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Why transparency? If we had to pick a one-word answer: "authenticity." In the last post, I talked about why I think reporting is so important and what we have planned for the future of our own reporting. As I dived into planning for the upcoming 2014 Transparency Report with our coffee and marketing teams this week, I was asked a really important question by both teams, "What are we trying to convey with this report?" It's a fair question and one that I think merits some consideration.

I came across an article from a sustainable business news site this week titled something like, "Would You Want to Read Your Company's Sustainability Report?" Again, a fair question and a good call out against the multi-page, text-heavy reports that no one—including people who work for the company—usually reads.

So why is transparency important to us at Counter Culture? And how do I create a report that conveys the answers to that question in a clear and engaging way? For me, the first and most important step is to consider the audience. I'm not compiling a transparency report so that sustainability managers at other companies can look at and be impressed; my primary audience is our wholesale customers and coffee consumers who want to know more about our coffee.

Why transparency? If I had to pick a one-word answer, I would say authenticity. We work hard to build relationships in our supply chain, not only because they help secure our supply, increase our quality, and improve our sustainability, but also because they facilitate an information flow among participants throughout the buying process that's far from the norm. If we know a lot of information about our coffees, why not pass that on to our consumers? I won't pretend that a few transparency reports are going to cause a huge shift in consumer demand, but I think we owe it to our consumers to give them as much information as possible and to put that information into context so that they can make more-informed decisions about buying coffee. If we want to improve the sustainability of coffee supply chains in general, sharing information—both with other companies and with consumers—is a crucial step to get everyone on the same page.  

Presenting this information in a format that's engaging and, therefore, actually gets read is definitely challenging. We experimented with new format for our 2013 Transparency Report, but I think we still have room to evolve, especially as the amount of information we share increases. It's good to share information, but, especially for a product with a somewhat mystifying supply chain like coffee, I think that information has to be presented in a way that  actually makes it useful to consumers. I really like the visual approach of this transparency report from 49th Parallel, a coffee roaster in Vancouver. Consider this an inspiration for what's to come!

As I dig into the work required to deliver what I've been talking about with our carbon and transparency reports over the next few weeks, I'm going to take a short break from these regular blog posts so I can return with some awesome material. Talk to you soon!

One aspect that's really appealing about the sustainability-as-a-checklist idea is that it's pretty easy to measure—either a coffee is certified organic or it's not. Expanding on the theme from my last post, I'd like to keep exploring the movement away from thinking about sustainability in coffee as a checklist of certifications and more as a process of movement along a continuum of continuous improvement. One aspect that's really appealing about the sustainability-as-a-checklist idea is that it's pretty easy to measure—either a coffee is certified organic or it's not.

The more we evolve our thinking about sustainability, however, the more we realize that the nuances we recognize in our own internal practices apply to our origin partners as well. This week, I'm going to give a few examples of "moving along the continuum" from the producer side and how we're going to start trying to measuring that movement in a more refined way.

I don't want to give the impression that organic certification isn't a good indication of sustainably grown coffee; it certainly can be, it's just not a perfect substitute. Take, for example, the evolution of organic certification with Moisés Herrera and Marysabel Caballero, the owners of Finca El Puente. We started buying non-organic coffee from them in 2006 and had many conversations with them over the next few years about the benefits of organic agriculture. They surprised us in 2010 by announcing that they had certified a section of the farm—having managed that section of the farm organically because of our interest. We were excited and offered to pay $0.30 more-per-pound for coffee from this section of the farm, hoping they would increase the area managed as organic in the coming years. As of the 2015 harvest, however, the size of the plot managed as organic remains the exact same as it was in 2010.

(Turns out that we're the only company of their multiple buyers who's interested in paying them more to grow organically certified coffee. Achieving and maintaining organic certification is costly, especially when those costs aren't amortized over a co-op. Moisés and Marysabel decided it didn't make economic sense for them to certify more of the farm.)

Marysabel Caballero at the washing station she and her family run in association with Finca el Puente.Here's where moving along the spectrum comes in: Since getting that portion of Finca el Puente certified organic, Moisés and Marysabel have started making their own organic fertilizer to apply to all parts of their farm. This is really great progress from a soil-health and environmental-sustainability standpoint—and something that wouldn't be captured as "movement" if we were just looking at certified acreage.

We have a similar situation at the Mpemba washing station in Burundi—where we've purchased coffee from the Kazoza N'Ikawa co-op since 2012. As a relatively recent addition to the specialty coffee scene, Burundi is still lacking a lot of the infrastructure and institutional knowledge necessary for good coffee production—including access to and information about organic inputs for fertilizer. In other words, a producer in Burundi interested in getting organic certification would basically have to build and operate an organic fertilizer operation in order to get enough inputs for their farm.

