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Finca el Puente's Moises Herrera at the Instituto Hondureño del Café research center in Marcala, Honduras.Welcome to the first in a series of posts about what sustainability means in the context of coffee. Over the next few weeks, we'll explore questions like, "How does Counter Culture know that a coffee is sustainable?" and "What does a sustainable roasting operation look like?"

As a recent addition to the Sustainability Department, I find myself wanting to define the bigger picture and to figure out how Counter Culture fits into that picture. My intention here is to chronicle that journey in the hopes of finding some clarity in an area that can be a bit nebulous.

Sustainability in general—and especially as it relates to coffee—is hard to define. To "sustain" something means to keep it going indefinitely, but what's implied in that definition?

By this point, many people have come across the widely referenced United Nations (UN) concept of sustainability, often depicted as three overlapping circles marked "social," "fiscal," and "environmental." These three areas of focus are referred to as "the triple bottom line" and form the basis of many corporate sustainability policies and sustainability certifications (more on that later). It's worth noting that some recent UN initiatives have broken down the "social" circle into "politics" and "culture," creating four focus areas.

While accepting the need for each of these three (or four) elements of sustainability to be present in order for something to be "sustainable," the coffee industry—Counter Culture included—has yet to develop a precise definition of sustainable coffee and, instead, uses indicators to measure ourselves and our progress. Ranging from general to specific, some of the indicators used in the coffee industry include coffee quality, fiscal transparency, producer income, worker rights, biodiversity, shade coverage, environmental impact, and third-party certifications.

For a consumer-ready coffee to be sustainable, all of the practices along the supply chain should be taken into account, not just what happens at origin (where coffee is grown). I'm starting this series thinking about sustainability at origin, but I promise to get to Counter Culture's practices as a roaster, as well.

At Counter Culture, we use tools like organic certification and our Direct Trade Certification to measure whether a coffee's sustainable and as signals to guide coffee drinkers interested in purchasing more sustainable products. Indicators like certifications help to signal a sustainably produced coffee, although the categorization of a coffee falls more along a spectrum than simply being "sustainable" or "not sustainable."

What I find most helpful in trying to understand all of this is to look at examples of producers we admire for their leadership in pursuing sustainability. The Salazar Family's Finca Pashapa is, in many ways, a model for sustainably produced green coffee. Finca Pashapa has been certified organic for many years, aided greatly by owner Roberto's knowledge of worm composting and the family's ability to manufacture all of the necessary fertilizers using materials found on the well-shaded farm. His passion for sustainable practices also manifests itself in the co-op he manages, Cooperativa Cafetalera Ecologica La Labor, where they've installed a biodigestor to capture methane from the washing station water and helped to build an activity field for the surrounding community.

So, yes, defining sustainable coffee production is nebulous and complex, but necessarily so. In the next, post I'll delve into the world of coffee certifications in the hopes of adding another layer of understanding to the realm of sustainable coffee.

Meredith


Click here to see this photo set on Flickr.

Our annual Origin Field lab trip is an opportunity for  Counter Culture wholesale customers to learn about coffee cultivation in an immersive environment. We host this lab, in part, because we recognize that the dedicated professionals preparing our coffees for the end consumer can reach people directly with the knowledge and information they get from the experience.

The 2015 Origin Field lab included two Counter Intelligence instructors, two Counter Culture staffers, two Culinary Institute of America folks, and a handful of awesome coffee people from Counter Culture accounts Little Skips, Midtown Scholar Bookstore, Peregrine Espresso, Rex NYC, and Washington, DC's Tryst.

The lab addressed the complexities of coffee farming in general—and, in particular, in Honduras—and with on-site experiences from farm to port.

Our group was lucky enough to spend the better part of a week with Moisés Herrera and Marysabel Caballero of Finca el Puente in Marcala, Honduras. Moisés and Marysabel welcomed us into their home, nursed one of us back to health, fed us (over + over again), and, often, helped to make certain that our group had what we needed and got where we needed to go. Huge thanks to both of them!

