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Photo by Kim Elena Bullock. When I was naught but a wee coffee-driven person, I made my first foray into the world of coffee-producer relationships with a trip to Peru in September of 2006. In those heady days, Counter Culture Coffee had one satellite regional training center, the commodity market price for coffee hovered somewhere around $1.10, the US housing market was strong, and I had bleached blond hair. Ahhh, memories. Since then, I have spent more time here than in most other coffee-producing countries, and both Peter and Rich have made trips to Peru within the past year, as well.

Our attention owes, in large part, to the unparalleled relationship we have built with the Cenfrocafe co-operative and the five communities of coffee growers behind our Valle del Santuario, and in part to the great mystery and potential of Peruvian coffee. It takes time to explore Peru, especially when you’re bumping over dirt roads in a white Toyota station wagon, the unofficial national vehicle, but you always discover something amazing. This year, for the first time, I am visiting the growers of Valle del Santuario during the dry season and what a difference it makes! Slogs up muddy mountain paths that seemed interminable on my last trip are transformed into pleasant, if challenging, hikes, and the chilly nights contrast nicely with warm, sunny days.

Seeing the differences between the rainy season and the dry season reminds me how dramatic weather can be. In North Carolina, we certainly know heat (especially in August), and in other parts of our country, we know a breed of cold that most Peruvians couldn’t fathom. Rain and drought, though, are another story. Even in the dry season, the valleys of tiny farms around the Tabaconas Namballe National Sanctuary (to which our coffee owes its name) are lush with vegetation. Shade trees cover the hillsides, and you would be hard-pressed to walk from one farm to another without crossing at least one small stream. On the other hand, the areas below San Ignacio like the city of Jaén, home to the Cenfrocafe co-operative, feel like deserts at this time of year.

Growers know better than anyone that weather patterns are changing. They want to plan for the future of their farms just as we try to project into the future for the benefit of our businesses. Photo by Kim Elena Bullock. On one of this week’s many long, winding drives through the Andes, I commented on the apparent drought to the co-op manager, Teodomiro. He pointed to blackened patches of hillside and explained that when it gets too dry for people to bear, they begin to burn their land because they believe (and have believed for who knows how many generations) that their sacrifice will bring the rain. And when the rainy season finally does arrive, it settles in for weeks or months and washes chunks of the hillside away in landslides. Last year’s rainy season was especially fierce and the mountains are striped with bare earth, but every year, growers tell me, the rain carries some part of their mountains away. I can’t help but think of the Appalachian Mountains, which I remember learning in grade school were once taller than the Andes. Whether time and rain could ever make Appalachians out of the Andes probably depends on geological factors that I don’t understand at all, and, meanwhile, I realize that climate change could alter this environment just as dramatically and within our lifetimes.

Growers know better than anyone that weather patterns are changing. They want to plan for the future of their farms just as we try to project into the future for the benefit of our businesses, and, unfortunately, I can’t assuage their fears or answer their questions. I am conscious of how often I say, “I don’t know” and “It depends” in response to questions that are too big for me, Counter Culture, or the relationship we have forged over the past four years to answer with any level of honesty. What if the climate does get warmer and I can’t grow coffee on my land? I don’t know. Or, by far the most commonly-asked question: is the commodity market price going to go up or down? I don’t know.

Even those questions that don’t depend on worldwide climatic or economic shifts aren’t simple, so when my answer isn’t, “I don’t know,” it’s probably “It depends.” What is the best variety of coffee to grow? It depends. How can I produce a microlot and get a higher price for my coffee? It depends. I could give short or easy answers to these growers but they wouldn’t be true, and these growers would figure me out after a year or two. And I doubt I would get invited back. The more time I spend doing this work, and the longer we work with the same growers, the more I understand that the truth – and gratification – lies precisely in that maddening complexity that it’s so tempting to simplify.

On that Peru trip of 2006, I was awed by eating guinea pig for breakfast, by the long drives, and by the party that the coffee-growing community threw upon our arrival. Four years later, I revel in strategic discussions that remind me as much of the way Counter Culture works with our customers as they do of the first-year, getting-to-know-you celebrations that take place every year for coffee buyers across Peru and the rest of the world. I guess you could say our producer relationship is growing up (and so fast! sniff). I am proud, obviously, that we’ve gotten here. But, at the same time, in the spirit of keeping the romance alive, I freely admit that I still love a community-wide party and that fried guinea pig in the morning still makes for a heck of a wake-up call.