Despite this challenge, the farmers of Mpemba asked if we could help them get started on the path to more-sustainable agricultural practices by starting an organic composting operation. With funds raised by the 2013 Holiday Blend and continued support from our Seeds program, Counter Culture organized an organic agriculture workshop and helped the co-op purchase goats and pigs for organic compost inputs. In this case, the farmers at Mpemba are making great strides towards more-sustainable agricultural practices, whether or not those efforts result in eventual organic certification.

So, if we're going to move away from the organic/not-organic dichotomy, how do we measure where a coffee is at on a spectrum of sustainability? Having good communication within our supply chain and visiting our producing partners is helpful in determining where a particular coffee falls, but those still result in a subjective assessment. We've been looking for a more-objective way to measure how sustainably a coffee is grown and recently settled on the use of Root Capital's Environmental Scorecard. Through answering a series of questions about topics like water and agrochemical use, the scorecard rates the environmental practices of an operation on a color scale. We're starting to roll out the use of the scorecard with Coffee Buyer Tim Hill's visit to Papua New Guinea next month, and we're excited to see where this leads us in our assessment of sustainability in coffee!

Woodberry Kitchen's Spike Gjerde on our 2009 Origin Field Lab to Nicaragua. Congratulations to Woodberry Kitchen's Spike Gjerde for his 2015 James Beard Foundation Award for Best Chef: Mid-Atlantic!

We work with some of the best restaurants in the country—restaurants run by folks who understand and appreciate the importance of quality coffee as an integral ingredient in a dining experience. We're proud of these relationships and the dedicated people who work hard to make sure that the coffee at the end of a delicious meal elevates the experience.

Valle del SantuarioTheme

One Cooperative, Many Coffees

The three coffees on this week’s table come from a single cooperative in northern Peru, and our tasting will explore how we buy and allocate similar coffees differently to fit the range of products we offer. 

Notes on the Coffees

If you’ve spent time in one of our training centers or on our website over the past seven years, you’ve undoubtedly heard us rave about Valle del Santuario, the coffee we purchase from five communities of small-scale producers in the San Ignacio region of northern Peru. The level of traceability and price transparency that the farmer cooperative, Cenfrocafe, provides to the farmers who produce this coffee puts them leagues ahead of any other cooperative from Peru, and the cup quality is always exceptional, to boot. When we began working with Cenfrocafe in 2007 we asked them to select a group of villages that had good conditions for coffee growing, and each year reinforces how fortunate we are to have exclusive access to these five communities. This year’s coffee arrived later than we hoped due to unusual weather patterns in Peru, but we’re pleased with how it tastes and excited to have another year of great coffee from these farmers with whom we work so closely.

Valle del Santuario is consistently the best-tasting coffee we purchase from Cenfrocafe, as well as being one of the best coffees that Cenfrocafe sells. The price we pay for Valle and the branding that we apply to it reflect our pride in the coffee’s superlative cup quality, but our relationship with Cenfrocafe is strengthened by the fact that in addition to buying one small-ish lot that requires a lot of logistical coordination on their part, we also buy bigger lots from communities outside the five that contribute to Valle. To build these other lots, the co-op’s cupping staff separates good-tasting coffees from across the regions where they work and compiles them. These represent a greater diversity of farmers than Valle and a larger geographic region, and we buy roughly six times as much coffee in this style from Cenfrocafe as we buy of the exclusive Valle del Santuario. Cenfrocafe is our highest-volume supplier in the southern hemisphere, so during the winter months, these lots underpin many of our year-round products, including Fast Forward, which is roasted slightly darker than Valle to emphasize the caramel sweetness and balance of the coffee, as opposed to its acidity.

Sending coffee from Cenfrocafe to be decaffeinated is another way that we leverage volume to be a good customer. Decaf San Ignacio represents an in-between of the farm-level traceability that Valle provides and the aggregate from an ever-changing combination of the farmer members of Cenfrocafe that Fast Forward represents. We selected three lots this year from sub-regions and the other two, Huabal and Chirinos, we chose to sell in their caffeinated form, while this one made a stop at Swiss Water in Vancouver before arriving in Durham. Though decaf makes up a comparatively small percentage of the coffee we sell, we put a lot of work into meeting the same quality and sustainability standards for these coffees as for our caffeinated coffees. This can be challenging because of the longer waiting time involved between harvest and arrival as well as the small batches we prefer for freshness—we push the limits on the minimum number of pounds Swiss Water will allow, in fact! Decaf San Ignacio is our first of two decaffeinated coffees from Cenfrocafe this year and we’ve been awaiting it eagerly.

