – Jonathan Bonchak is competing again. At this year's Southeast Regional Brewers Cup, Jonathan's using a combination of Buziraguhindwa Natural Sundried from Burundi and Idido washed from Ethiopia. And, for a brewer, he's using Counter Culture's Classic #2 Bonmac drip cone!

"My lady gave this to me as a Christmas present years ago," recalls Jonathan. "It was the first time I ever tried to use a pourover cone. I only needed a few tries to make some truly tasty coffee. I still come back to it today as my favorite drip cone, and I recommend it to all of my friends looking into making great pourover coffee at home."

Asked why, Jonathan explains, "It has one small hole that the brewed coffee passes through, and this is helpful if your pour is quick or if your grinder isn't great. I like this slower flow because it can help you extract a little bit more since it prolongs the coffee and water dwell time."

And, of course, we have these available in our store, if you're interested.
Good morning, cuppers!
 
Sorting at Mpemba.With 52 weeks in a year and three coffees (on average) in each of our weekly cuppings, it stands to reason that we have read, spoken, and learned about – not to mention brewed and tasted – 156 coffees together since this time last year! Of course, one could argue that we have repeated coffees, but anyone who has cupped as long as you all have knows that our understanding of coffee grows through repetition. In the depth-versus-breadth debate, I fall firmly on the side of depth. In any case, it has been a heck of a year in coffee, and it means a lot to me to have gotten to share thoughts from the Coffee Department on all 156 of 'em.
 
The last of 2013's Friday cuppings showcases three stellar coffees from Burundi. Our story begins with the washed coffee from the Buziraguhindwa washing station in Kayanza, which we have been purchasing since 2010, making it our longest-running relationship in Africa. Is that surprising? Given how new the whole country is to the specialty coffee industry, I'd say it's kind of surprising, and we certainly have longer track records of purchasing from washing stations like Ndaroini in Kenya, but those purchases haven't been in consecutive years. The strong relationships we now count on to bring us awesome coffees – see: Haru, Idido, Remera, etc. – have been built on the model of Buziraguhindwa and the lessons we have learned in the years we have been working with them.
 
We were really excited to get to buy coffee from Mpemba in 2012 because we weren't the only buyer interested in the Kazoza N'Ikawa cooperative's first coffees from this washing station. Good elevation, solid infrastructure, and a well-respected manager are universally appealing, but we were especially committed to getting connected to a cooperative because most of our successes in Burundi, including Buziraguhindwa, had been with privately owned washing stations. Elsewhere in the world, almost all of the coffee we buy from small-holder farmers comes to us through producer cooperatives, which come in all shapes, sizes, and degrees of effectiveness but, at the end of the day, share a measure of accountability to the individual, as well as potential for empowerment that private washing stations don't.
 
After last year's lot of Mpemba arrived tasting fantastic, we were doubly pleased with our decision to grow, and in 2013 the washing station's coffee took fourth place in the Burundi's Golden Cup Competition. In most of our cuppings this year, Mpemba's coffee has been the more complex of the two in flavor and brightness, but I'll be curious to hear whether you find them to be distinctly different, and how.
 
Finally, the coffee that will inevitably generate the most discussion is Buziraguhindwa's sundried natural coffee, which is, as far as we know, the only sundried natural coffee exported from Burundi. Despite similarities between climate and geography across the coffee-producing countries of East Africa, Ethiopia has remained the only producer of sundried natural coffees for export – which is a way of saying that all countries make them but they're mostly not good. Buzi Nat – as I know this coffee will be nicknamed – is the result of curiosity and of our ability to experiment within our supply chains.
 
I feel like a broken record when I say that our strong relationships and our persistence are the foundation of innovation, but it's true, and it's important to understanding who we are and what we do. The reason that Ramadhan, one of the owners of Buziraguhindwa, was intrigued by the prospect of sundried natural coffee wasn't because he got some tip that it's a market poised for massive growth but because we were excited about it and committed to it before it even existed (which was the case with our first coffee from the washing station back in 2010, as well). The story of our sundried natural coffee from Bufcafe in Rwanda last year bears many similarities to Buziraguhindwa's and now Sam, the mill manager, wants to produce an entire container of sundried natural coffee for us– which is, like, 10 times as much as we bought from him in last year. I don't know if we'll actually want that much, but it feels like a testament to Counter Culture's ideas and our approach.
 
Though this story is far from complete, I can never fit everything I want to say into a single e-mail and I've got 52 e-mails to write in 2014, I'll leave you now with the hope that today's cupping is a great conclusion to this great year.
 
–Kim Elena
 
As we say in our Direct Trade report, Cenfrocafe is truly a model among cooperatives, and they are a joy to visit and learn from each time. This visit included all of the usual elements – from producer meetings to meeting with cooperative leadership, cupping, and, in general, hearing about highlights and challenges currently facing the group.
 
Cenfrocafe has grown by almost 30% this year in its volumes. The coffee we received from this group and sell as Valle del Santuario and La Frontera has been exceptional this year. Our hope is to continue to hone in on even greater volumes of this quality coffee. Already on the larger side with 2,680 members, they have 240 more members going through the one-year trial period. They are, after 12 years of operation, getting to be a well-oiled machine. In addition to the business of coffee, they are intentionally working on helping producers with diversification efforts, health resources, and continued integration of youth and women in the cooperative. Of course, they still have kinks to work out in stabilizing volumes, lot separation, and best representing the needs of cooperative members.
 
Leaf rust is beginning to prove challenging, and some producers have lost up to 3,000 trees or more as a result. Conversations about how to prevent and renovate are serious. And, continuing to have the conversation about producing quality coffee alongside conversations about protection and disease resistant varieties is inevitable. The hope is that Cenfrocafe can continue to take a proactive role in regard to producers' needs for prevention training and on-farm investments.
 
Coffee quality this year was lagging in July and August at the beginning of the harvest, but they had higher hopes as they saw great improvements in October. I believe our coffee this year reflects that change. And, it again emphasizes the benefits of being by the cooperative's side – as true partners – not just for one harvest or one great run, but through the ups and downs.
 
I hope you'll enjoy these photos of my last week in Peru!
 
Abrazos,
Hannah
 
From the embed above, click [full screen] and [show info] for Hannah's annotated notes on each photo. You can also view Hannah's trip report on Flickr.
 

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