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Meister at the espresso machine.
"Wow," you might overhear someone say in a session of Counter Culture's illuminating Beginner Espresso Lab. "I never realized how much went into making a good cup of coffee!"
 
And it's true: From absolute novices to seasoned baristas, from coffee-shop owners to home espresso enthusiasts, everyone seems to walk out of the all-day class with a new crema consciousness and an excited sparkle in their eyes (though that might just be the caffeine).
 
As an instructor, I know that even I've learned a thing or two from walking a new batch of students through the espresso-making process: Sometimes all it takes is one newbie asking a stumper of a question, and, before you know it, we're all puzzling out some macchiatto mystery together. Who knew there was so much to discover about a beverage (that is, coffee) that only has two ingredients (grounds + water)??
 
The moral of that story is that while making espresso is fun and fascinating, it absolutely isn't easy. (And good thing, too – if it were easy, I wouldn't have my job!)
 
Making espresso is fun and fascinating, it absolutely isn't easy.
At Counter Culture, we believe that knowledge isn't just power, it's everything. And it takes a lot of hard work to amass that knowledge – which sometimes means going back to "school," by attending one of our intensive and immersive full-day coffee labs. Not only do we have to train our hands to operate the espresso grinder and properly tamp a cake of coffee grounds, but we also have to train our tongues to understand what "good" and "bad" espresso tastes like and train our brains to understand all the different ways the former affects the latter.
 
At least the homework isn't too bad: All our students are required to make and taste as much espresso as they can, to try to develop their palates and grow a vocabulary that will help troubleshoot the occasional too-bitter shot or too-bubbly milk they might encounter behind the bar. Without a solid foundation and understanding of what causes those flavors and textures, every cappuccino seems a little bit mysterious.
 
Want to come try to stump the teacher – not to mention learn how to make A+ espresso shots? Check out the Counter Intelligence calendar for the next Beginner Espresso Lab near you.
 
POSTED IN: brewing, education
11-4-11
 
Incredibly skillful sorting of coffee cherries at Finca Mauritania in Santa Ana, El Salvador.
Never one to shy away from an experiment or challenge, El Salvador's Aida Batlle has perfected the traditional natural sundried method used in Ethiopia for centuries. Applying this method to the 100% Bourbon coffee from her Finca Mauritania in Santa Ana has resulted in a rare, wondrous coffee with traditional Ethiopian flavors of ripe berries, wine, and chocolate combined with a distinctive Salvadoran sweetness.
 
We've worked personally with Aida for years, and this coffee is close to our heart. We are so proud to roast Finca Mauritania Natural Sundried and bring it to you.
 
Best,
Nathan
POSTED IN: coffee
Counter Culture's main product – fresh-roasted coffee – is the minimally processed seed of a tree fruit carefully cultivated – most often organically – in rich volcanic soil. Counter Culture Coffee Chicago's venture into vermiculture represents not only a tangible way to achieve real sustainability in the life cycle of our coffee, but also a way for us to connect with and support the gardeners and farmers of greater Chicago, as well as provide an introduction to organic soil building in our training center.
 
Worm soil, or castings, is among the best natural fertilizers and created entirely from converted waste. The concept is perfect: manage your compostable waste by feeding it to worms, which produce a nutrient-rich fertilizer. We pursued various avenues to make this a reality in our training center and eventually connected with Amber from The Urban Worm Girl, who helped us devise a manageable vermiculture operation that would properly address our waste needs. Amber's operation is fantastic!
 
Ultimately, the goal is to give our castings to a local urban agriculture project. We've begun conversations with a local group called The Ruby Garden, which give plots to local area families to garden. We've also purchased a bag-resealer, which we'll use to seal fresh worm castings in used coffee bags affixed with newly designed "Worm Compost" labels to avoid any confusion about what's inside.
 
While it may seem like a long step just to deal with garbage, the worms are really doing most of the work, and vermiculture is truly sustainability in its simplest form. In fact, many of our partnering coffee farms have adopted their own vermiculture operations and use the castings to enrich their soil.
 
In the end, it's very simple for us. Coffee is an agricultural jewel that flies under most people's radar. Many consume it and never really consider the amount of care and toil the farmers put into providing us with an excellent product. Vermiculture gives us an easy way to take the coffee conversation back to the farm and the importance of organic agriculture.
 
We're already seeing the educational benefits; our weekly coffee cuppings have included brief introductions to vermiculture and an explanation of sustainability by way of our 5,000 new co-workers.
 