Rollout Dates and Availability

Valle should be rolling out soon and will last through the end of February or early March. Decaf San Ignacio is available now and will be replaced by another decaffeinated coffee from the Cenfrocafe when it runs out, probably around March. Fast Forward will probably contain Cenfrocafe’s coffee until around the same time, but will be available all year, of course.

-Kim Elena


By the Mule of Juan Valdez

We have three coffees from Colombia on our table today, one of which comes from an individual grower we’ve long admired, Nelson Melo, and the other two of which represent single coffee varieties from a community, La Florida, where we’re purchasing coffee for the first time this year.

Style of Tasting


Cupping these coffees—especially the caturra and castillo from La Florida—will be the best way to appreciate their differences.

Notes on the Coffees

Exploring the flavors that coffee varieties impart to our palates is always a treat, and the fact that this week’s varieties also represent our very first taste of coffees we just received from a brand-new relationship in Nariño, Colombia, makes this week’s exercise all the more special! Coffee-driven souls in Durham and Asheville will be glad they opted for slurping over shopping. The castillo and caturra lots are the varieties of which I speak, and they come from La Florida, which is a community of coffee farmers whom we met in an unusual way: instead of receiving a sample from an importer and exporter or a group of farmers, we instead found this coffee through a development project led by the non-profit organization Catholic Relief Services (CRS). The organization’s Borderlands project was founded in 2011 with the intent to develop differentiated markets for coffee producers and, since we joined the project’s board in 2012, Counter Culture has been tasting coffees and making recommendations about how farmers might improve the quality of their coffee and obtain higher prices.

One of the big questions that farmers globally have to wrestle with is that of what variety of coffee to grow, because variety one has different characteristics to recommend it: some varieties offer disease resistance, some are more productive and others have intense, delicious flavors that make them attractive. Along with the advantages, however, there are inevitable tradeoffs and many of the most productive, disease-resistant varieties don’t taste as good as their more fragile counterparts. In Colombia, the varieties decision has been exemplified by a battle between caturra and castillo, with the former being an older type that is susceptible to the coffee leaf rust fungus but tastes good, while the latter is a newer type developed for rust resistance and a questionable reputation for quality. Many farmers have both varieties planted on their farms because it’s still unclear which offers better financial returns and less risk. As a member of the Borderlands project, we have tasted hundreds of samples of these two varieties and we’ve seen great examples of both. Our preference tends to be caturra, but your tasters might not feel the same way, so I’d love to hear feedback from your audience about preferences.

Just north of Nariño is the region of Cauca, home of the farmers responsible for CCC’s La Golondrina coffee these past seven years. Nelson Melo, who is originally from Nariño’s capital, Pasto, leads the Orgánica association and grows exceptional coffee (of the caturra variety, if you’re curious) on his farm outside the city of Popayán. We have loved Nelson’s coffee since we first tasted it in 2007, but because it was committed to another buyer before we started working with Orgánica, we didn’t have a chance to buy it until 2014. The combination of anticipation, superb cup quality, and Nelson’s personal passion for organic agriculture make this coffee one of the most exciting of our year and we can’t wait to share this extraordinary single-farmer lot in January.

Rollout Dates and Availability

La Florida’s caturra lot rolls out next week and should be around for a couple of months, while the castillo lot is just for Friday fun and not something that will appear on our menu. Nelson Melo’s coffee will inaugurate our new limited-release packaging in early January and we imagine we will sell through it in a month or so.

-Kim Elena


Hello, East Timor!

After an eight-year hiatus, Counter Culture is bringing coffee from the tiny island nation of East Timor back to our offering list and this week we’ll taste the fantastic specimens we’ve chosen to purchase from the communities of Huapu and Lacau.

Notes on the Coffees

Had you asked us a year ago to describe coffee from East Timor, the answer would probably have begun with vague references to muted acidity and heavy body and ended with the caveat that we haven’t tasted much coffee from the island since Counter Culture stopped buying what long-time customers of ours might remember as Maubesse in 2006. Back then, it was an alternative to Sumatran coffee—the two islands are close geographically and until East Timor’s independence in 2001, they belonged to the same country, Indonesia. Though Sumatra was by far our best-selling single-origin coffee, we never developed much of a market for coffees from East Timor and, eventually, lackluster sales combined with inconsistencies in quality, complex logistics, and distance, led us to stop buying the coffee.

Eight years later, we are happy to re-introduce East Timor to our list of origins in a completely different context: this coffee won’t compete with Sumatra because we don’t currently source coffee from Sumatra, and while the body is still creamy, its undeniable acidity and stone-fruit flavors couldn’t be further from the flat, muted character of the olden days. It comes from smallholder farmers who grow coffee organically between 1,350 and 1,800 meters, which is higher elevation than most island coffees and undoubtedly contributes to the coffee’s tangy brightness. Despite the fact that the infamous Timor variety—the spontaneous hybrid of arabica and canephora coffee species—originates on this island, the farmers in Letefoho grow primarily typica coffee plants, so you should not expect to find the vegetal or woody flavors of the catimor, castillo, lempira or IHCAFE 90 types that we have sampled in our varieties tastings over the past few years.