We were also fortunate enough to learn from coffee farmers, co-op representatives, exporters, port operators, and so on.
Slingshot Coffee's Jenny Bonchak took second place at the 2015 US Brewers Cup competition!1. Why do you compete?

I compete because it's a big part of my coffee journey! I admit that I'm unabashedly competitive, but it definitely goes way beyond that. I know that competing is a great way to make me a better coffee person—continually improving my palate, thinking even more critically about coffee than I already do—and at the same time, I have a lot of fun learning through preparation and the actual competition.

2. How much work goes into it?

An indescribable amount of work goes into competing. That is, if you want to get the most out of the experience. I have been a coach for another Southeast Regional/US brewers cup competitor for the past three years, so I did have a slight advantage knowing what I was getting myself into. Even then, it was so much different being on the other side! But, all in all, I'd definitely do it again. I loved it.

3. What coffee did you use at the US Coffee Championships and why?

I'm so in love with the coffee I used, and its story really resonated with me, which is why I chose it. The coffee I used was a from a husband-wife team of growers in Jurutungo, Panama, named Jose and Ailenne Gallardo. It's a long story, but the Gallardos sent a random 5lb sample of their '13-'14 Gesha to Counter Culture with barely any information in the package. A few days later, Ailenne sent an email to Tim Hill at Counter Culture to introduce themselves and give more info about their farm and the coffee they sent. They're not well known in the specialty-coffee world; they don't have a name for their farm; they have only been growing this coffee for 3 years. It's insane! But they had so much determination to grow exceptional coffee, and they were so willing to be receptive to suggestions on how to improve in the '14-'15 harvest. And improve they did! The coffee I ended up using was harvested in January 2015 and got to me 10 days before the competition. But, when I cupped it, I knew it was the one. It was juicy and floral and sweet ... and everything that reminds me of my favorite season, summertime. It was a fantastic coffee in every way. I can't wait to brew this coffee again!

4. Who do you learn from/who inspires you?

I truly have learned so much from my coffee crush (and husband), Jonathan Bonchak. I'm continually inspired by how he thinks about coffee, how he tastes coffee, and how he presents coffee to new coffee enthusiasts and industry veterans alike. He's such an incredible coffee professional an all-around stellar human. And, of course, there are so many incredible books and articles from lots of coffee professionals for whom I have so much respect, and those are great learning tools. I am so lucky to have Counter Culture as a partner for Slingshot, and I feel like I've gleaned a ton not just from classes, but from simply being able to taste different coffees with some of the best palates out there. There's so many more people I want to meet and have coffee with ... someday it'll happen!

5. What is the biggest challenge in competing?

The biggest challenge in competing is learning to trust your instinct of when to be confident and when to be critical. 

Bonus: Do you get nervous when competing?

I was nervous ... it was my first time competing! But I do enjoy public speaking, so that helped to calm those butterflies a bit.


Sam Lewontin and Lem Butler won their respective regional barista competitions (Northeast and Southeast) at the 2015 Big Eastern Coffee Competitions in Durham, NC!Congratulations to Jenny Bonchak of Slingshot Coffee Company in Raleigh for a second place finish in the 2015 US Brewers Cup!

And congratulations to Sam Lewontin from Everyman Espresso in New York for his fourth place finish in the 2015 US Barista Championship!

Dozens of hard-working, super-talented coffee professionals from around the country competed this weekend. We're especially proud of the folks who chose to compete with our coffees: our very own Lem Butler; Carlos Morales from New York's Third Rail Coffee; Jack Snyder of Northside Social in Arlington, VA; Erika Vonie of Everyman Espresso; and independent barista Anna Utevsky.