Abrazos,
Kim Elena
We do all of our roasting in Durham, NC, and since our founding in 1995, we have partnered with organizations and donated resources to causes and organizations that work to preserve and improve our local community.Building a sustainable business is central to Counter Culture Coffee's mission. We strive to be leaders in sustainable coffee and combine our commitment to buying high-quality coffee with respect for the natural environment.

One of the responsibilities of a sustainable business is to contribute in positive ways to our local community, as well as the communities of producer partners around the world. We do all of our roasting in Durham, NC, and since our founding in 1995, we have partnered with organizations and donated resources to causes and organizations that work to preserve and improve our local community.

Thanks,
Nathan

 

POSTED IN: Durham, sustainability
Lots of potatoes in Bolivia. Seriously. Photo by Tim Hill. So, with this trip report, I am going to try something a little bit different, so please bear with me. I posted 30-40 pictures on Flickr to visually take you into the sight and scenes – including notes along the way.

An Overview:

I left North Carolina not really knowing what to expect. We have been working with the Cenaproc cooperative for many years now, and, while the coffee had been good, we have certainly had some issues, as well. The goal of the trip was to see if further work with Cenaproc is possible, and to see what else is going on around the country.

On this trip, I visited a single farm, 2 co-ops, a few wet mills, and two dry mills. Overall, I was impressed with everyone. The term microlot has become a standard, and single farmers and co-ops alike are realizing that if they separate out quality, they can earn more for that coffee.

A cross-pollinated coffee cherry that looks like a beach ball. Photo by Tim Hill. Cenaproc, without question, has tons of potential. Everyone knows they have great coffee, and, out of 27 samples I tasted, 6 of the top 8 were from Cenaproc. They do have some processing issues, but those should be easy fixes. We will taste some microlots this year, and hopefully the relationship between us we thrive. Next year, I believe things will be even better.

I met Maria Nidia Ascarrunz, who owns Finca Copacabana and the Vicopex dry mill. Both were very impressive operations. Vicopex is doing great processing, and I believe coffees from there will be better than anywhere else.

My last stop on the trip was to Agritrade. I met Pedro Rodriguez and his daughter, Daniela. Agritrade is a large operation, but they also have the ability to select out some very good small producer lots. I was well calibrated with everyone there and hopefully we will taste more coffee from them in the future.

Bolivia is a really interesting place, but does have some internal problems. The travel of the coffee from the Yungus at high moisture content is something that needs to be solved, and it may be Bolivia’s greatest challenge for coffee quality. We have a couple ideas that may lead to answers for this. Bolivia’s politics are also something to keep a watch on. The country is leaning more and more towards countries like Venezuela, and groups like USAID that, in the past, have provided funding for good projects in coffee, are no longer quite as prolific around the area. As with every country we do business in, the potential in Bolivia is huge, but the question is can certain challenges be overcome.

To see a lot more of this trip, go to the Counter Culture Coffee flickr page.

-Tim
Peru, July 2010. Photo by Peter Giuliano. Here I am, swimming upstream. You see, great coffees are created on a farm. Coffee is a miracle of nature, and at its perfect point of ripeness, it is full of potential flavor. The farmer then carefully prepares the coffee for export, pulping, fermenting, washing, and drying to enhance the coffee’s natural greatness. At that point, the coffee has all of its deliciousness locked up inside of it – and it must be protected and preserved during its long journey from the farm to our roastery.

My job this week is to work my way backwards along the long road that coffee takes to get to us. I’m swimming upstream, towards the farm, making sure that the great coffees we work with farmers to create are safe during that long journey. And so, after landing in Peru last week, my first stop was the port town of Piura, where our Valle del Santuario coffee is loaded on ships bound for the U.S. Our first stop was the dry mill where the coffee gets its final peeling, sorting, and bagging before export. This is the least romantic part of a coffee buyer’s job – inspecting the mill, talking about containers and logistics and bags – but it’s impossible to have perfect coffee without perfecting the process of getting it to us. We seek to improve every year, and this year we’re streamlining the process to get the coffee to us sooner, fresher, and even closer to coffee perfection!

Away from the coast and through the foothills of the Andes – up and over the spectacular peaks of South America – is little valley where the greatest coffee in Peru is grown. Photo by Peter Giuliano. I then set out East, away from the coast and through the foothills of the Andes – driving up and over the spectacular peaks of South America to get to the little valley where the greatest coffee in Peru is grown. I will risk using the word “spectacular” again to describe the massive and beautiful mountains that span Peru’s northern border and tower between the farms where our coffee is grown and the port. The road is long and treacherous and winds for countless miles – at times clinging to the side of a valley, with hundreds of feet falling away below. After hours of driving, we finally made it to Jaen – in the heart of coffee country. There, I was met by the leadership of CENFROCAFE, the co-op which helps us export the coffee, and Elias and Alex – the two cuppers who are such an important part of identifying the great coffees of this area. After a night of rest, we set out again for 4 more hours of driving to get to Ihuamaca, one of the towns that produces Valle del Santuario.

