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There's Only One Grand Reserve

Aida's Grand Reserve enters its ninth year, and, as always, it's at once a delicious coffee and great fodder for conversation about quality, relationships, and what makes a product special.

Style of Tasting

Cup and Brew

Tasters familiar with Aida's Grand Reserve will definitely want to cup it to get as much sensory information as possible, so begin by setting up the two coffees for cupping. Also be prepared to brew a batch or two of AGR to enjoy in at a more leisurely rate either as your cuppers are arriving or after you finish cupping—or both!

Notes on the Coffees

A few weeks ago, I said that Finca Mauritania is an example of how good a coffee can be with average elevation and good varieties when every step of the harvesting and processing of that coffee is flawless. Well, Aida's Grand Reserve, which we purchase from the same Aida Batlle who's responsible for Finca Mauritania's coffee, represents how much better a producer can make coffee when she has the option to complement coffee from better elevation and varieties with perfect processing.

Let me explain. Of the farms that Aida's family owns, Finca Mauritania is the lowest elevation and the only one that is 100% Bourbon variety, while her other farms—Los Alpes and Kilimanjaro—are higher up the Ilmantepec volcano and have more complex-tasting varieties like Kenia, Pacamara, and Typica.

Of course, Aida is not changing the varieties or elevation of coffee from an individual farm. But, unlike most farmers, she is able to apply the picking, processing, and selection techniques—the techniques that make Finca Mauritania so good—to varieties and elevation that are even better.

For most farmers, varieties are difficult to experiment with, because projects require at least five years to produce adequately and experimenting with elevation is impossible—unless you have money to spend on buying more land to farm and planting it with coffee, which, as you might expect, is rare.

Getting back to Grand Reserve, this is the ninth year that Aida has challenged herself to create a small lot of extraordinary coffee from among the many coffee varieties and methods of processing that she has available, and it's also our ninth year selling this coffee.

The idea began as a way to recoup costs from the damage caused by the 2005 eruption of the Ilmantepec volcano and has since become a coffee that Aida is incredibly proud of—over which she spends countless hours agonizing each year. Saying that every batch is unique is an understatement of comic proportions: A few years ago, there were no fewer than 27 different components to Aida's Grand Reserve coming from three farms, three processes (washed, sundried natural, and pulp natural), and three fermentation styles (Kenya, Ethiopia, and El Salvador) within the washed coffee segments.

The 2014 lot is simpler in its composition—which is exclusively washed coffees from Finca Kilimanjaro and Finca Los Alpes (i.e., no naturals, no Mauritania)—but the flavors don't lack for fruitiness or complexity. Though there are fewer components this year, Aida's Grand Reserve is by no means basic, as we're still talking about three varieties (Bourbon, Typica, and Kenia) from two farms and fermentation techniques borrowed from Burundi and Kenya.

Having tasted so many iterations of Aida's farms' coffees over the years, as well as the annual Grand Reserve lot, we have encouraged her to focus on the farms with the best elevation and varieties, as opposed to including all of the farms and all of the processes she knows—as she did in that year of the 27 components. I'm sure there's a sports or musical analogy to be made about demonstrating true mastery through refinement, as opposed to sheer volume, but, for this audience, Aida's coffees probably need no analogies in order to make sense.

Rollout Dates and Availability

Finca Mauritania is already on the menu and Aida's Grand Reserve is slated to roll out in mid-November, pending brand-spankin' new packaging.

–Kim Elena

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Closer to Home

With the staggering number of extraordinary coffees we have from East Africa, it’s easy to forget that this is still peak season for coffees from some of our neighbors in Central and South America.

Style of Tasting

Cup + Brew

These coffees are different enough to stand out in cupping, so I recommend doing that and following your cupping with a pour-over demonstration of the crowd favorite and a brewing discussion. 

Notes on the Coffees

What can I say about Finca Mauritania that hasn’t been said? Probably very little. I’m going to repeat something I said a few weeks ago when we tasted this coffee, which is that Finca Mauritania is a great reminder of how good coffees can be when every minute step in growing, picking, and processing coffee is done with the utmost attention to detail and quality. The farm's elevation is quite poor for quality, but to find a farm in Central America without a single Catimor-type plant, and to have a guarantee that every single seed comes from a sweet, ripe coffee fruit, then to have it all processed carefully and dried evenly and slowly, makes this coffee capable of competing with and surpassing coffees that have far more geographic and climatic advantages. While Aida Batlle— fifth-generation coffee farmer—would never call herself disadvantaged, in quality terms, Mauritania represents the kind of hard-working, up-by-the-bootstraps story that we love.

With two harvests per year, it’s easy to forget to mention the arrival of La Golondrina, but it’s here! It’s new! Rejoice! Though we never have trouble selling this coffee, that doesn’t stop us from believing it could be better and trying to make progress, which for the growers of Orgánica entails better selection of varieties and slower drying.