Huge thanks to the Specialty Coffee Association of America and the Barista Guild of America for making the US Coffee Championships possible. Thanks to the sponsors. hosts, emcees, live feed commentary team, technical teams, judges, and volunteers. And thanks to the the whole Sprudge and Sprudge Live teams for their excellent coverage, as well.

 

 

Lem Butler competing in the 2015 Southeast Regional Barista Competition—which he won (for the fifth time)!In November, our very own Lem Butler won his fifth Southeast Regional Barista Championship at the Big Eastern regional coffee competitions in our home town of Durham, NC. An incredibly experienced—and inspiring!—competitor, Lem gets  a first-round bye at the US Barista Championships (USBC).

1. Why do you compete?

When I first saw a barista competition, I had no idea what went into the preparation, I just wanted to do it because it looked amazing. I wanted to be a part of the specialness of sharing coffee with coffee professionals. The more I compete, the more I feel connected to the industry as a coffee professional. Sharing a stage with some of the best baristas in the country is an impressive feeling, but when it comes down to it, I find myself reconnecting with that neophyte who wanted to compete to share coffee and ideas for the unadulterated fun of it.

2. How much work goes into it?

Preparing for competition is one of the highlights of competing. I enjoy tasting through coffees to find one that appeals to that reason for competing. I often think as I taste a coffee, "Is this something that folks can get excited about?" but more importantly is this a coffee that I can get excited about? Coffee selection can be quick or a longer process.

Sometimes working on technical aspects of the competition for weeks is all I can do while waiting for a coffee to arrive in the country—which can be a gamble because the coffee might not be "the one."

Lem Butler preparing his signature beverage for the judges at the 2015 Southeast Regional Barista Competition.Signature beverage development is another time-consuming facet of preparation. There is a lot of thought and experimentation I find to be frustrating because of the 85% fail rate for most of my creations, but, when something starts to function, the reward is prodigious. Regardless, there still has to be enough time for full run-throughs, and, for me, this is the most important use of time during preparation. I try to allocate two weeks of full run-throughs; a constant barrage of repetitive drills helps fashion a smoother, more fluid presentation.

3. What coffees are you using at the US Coffee Championships?

For the 2015 USBC, I am using a peaberry lot from the same Kenyan co-op that I used in the 2015 SERBC [Thiriku]. I am using the peaberry lot for the espresso round and the signature beverage round. I will use a blend of the AA and AB lots of the same co-op for the cappuccino round.

4. You taught a barista competition workshop in the past. Who do you learn from? Who inspires you?

I had very little help when I first competed, but there was assistance if I looked. I just didn't know how or where until I found that help at Counter Culture Coffee. [Note: Lem started competing before joining Team Durham at Counter Culture.]

With better preparation and understanding of how the competition worked, I improved to a winning level. Later, I wanted to make sure there was enough information—enough assistance—for baristas who were interested in competing, so I created a class to do just that ... to give back what I was taught. I am always willing to help new competitors prepare for competition, I feel more connected to the industry the more I put into the industry.

I have my mentors, and I have my inspiration. It's the inspiration that keeps me rolling, and mentors who keep me from rolling out of control. I am inspired by the two innovators of our industry: the coffee roasters and the coffee farmers.

Lem Butler with his son, Emerson, at the 2015 Big Eastern coffee competitions.5. What is the biggest challenge in competing?

The biggest challenge in competing, for me, is winning. There are so many skilled baristas, so many amazing roasters, and so much beautiful coffee; how can there be only one winner? Did I outshine my colleagues in the SERBC? No. Will I outshine anyone in the USBC? No. We all just do our best, and the scores determine the rest, but we all go home the same skilled baristas with the same amazing roasters still excited about that beautiful coffee from out there.

Bonus question: Do you get nervous when competing?

I'm nervous right now. Anyone who says they are not nervous, is lying or has no heart.



Colombia is a country that needs no preface to its association to quality coffee. For years Counter Culture has purchased coffee from the Orgánica Cooperative in Cauca—the coffee we fondly know as La Golondrina—but that doesn't mean our interest in building relationships with other high-quality producers in Colombia has been sated.