In Ihuamaca, Peru, the children of the town welcomed Peter with a traditional dance. Photo by Peter Giuliano. I received a warm welcome; the children of the town performed a traditional dance, and afterwards we proceeded to the home of Zacharias Neyra for a meal. Zacharias is a community leader, great spirit, and wonderful coffee farmer – coffee from his farm was one of the coffees that made up our Valle del Santuario “3 Farmers” microlot this year. After lunch, as we walked his farm, Zacharias explained that he had expanded his farm this year – growing from 1.5 hectares to 2. He told me he was able to make the purchase, in part, with the extra premium we paid for his spectacular coffee. I could not have been happier.

Zacharias Neyra expanded his farm this year – from 1.5 hectares to 2 – in part, with the extra premium Counter Culture paid for his spectacular coffee. Photo by Peter Giuliano. We hiked other farms in the village, occasionally stopping for a passion fruit or tangerine from trees on these diverse, organic farms. We walked together as a group, and I realized I was surrounded by the all-stars of Peruvian coffee. These farmers create the greatest coffee in Peru, and one of the greatest in all of Latin America. I had finally made it home, to the birthplace of this great coffee. It’s going to be another great year for Valle del Santuario, and we’ll make sure the coffee is safe on its long journey from that little valley to your cup.

Next week, Cuzco!

-Peter
The Thiriku Coffee Growers Co-op Society Ltd. Sign in Nyeri, Kenya. Photo by Counter Culture Coffee. Kenya is so interesting. In the United States, we know Kenya mainly for two of its cash crops, coffee and tea, and for its unparalleled wildlife-viewing opportunities (have you seen the lion-versus-buffalo-versus-crocodile video on YouTube?) in the country's network of national parks. Europe increasingly relies on Kenya for other agricultural products, including fruit and cut flowers, and within Africa – particularly East Africa – Kenya is a manufacturing powerhouse.

While this wasn't my first time to Kenya, I had never seen a Kenyan coffee farm or any of the numerous washing stations from which Counter Culture has purchased coffee, and I felt more than a little bit in awe as I headed north from Nairobi to the famous coffee-producing region of Nyeri. It seemed as though I recognized the name of every village we passed through – Kangocho! Gitchathaini! Tegu! – from countless cuppings, and I had to control my urge to take photographs of every road sign. With only a day in Kenya on this trip, I was limited to visiting one farmer cooperative society, and I naturally chose Thiriku, one of the co-ops from which we purchased coffee in 2009. I arrived at the washing station full of excitement and questions, of course! How many growers are in the co-op? What is the average yield per plant? Why does this coffee taste so amazing? And such.

Washed coffee drying on raised beds at the Thiriku co-op in Nyeri, Kenya. Thiriku just began receiving coffee from their producer members for this year's fly crop – the smaller, between-harvests-harvest that is the equivalent of Colombia's mitaca – last week. There was a tiny amount of coffee on the drying table for me to photograph, but things were pretty quiet overall, and after touring the co-op's impressively-organized wet-milling operation, I sat down with the management of Thiriku in their offices and, over cups of milky tea (which I totally wasn't expecting, even though I can hear myself telling customers that Kenyan coffee growers don't drink coffee, but rather tea) discussed the desires of their 2,400 members, our coffee-purchasing philosophies, and some of the challenges that Thiriku and Counter Culture face if we want to work together in the future to buy larger amounts of coffee and develop a long-term relationship. We have all become accustomed to drinking a variety of small, exquisite lots from different Kenyan producer groups, including the ones I mentioned, each year. While we love the variety and exploration of flavor that this approach affords us, we also look longingly toward a day when we find the equivalent of our La Golondrina or 21st de Septiembre in a Kenyan cooperative.