Never has a representative of Counter Culture visited the country, and compared to other islands in the region like Sumatra and Sulawesi, it hasn’t gotten a lot of attention from quality-focused buyers in the North American coffee industry (when was the last time you read a trip report from East Timor?). We found Huapu and Lacau through the same Hong-Kong-based company, MTC Group, that introduced us our now-beloved coffees from Baroida and Tairora. MTC has built its business by sourcing coffees from the Pacific, including Australia’s few coffee farms, and we feel extremely fortunate to have access to these coffees (and as an aside, if you’re interested in learning more about East Timor from the perspective of MTC, this excellent trip report overfloweth with history and photos).

We bought a container of coffee from these producers this year and would have bought more but for the fact that they’ve never sold it to the United States before and their organic certificate is for the Japanese market, not ours. Next year we’ll be able to sell it as certified organic, which will allow us to buy more of it and use it in more products, and we can’t wait to continue developing this potential.

Rollout Dates and Availability

Both Lacau and Huapu roll out on Friday, and assuming they hold their flavors, they should be available for purchase through the middle of March.

-Kim Elena
Give the coffee lover in your life a lifetime’s worth of better brewing by registering them for a Counter Intelligence coffee course with us at one of our Counter Culture Coffee regional training centers!

We offer many different professional-level classes—from coffee brewing and tasting, to espresso, and even about the origins and training of coffee. Each course is a dynamic mix of coffee theory, tasting, and hands-on experience preparing or comparing coffee in a variety of contexts. Check our course catalogue for more detailed information about our offerings.

While we don’t currently offer vouchers or gift certificates for our courses, you're welcome to reserve a seat in any of our posted classes in advance—check our updated course calendar for dates and availability. Simply register and pay for the course using your own name and e-mail address to keep the gift a secret, and we’ll happily substitute your loved one’s name and contact information after you reveal the present, so they can receive any additional future e-mails or information about the class! 

(If the class you select doesn’t work with your loved one’s schedule, no problem! As long as the space is canceled at least 48 hours before the class start time, you’ll automatically receive a full refund.)

Feel free to email with any questions, and Happy Brew Year!


Brightness in the Winter

Though both of this week's coffees are new to our offering list, I suspect some of you could be convinced to love them before you even try them. Why? Well, this week we'll be tasting another fantastic single-farmer lot from a member of the Yirgacheffe Farmer Cooperative Union (YCFCU) of Ethiopia named Workiye Shallo alongside the inaugural roast of this year's Remera from Rwanda. On your marks, get set, slurp!

Notes on the Coffees

Of the many great coffees we bought this year from individual farmer members of YCFCU, Workiye Shallo's (wer-KAY-yuh SHA-llow) piqued my interest not only because it's another example of my favorite coffee taste profile, but also because she's the only woman out of the single farmers whose coffees we have celebrated this year. In Yirgacheffe, as in most coffee-producing communities globally, women are equal partners in the work of coffee production but seldom hold positions of power or receive recognition. Women are less likely than men to own land, and given how few members of YCFCU own the processing equipment that allows them to create these small, single-farmer lots, Workiye Shallo is a noteworthy exception. Workiye lives in Konga, which is one of many villages in the Yirgacheffe region where we've purchased coffee over the years, and she grows equal parts Kudhume and Wolisho varieties of coffee on the farm she owns with her husband, Ayele.

Remera's return heralds the beginning of our offering list's transition from northern-hemisphere African coffees—the many Ethiopian and Kenyan stars we've been celebrating for the past few months—to freshly arrived, southern-hemisphere coffees from Burundi and Rwanda. This washing station is among the highest in elevation in Rwanda and the family behind it, including mother Epiphanie and her sons Aloys and Samuel, are some of the most curious and well-connected people in the country's dynamic specialty coffee industry. Our collaboration with them over the years has resulted in quality experiments like the excellent sundried natural of two years ago and in our support of their pursuit of sustainability, as well: this year we're pleased to be contributing $5,000 from our Seeds fund to a project to diversify their farms and small farms around theirs by intercropping macadamia trees among their coffee plants. Almost all Rwandan coffee farms are shadeless monocultures and growers have no history of composting, so most rely heavily on chemical fertilizers to sustain their nutrient-poor soils and on mulch grass to keep dry soil from washing down the country's famous thousand hills during the rainy season.

Rollout Dates and Availability

Workiye Shallo's and Remera's coffees roll out on Friday and should be around, brightening our palates, through the middle of February.

-Kim Elena