One region where the potential couldn't be greater is Nariño. Unfortunately, until very recently, the coffees grown there didn't see the light of this side of specialty coffee's day. In the last few years, that's all started to change, and, this year, we introduced our first offerings from the region—including a number of single-farmer lots.

It was my pleasure to spend some time with the people making these coffees happen: the producers, the Borderlands/CRS team, and Virmax, our exporters. If you've had the opportunity to taste these coffees, you know we've started things off with a bang.

That said, our work here is just getting started. I'm excited about the potential of a long-term and sustainable relationship with the splendid producers in this region!

-Katie Carguilo
POSTED IN: origin reports
Theme
Tasting @ Ten – Three Year-Round CoffeesThis week, we'll familiarize ourselves with the current versions of three of our year-round products: Big Trouble, Fast Forward, and Slow Motion.

Style of Tasting:
Freestyle! Cup them, pourover compare them, or choose three different brewing methods to emphasize different flavors. It’s your choice.

Notes on the Coffees: 
With a menu that changes as often as ours does, it is easy to get so caught up in tasting new things that we forget to check in on our year-round friends. Although their names remain the same, the ingredients change with the seasons, and fans will notice subtle shifts in flavor as coffees come and go.

Big Trouble's goal in life is to taste sweet and nutty, and right now we achieve that with a 70/30 percent blend of coffees from CENCOIC in Colombia and the exciting new Lacau from East Timor. CENCOIC is a cooperative of indigenous farmers in Cauca, and we tentatively committed to buying their coffee this year before we had tasted it because we believe they have potential to be a good supplier for us over the long term. Happily for all of us, the coffee turned out to be good, and now we have a platform for working together in the future! All of our year-round coffees provide a staging ground for new coffees and relationships, but Big Trouble is especially good in this respect because the roast level is slightly darker than a few of the others.

Fast Forward is one of those lighter-roasted contemporaries of Big Trouble, and its components tend to be higher-quality coffees and to represent more advanced relationships. As of a few weeks ago, Fast Forward is made of coffee from the inimitable Cenfrocafe cooperative in Peru—in this case, one of their lots that represents many communities, as opposed to the specific micro-regions of Valle del Santuario or Huabal—blended with 10 percent of coffee from the Hama washing station in Yirgacheffe, Ethiopia.

Whenever decaffeinated coffees grace our Friday tasting tables, my instinct is to talk about and taste them last, which might be perceived as an insult to both these coffees and to the die-hard decaf drinkers who love them. Given that, put Slow Motion toward the front of the lineup today, will you? Our only year-round decaf coffee is the flavor counterpart of Fast Forward (the name is a clue), and right now they are a near-perfect match, as Slow Motion comes entirely from the same Cenfrocafe cooperative of Peru mentioned above.

Kim Elena
It's Underdog!As part of the ongoing evolution of our packaging, we redesigned the recycled paper box from our holiday coffee as a new home for two distinct types of limited-release coffees.

Limited-release blends—think 2015 Holiday Coffee and last summer's Equilibrium—are created in contrast to our year-round offerings in that they represent flavor profiles which cannot exist in a single coffee and, by design, only happen once. Think of them as short-run seasonal offerings, like a "summer ale" in beer parlance. Here for a limited time. Look for a new limited-release blend in our new recycled paper box every few months in 2015. The first limited-release blend to appear in the new box is called Underdog—a tribute to less-well-known coffee origins.

In addition to limited-release blends, our new coffee box will be home to some of our more extraordinary single-origin lots: single-farmer lots, single-variety lots, processing experiments, and the like. Our first limited-release single-farmer lot is from Nelson Melo in Timbio, Colombia. We're extremely excited to offer both of these coffees—and even more so in our new packaging.

POSTED IN: coffee