Best regards,
Josh and Rich
Counter Culture Coffee Chicago
 
Thanks to Tyler Kaschke for the photos.
Instructor Lem Butler demonstrates a proper pour at Milk Chemistry lab in our Durham Training Center.
Our Counter Intelligence coffee education program aims to empower everyone in the coffee chain. In addition to individual courses and an intensive Professional Series, Counter Intelligence also offers Counter Culture Coffee Steward and Barista certifications.
 
I took our Milk Chemistry lab yesterday and learned about the chemistry – and artistry – of milk and proper steaming. We tasted a variety of locally available milks – from Maple View Farm (in nearby Hillsbrough, NC) to an ultra-pasteurized grocery brand and a goat milk – and then worked on proper texturing. I'm still not ready for barista competition, but know there is a path and feel like I'm moving forward on it toward Barista certification.
 
This weekend, our Durham Training Center will host our next Professional Series, a 2-day, hands-on education experience designed specifically for coffee professionals to develop the broad range of specialized knowledge necessary to advance their careers. Enrollment is limited for this advanced-learning format, but, as you can see, there are plenty of opportunities to learn in any of our training centers with new labs in each location added regularly. Click here for our current schedule.
 
Thanks,
Nathan
 
See the photo narrative on Flickr for Tim's notes on each photo from his trip to the Eastern Highlands of Papua New Guinea in July 2011.
Coffee producers gathered in Honduras for our inaugural Pro Series: Organic Agriculture and Quality Experimentation.
Tim and I just returned home from Santa Rosa de Copán, Honduras, where we spent last weekend in the company of 20 of Counter Culture's coffee-grower partners from Central America at the first-ever supply-side Professional Series – La Serie Profesional en español – talking about experiments (and those of you that know the two of us will recognize that I love to talk and Tim loves to experiment so, needless to say, we had a great weekend!).
 
Experimentation was one of the event's two main topics, alongside organic agriculture practices, but the concept of experimentation frames the whole event, which was something of an experiment in and of itself. Sure, Counter Culture has taught labs for more years than I have worked with the company and coffee education comes in all shapes and sizes, so in some sense this event was a logical extension of our strong supply-chain relationships and our dedication to sharing information. At the same time, La Serie Profesional represents our first foray into formal coffee grower education, so I felt the nervous excitement that accompanies a good experiment as I prepared for the event over the weeks leading up to it.
 
Here's what I was thinking: we work with knowledgeable and talented coffee growers all over the world, and, due to all sorts of circumstances, some growers have more expertise in certain areas of coffee production and other growers have more expertise in other areas. In the Coffee Department, we do our best to make recommendations to curious, quality-driven farmers based upon what we see, but often we lose track of important details or find ourselves unable to answer specific questions because we lack personal experience in the area that we're reporting on – like, say, building a compost system or a bed for drying coffee. It would be great if more growers visited each others' farms! I decided, and set about trying to make farmer-to-farmer exchanges happen between growers with complementary areas of expertise in close geographic proximity to one another. The more that we tried to encourage exchange, the more obvious it became that our conversation would benefit from more voices, and thus began the planning for La Serie Profesional!
 
Moises Herrera (shown here with Marysabel Caballero) joined coffee producers in Honduras for our inaugural Pro Series: Organic Agriculture and Quality Experimentation.
Central America is unique among coffee-growing regions for the large number of growers and groups we work with; for having a single, dominant language; and for the relative ease of transportation between farms, regions, and countries. We invited growers from Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua to centrally-located Santa Rosa de Copán, where we work with a miller and exporter called Beneficio Santa Rosa, for a two-day workshop on topics we chose for their relevance to all parties, in this case organic agriculture and quality experiments. As cars (mostly trucks, really) pulled up to the mill from all over Central America and growers began to introduce themselves to one another, I had my fingers crossed that we had chosen our topics and our group wisely.
 
We kicked things off with a session on organic agriculture which built on the personal testimony of Roberto Salazar, I introduced him as "the worm guy," since that's what we have called him around here for years, little knowing that I would stick him with a less-than-ideal nickname among his peers. The health and stable production of Finca Pashapa's coffee plants was one of the factors that inspired this event, and I wanted to share his successes in order to get conversation off on the right foot, but I needn't have worried: before Roberto finished talking, half of the growers in the room had interjected questions, begun to describe their methods, and suggested that they could work together on developing better solutions. The energy of the room carried us all through almost three hours of discussion, compost show-and-tell (we asked everyone to bring samples), and, finally ,a call to action by Orlando Arita, a grower from nearby La Labor, Honduras, who suggested forming a committee to collaborate and share best practices.
 
