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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

Chris Colbran of Baroida in the Eastern Highlands of Papua New Guinea.Theme

Kudos to the Colbrans

This week, we’ll taste and celebrate the first roasts of this year’s Baroida and Tairora from the Eastern Highlands region of Papua New Guinea.

Style of Tasting

Brew Two

As we only have two coffees and they come from the same place, I suggest brewing them both through paper and putting the emphasis on the farm and the freshness of these two lots, as opposed to the cupping ritual.

Notes on the Coffees

Papua New Guinea is a long way from Durham, NC, and, until we started buying coffee from the Colbran family four years ago, Counter Culture hadn’t had a relationship there last more than a year or two. We persisted in trying to find a foothold there because the geography, climate, and varieties are all excellent, and we knew the coffees could be excellent, too.

With that history in mind, we feel extra appreciation for the relationship that we have built with Chris Colbran and his family since 2010—which was the first year they ventured into marketing their coffee directly to buyers instead of selling it to an exporter to blend. The coffee we purchase from their farm, Baroida, and the surrounding Tairora tribe are consistently great and only getting better as the family continues to refine their work.

Though they come from similar geography and varieties, Baroida has typically been more savory and fuller in body than Tairora, which seems true again this year. It’s early yet, though, and this is our first tasting, so please do share your feedback and questions now and as we continue to taste this coffee in the months to come.

Rollout Dates and Availability

Baroida and Tairora roll out on Monday and, between this first container and the late-harvest lots that will arrive in a month or so, we have a good volume of both. Thank goodness for that, too, because we count on these coffees to get us through the dark days of winter and into the springtime, when we begin to anticipate the return of coffees from the northern hemisphere.


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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.

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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!

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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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Fab Four

Those of us who attended Wednesday’s “Pro Dev: Ethiopian Varieties” were lucky enough to get a sneak peek at and taste of the four single-farmer coffees that we’ll taste this Friday. I don’t know about you guys, but I can’t wait to taste them again! It’s no exaggeration to say that these are some of the best coffees that we’ll have this year, regardless of how you define “best”.

Notes on the Coffees

Olke Birre is a farmer from the kabele, or village, of Haru, who grows mostly Kudhume-variety coffee at an elevation of over 2000 meters. He was one of the first participants in this single-farmer program that we met (at our organic composting workshop in 2013, to which he arrived wearing a gold medal and a blinding smile) and we are especially pleased to have this coffee this year because last year it was promised to another roaster before we had a chance to express our interest. Also, because it is practically perfect.

Mesele Haile lives about a mile from downtown Yirgacheffe in Hafursa, which is a name that Counter Culture old-timers will remember. He grows mostly Wolisho-variety coffee with a smaller percentage of Kudhume and Dega, and his farm sits at 1,800 meters. We also met Mesele at the composting workshop and, in fact, the culmination of that workshop, the collective building of a composting bin, and a coffee ceremony for forty of us took place on his farm.  This coffee arrived tasting a little flatter than we had hoped, so we are tweaking the roast and looking at this coffee closely before we roll it out.

Elias Benata grows mostly Wolisho, but also has some Dega and Kudhume on his farm, which is in the kebele of Biloya at around 1,800 meters. The first single-farmer lots we committed to purchase from YCFCU last year were sundried natural coffees, which takes just as much skill to produce as washed coffee, but requires less up-front investment in infrastructure than building a full washing station on a farm.

Like Elias, Aleme Wako (note that it’s Aleme - pronounced AL-eh-meh, not Alemu, as previously spelled) is a farmer in Biloya, who produces sundried natural coffees on his farm. In Kochere, which is south of the Yirgacheffe district, the farms tend to be a little bigger and newer than farms in Yirgacheffe, and with sixteen acres each, Elias and Aleme have large farms for co-op members.

While we can’t help but get excited about every delicious single-farmer coffee we taste, it’s also important to us to reinforce the relationships we’ve built over the years, so it’s no coincidence that these lots come from the familiar kabeles of Haru and Biloya.

Rollout Dates and Availability

All of these coffees are slated to roll out Friday, August 29, though the squirrely spelling of Amharic names and our desire to continue finessing Mesele Haile’s coffee might mean we begin with two and roll the other two later in the week.
Counter Culture Coffee and All About Beer Magazine have collaborated with Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. to create “No Middle Ground,” a limited-edition IPA made with cold-brewed coffee. The beer features washed Haru from Ethiopia and an experimental hop known as “291,” giving the beer a bright, fruit-forward flavor profile. No Middle Ground will be available on tap during special tasting events at Counter Culture’s eight regional training centers.

Berkley, CA, on 10/15 from 6:00-8:00 p.m. PT

New York on 10/16 from 6:00-8:00 p.m.

Philadelphia on 10/23 from 6:00-8:00 p.m.

 

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Twice as Nice

Idido and Haru are names that have become very familiar to us as Counter Culture has steadily deepened our relationship with the Yirgacheffe Coffee Farmer Co-operative Union’s washing stations in these two villages near Yirgacheffe, Ethiopia. Every year we aim to increase the amount of coffee we buy from these two groups, as well as to explore the most exciting new coffees and flavors that we can find, and this year we have both more volume and more unique offerings from this incredible region of the coffee-growing world than we have ever had before.

Notes on the Coffees

Haru and Idido represent a shift in Counter Culture’s perspective on coffees from Ethiopia (and, it could probably be argued, from East Africa in general). Until we focused on these washing stations, we were basically just cupping coffees every year to see what we liked, and it was difficult for us to have much of a story to tell about any individual coffee or to feel justified investing time, energy and money in building relationships. By committing to YCFCU and staking a claim to these two washing stations, we weren’t necessarily saying that other washing stations were incapable of producing equally great coffee, or that no one else could buy coffee from these groups, but that we would rather try to get to know these groups and try to realize any untapped potential that they had than to cup through samples to find the best ones.

Over the past four years, we have undertaken experiments at the co-op level with Haru in processing and at both washing stations to sort coffees and gauge the results, and we have also gotten to know some individual farmer members of these washing stations through visits and the organic compost workshop we hosted in 2013. YCFCU’s manager Takele Mammo has always been involved in these projects—if not their coordinator—and he has been, generally, enthusiastic about experiments and ideas for special, unique, higher-value coffees.

When he announced in 2013 that YCFCU would, for the first time, sell coffees from individual members who process their coffee on their own equipment on their farms, we couldn’t wait to try them. We were quite pleased with the lots we bought from Mammo Boki and Tegegu Ocholo, but we did recognize the potential conflict between supporting the co-operatively owned washing stations and diverting attention to these single-producer projects (unlike growers of our single-producer lots from Latin America, farmers like Mammo Boki have infrastructure and scale that is very different than most farms in Yirgacheffe and out of reach of many members of these co-ops).

What to do? Well, we decided that instead of choosing between them, we would choose to both continue growing with and supporting the co-ops and also buy coffee from individual growers, ideally members of these co-ops and communities with whom we have relationships. In addition to the Idido and Haru we’re happily sipping now, we are anticipating the arrival of single-farmer lots from Elias Banata, Olke Birre, Alame Wako and Mesele Haile with excitement. They ought to be great! On that note, though, in our blind cupping of pre-ship samples, Idido still took all the votes for best coffee on the table, so don’t let your appetite for the goodies to come keep you from stopping to smell the roses, or more likely, jasmine, in your cups this week.

Rollout Dates and Availability

Idido and Haru are both rocking and rolling right now, so order up!