Finally, we bid farewell to Concepción Huista this week after another fruitful and fruit-flavor-filled season. We have invested a lot in building this relationship, and, at times, the co-op can still feel a little bit chaotic, but the organization has a strong foundation, and they definitely have some of the best coffee-growing terrain in Huehuetenango, if not Guatemala. It will be back next year, and, with good luck and good management, Concepción Huista will be its best yet.

Rollout Dates and Availability

We'll have Finca Mauritania for another two months, I imagine, La Golondrina rolls out Friday and should last until March and Concepción Huista, as I mentioned, will be no more as of next week.
Hannah Popish talked with Ben Guiles, who works with Counter Culture in Philadelphia in Wholesale Technical Services, about his recent use of the company Green Fund. The Green Fund has existed since 2011 and is a fund wherein employees are able to apply up to $500 in matching funds for a sustainability-related initiative of their choosing. At its inception Green Buyer and Sustainability Manager Kim Elena Ionescu said the following:  “We hope that this Green Fund, like other life-enhancing benefits such as comprehensive health care coverage and matching 401(k) investments, contributes to a healthier workplace, a better work/life balance for our employees, and ultimately, a more successful and sustainable business.” To date we have had a wide range of topics covered, including applications related to physical fitness, home gardens, and green home appliances.

As a recent Green Fund approval, Ben and Hannah took a moment to discuss his latest endeavor—building his second bike from the ground up.

Hannah: 
Why build a bike instead of purchasing a new one?

Ben:
In addition to satisfying the unique requirements I placed upon my new ride, building this bike myself has been a very gratifying process, and I recommend it to anyone. A bicycle may seem intimidatingly mechanical, but its bits are very straightforward in principle and they’re mostly all out in the open, inviting even the slightly curious to understand its workings, and pick up a wrench. So the joy of owning a bicycle can actually extend beyond simply riding it. By understanding how it works, and building or maintaining one on your own, you strengthen your sense of independence, and feel a connection to a tangible object in our universe.


Hannah: 
What’s the most sustainable thing about bike riding?


Ben: 
Bike advocates rightly like to talk about the intersection of sustainability with bike riding: you use less fossil fuel, you spend less money, you become a fitter, healthier person, etc. All of this is completely true and wonderful about a lifestyle filled with bike rides. But what is often overlooked and left unsaid in the conversation is joy. Joy is such a crucial facet of riding a bicycle, and so essential to the long-term sustainability of cycling as a lifestyle. [Yet] how often is sustainability viewed in terms of deprivation?

Cycling brings me a deep abiding joy, which may be counterintuitive to an outsider. I glide past gridlock, face in the wind like a dog hanging his head out the car window, and even on those sweaty uphills I feel that great sense of independence, accomplishment, and freedom that comes with overcoming an obstacle under one’s own power. A bike opens up the entire city and surrounding area to me, unbeholden to public transit schedules and delays, or parking, gas costs, and (most) traffic.

So living sustainably actually has everything to do with joy, and relatively little to do with deprivation. The fact that Counter Culture’s coffee is threefold sustainable and some of the yummiest, most-joy-inducing out there is no accident; one aspect is essential to the other. Such is also the case for a sustainable approach to cycling as a lifestyle.


Hannah: 
If you could tell someone who was nervous about bike riding—I’m asking for a friend—one thing about taking the plunge, what would you tell them?


Ben: 
Tell your *ahem* friend that she is not alone in being a little anxious about leaving the comfort of a metal box while traveling the roads. You can also tell her that a little caution and respect for the risks of cycling—particularly bike commuting—are a healthy thing to adopt and be ever mindful of. However, cycling is a pretty vast universe, with many levels of risk, challenge, and exertion left completely up to your—sorry, “her”—preference and degree of comfort. Stick to trails until you get the hang of it. Learn to ride in traffic on quieter streets, with friends who aren’t new to it. Know the laws in your state and obey them. Be courteous to drivers, even when they aren’t. Get tips from local bike-advocacy organizations. Use lights. Wear a helmet. (Seriously. Do it.)
But you asked me to say *one* thing, so I’ll boil it down to this: like R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps, you choose your own adventure.

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Year Round Coffees: New bags / New names

 

Notes on the Coffees

As you’ve likely heard by now, on Monday, October 6, all our coffee will be in new packaging. We’d like to take a moment today to celebrate the packaging and taste our offerings that stay consistent throughout the year.

As our new packaging designs were coming together, we began to consider whether or not the rustic names of some of our year-round products would make sense in bright, modern-looking bags.

We put all of the year-round coffee names up for consideration. Rather than try to update them based upon existing names, we approached the daunting task from the perspective of how the names related to the coffees themselves. What they taste like. What we're trying to do with them from a buying perspective and so on.

Hologram (formerly Rustico) is a name we feel captures the spirit of the coffee: complex, dynamic, and vibrant.

Big Trouble (formerly Toscano) offers a bit of levity. Probably the most tongue-in-cheek thing we've done in a long time. It's a lark, of sorts. Not disingenuous, but playful. Easy to brew, challenging to source.

Fast Forward and Slow Motion (formerly Farmhouse and Decaf Farmhouse) continue to be companion pieces. Fast Forward lets us move quickly through new Latin American coffee offerings. While Slow Motion is about slowing down to enjoy a cup of coffee just because it's delicious.