Lester Valera from Cinco de Junio cupping coffee at our inaugural Pro Series: Organic Agriculture and Quality Experimentation.
Session two shifted focus from soil to cup-quality experiments, which is an area where many of our partners in Central America have made great strides over the past few years – adopting East African fermentation and soaking techniques, for example, or separating coffee varieties – but which others of our partners have barely begun to consider. Moises Herrera of Finca El Puente recounted their family's journey from creating a single, undefined lot of coffee to this year's experiments with varieties, geographic area sorting, and post-wash soaking, with all the twists and turns along the way. Although many of the assembled growers foresaw challenges to experimentation and lot separation on their farms and in their cooperatives, they all agreed to think about which experiment they might undertake and to talk about it in the next day's small-group discussion. That night, as we walked to one of my favorite restaurants in Santa Rosa de Copán for a delicious and meat-filled dinner, I felt gratified to eavesdrop on conversations between Hondurans, Guatemalans, and Nicaraguans who continued to reflect on the day's discussions and trade tips long after the sessions had ended.
 
Roberto Salazar of Finca Pashapa and Gasper Garcia from Concepcion Huista cupping with Tim Hill at our inaugural Pro Series: Organic Agriculture and Quality Experimentation.
Saturday began with a fantastic and thought-provoking cupping of four coffee pairs, each pair containing an example of a quality experiment and a sample we called normal (while recognizing that every coffee is a different version of normal, of course). Tim and I decided to keep the origins of the coffees a secret in order to avoid getting hung up on which coffees tasted better, and instead focused on the differences between coffees in each pair, whether it was a separation by variety, by process, by ripeness, or some combination of the three. As we slurped, I marveled at the number of producers cupping but also at the conversation that the cupping inspired. Having introduced these concepts and looked at photographs the day before, we all had context for what post-wash soaking meant by that point, but tasting the same coffee in soaked and non-soaked iterations grounded that newly-learned practice in a cup-quality difference that every attendee could perceive.
 
Lester Valera from Cinco de Junio talking with his group, which includes representatives of Honduras's COMSA, Guatemala's Concepción Huista in addition to other members of Cinco de Junio, at our inaugural Pro Series: Organic Agriculture and Quality Experimentation.
If the first session on organic agriculture spoke to the day-to-day life of the attendees, the last session, on the interest of the market (and by that I mean our customers, since these growers all work with Counter Culture), pushed the boundaries of most of their experience. I worried that I might lose their interest with the breadth of the subject – not to mention that no one ever has quite the energy on the second day of an event as on the first – but, in fact, the consumer perspective is very much on the minds of our producer partners and one even suggested that consumer interests could be a topic for the next Serie Profesional. Speaking of suggestions for a follow-up session, we have a whole list of those after ending the event with small-group discussions on how to implement changes this year that will bring every producer and group closer to shared goals of sustainable organic production and better-tasting coffee.
 
I have always felt that we work with amazing people and the more years we spend working together, the more I appreciate the relationships and coffees we have built together. One thing that distinguishes us as a company, and it came up in discussion at the event, was that we don't just want to find great coffee in our supply chains through cupping, we want to create it through collaboration. I felt so gratified to be able to tap into the network of knowledge and skills of these 25 producers in this first Serie Profesional, and I can't wait to see – and taste – the long-term results!
 
Saludos,
Kim Elena
Roberto Salazar of Finca Pashapa and Gasper Garcia from Concepcion Huista cupping with Tim Hill at our inaugural Pro Series: Organic Agriculture and Quality Experimentation.
We make no secret of our passion for coffee education. We know that education improves quality at every step from seed to cup, and while we focus a great deal of our Counter Intelligence educational efforts on the craft of brewing, service, and coffee science, we are devoting increasing resources to developing education projects with our producing partners at origin.
 
Earlier this week, we wrapped up our inaugural producer-focused Professional Series – La Serie Profesional en español – centering on farm and processing experimentation, organic agriculture practices, and inter-farm communication and resource sharing. Taking place in Santa Rosa de Copán, Honduras, the 2-day educational event was led on site by Sustainability & Producer Relations Manager Kim Elena Bullock and Coffee Buyer & Quality Manager Tim Hill, who co-organized discussions among the 20 producer partners in attendance.
 
Both Kim Elena and Tim posted reports on the event this week – in prose and photos, respectively – and it's clear from both accounts that the conversations and sharing of knowledge were nothing short of inspiring, and that this is but the first of many Professional Series events with our partners at origin.
 
"As we walked to one of my favorite restaurants in Santa Rosa de Copán," recalls Kim Elena, "I felt gratified to eavesdrop on conversations between Hondurans, Guatemalans, and Nicaraguans who continued to reflect on the day's discussions and trade tips long after the sessions had ended."
 
Read Kim Elena's trip report in our ORIGINS section and browse Tim's photo set on Flickr.
 
Best,
Mark
POSTED IN: education

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