46 (formerly No. 46) shows us that great coffees roasted dark can still be great: complex, sweet, clean and nuanced.

Apollo got to keep it’s name and with it we continue to get the opportunity to highlight Ethiopian coffees and what we love within them - floral, citrusy, bright notes.
 

Rollout Dates and Availability

Here’s the thing about year round coffees—you can always get them! The components or main coffee will change slightly throughout the year, but the flavor profile will remain steady. You can always find the detailed info on what’s in the bag either on our website or on the back of the bag!
As our new packaging designs were coming together, we began to consider whether or not the rustic names of some of our year-round products would make sense in bright, modern-looking bags.

We put all of the year-round coffee names up for consideration. Rather than try to update them based upon existing names, we approached the daunting task from the perspective of how the names related to the coffees themselves. What they taste like. What we're trying to do with them from a buying perspective and so on.

Hologram (formerly Rustico) is a name we feel captures the spirit of the coffee: complex, dynamic, light, and vibrant.

Big Trouble (formerly Toscano) offers a bit of levity. Probably the most tongue-in-cheek thing we've done in a long time. It's a lark, of sorts. Not disingenuous, but playful.

Fast Forward and Slow Motion (formerly Farmhouse and Decaf Farmhouse) continue to be companion pieces. Fast Forward lets us move quickly through new Latin American coffee offerings. While Slow Motion is about slowing down to enjoy a cup of coffee just because it's delicious.
 

If You're Looking For:


Toscano

Rustico

Farmhouse

Decaf Farmhouse
 

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Kahawa Nzuri!

This week’s coffees are a paean to the flavors we cherish in the coffees we purchase from Kenya.

Style of Tasting

Cup + Brew

These coffees will be equally fun to cup and to brew, so I recommend following your cupping with a pour-over demonstration and brewing discussion. 

Notes on the Coffees

While the names of some of our coffees, like Thiriku, refer to both the name of the farmer co-operative society (FCS) and the washing station from which we purchase the eponymous coffee, Ngunguru is the name of one of three washing stations owned by the Tekangu FCS. Ngunguru and Thiriku hail from the Nyeri region, where we are accustomed to finding our best Kenyan coffees, but this past year, coffees from this region were more difficult to purchase than they previously had been due to the decision by the governor of Nyeri to centralize the sale of coffee in hopes of generating higher returns for farmers. We responded by diversifying our approach and although our coffees spent longer in transit than it has in past years, the coffees we sourced are still outstanding.

Thiriku is a favorite many times over for Counter Culture employees and customers alike, and the coffees we will sell from them this year certainly won’t disappoint. Out of all of the dozen-plus coffees in the shipment of Kenyan coffees that arrived in the warehouse two weeks ago, this lot of Thiriku is the most reminiscent of currant, hibiscus, and other sweet-savory-tangy flavors that have helped build Kenya’s reputation for coffee quality. Before I worked in coffee, I didn’t seek out jams, chutneys, sodas or anything else made from currants—much less the fresh fruits themselves—but after falling for Kenyan coffees, I now find myself gravitating toward them whenever I see them!

You all tasted spectacular coffee from Kambarari during our Pro Dev on Kenya a few months back, so I’m sure there’s no shortage of excitement to taste it again. In a recent Flickr set and report from Kenya, Tim wrote the following about this farm:

“There was one coffee this past year we could not stop talking about, and that was the coffee from Gerald Njagi Chege and his farm, Kambarari. We bought the coffee as soon as we tasted it, and actually flew it in from Kenya and sold it as our first ever single farmer Kenya lot. The sad news of this coffee, is when we visited the farm, we were told that Gerald has past away, and now his sons were managing the farm (I guess that peaberry lot we flew in, was a nice nod to Gerald).

"Kambarari is about 4 hectares of mostly SL28, but of all the farms I visited actually had the least infrastructure.  They ferment in a plastic bucket and wash in a wooden channel lined with a plastic tarp.”

This coffee represents one of our forays away from the model we’ve come to rely on in Kenya over the past five to ten years, which involves buying the top-scoring lots from FCSs in Nyeri that have been selected by the exporter Dorman, and toward working with slightly-larger-sized farms like Kambarari to build standalone relationships. We hope that by exploring beyond the known realm, we can find groups and individuals interested in undertaking projects together that allow us to work more closely and collaboratively with growers the way we’re accustomed to doing outside of Kenya. This particular farm is in Kiamutugu, to the east of Nyeri near Embu, and we have at least three more coffees from single farms for you to taste in the weeks to come!

Rollout Dates and Availability

Ngunguru has been on the menu for a while now, Thiriku just rolled out on Monday and we expect to begin selling Kambarari in mid-October, date TBD.

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A country, a mountain, a saint

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

Notes on the Coffees

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

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

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

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

Rollout Dates and Availability

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

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Find a Huehue

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

Notes on the Coffees

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

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

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

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

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

Rollout Dates and Availability

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