Smaller between-harvest harvest are referred to as 'fly crops' in Kenya. Photo by Counter Culture Coffee. So what's stopping us? Well, like I said, Kenya is interesting, not least because we consistently pay double, triple, or quadruple the price we pay for other Direct Trade coffees for our Kenyan coffees. These prices owe, in part, to the spectacularly complex, savory, and citrusy flavor profile of the best Kenyan coffees (like this year's Thiriku), which are unmistakable and impossible to substitute. Even more than the flavor profile, though, the prices result from the unique Kenyan coffee auction system that regulated all of Kenya's coffee sales for almost 70 years, until the opening of the "second window system" in 2006. Since then, Counter Culture has purchased most of our coffees through that window, which allows for direct negotiation and price discovery outside of the auction. Because the weekly coffee auction in Nairobi still exists and tempts growers every year with the possibility, however remote, of some random buyers falling in love with a coffee and bidding up its price at auction, we have found ourselves paying higher prices for the privilege of buying coffees directly than these coffees could ever fetch at an auction! This instability and lack of commitment can be frustrating, and don't lend themselves to the formation of a long-term relationship.

Kim Elena with representatives of the Thiriku co-op in Nyeri, Kenya, in June, 2010. The lot we purchased from Thiriku this year is one of those top-dollar lots: exquisite in the cup and limited in quantity. In my travels and negotiations, I often explain to groups of growers that we could buy coffee from them at any price, but that a higher-priced coffee is more difficult to sell. Happily, I was able to share our experiences and puzzle over this predicament with the leadership of the Thiriku co-op.

Unfortunately, I had to leave our discussion earlier than I would have liked to in order to make my way back to the bustling capital before dark. We expect the arrival of new-crop coffees from Thiriku and a few other farmer co-op societies in the very near future, and I know that it won't be a moment too soon for lovers of these complex, savory coffees! I am excited to know Thiriku and to communicate over the course of this year, hopefully in the name of finding more great lots and building on this year's strategizing in the years to come.

Saludos,
Kim Elena
Burundi, June 2010. Hello from Burundi! This is my first trip to Burundi, and my first trip to the African continent since I was 17. I am giddy with excitement, and I don't know where to begin!

I suppose I should begin with the coffee, huh? Last year, Counter Culture Coffee purchased coffee from three washing stations in Burundi: Kiryama, Nemba, and Teka. I loved them all, if you're wondering, but my secret favorite was Kiryama. In Burundi, as in Rwanda and Kenya, we have traditionally called our coffees by the names of the washing stations – as opposed to co-op or farm, as we do in Latin America – and I was thrilled to spend the past few days visiting washing stations in the Kayanza and Muyinga provinces to the northeast of the capital city of Bujumbura. The washing station plays a very important role in the greatness of Burundi's coffee: every morning during the harvest season, across the hills of this tiny country, farmers harvest coffee from the (mostly Bourbon-variety) trees on their small plots of land. And every afternoon, they hoist the morning's coffee cherries onto their heads, or backs, or, occasionally, bicycles, and bring their loads to the nearest coffee washing station, where the coffee is sorted and weighed, and the weight of the coffee recorded for payment. At that point, the coffee ceases to belong to the grower and becomes the property of the washing station, and the washing station takes responsibility for preserving and creating quality by keeping the de-pulping machine calibrated, by controlling the fermentation of the coffee, by washing the coffee in clean water, by drying the coffee evenly, and by running a generally well-organized operation.

Kim Elena at the Buziraguhindwa washing station. As a result of Tim Hill's visit to Burundi in February (2010), as well as his relentless pursuit of great coffee and information from our partners in the coffee sector of Burundi, Counter Culture signed a contract in advance of this year's harvest with a brand-spanking-new washing station named Buziraguhindwa (boo-zee-rah-goo-HEEN-dwa). In addition to its tongue-twisting name, Buziraguhindwa interested us for a couple of reasons: first, it is located in Kayanza province, a stone's throw from Nemba; second, the owners recruited Cassien Nibaruta, whom we knew from his work managing Teka, to run the new operation; and, third, Buziraguhindwa was willing to sign a Transparency Contract with us. In the simple, two-page contract, we define the prices and premiums to be paid by Counter Culture to each actor in the coffee supply chain: from the importer to the exporter to the washing station to the farmer. For a washing station that works with more than 1,000 growers, that is a big commitment and requires a high degree of organization.

I arrived at Buziraguhindwa during a meeting of producer representatives from the collines (colline is the French word for hill, and the hill is the unit that defines communities here in Burundi) around the washing station. One of the field agents for the Burundi Agribusiness Project was instructing these colline leaders about good agricultural practices and strategizing with them about ways in which more growers can actively engage with the washing station. This meeting brought into focus a crucial difference between Burundi's culture of coffee growing and the culture of Latin America that has shaped my vision of producers and relationships: the washing station is not a substitute for a co-operative, but rather an ENTIRELY DIFFERENT way of approaching coffee and people! This might seem obvious to some of you, but I kind of always imagined that Burundian coffee growers identified with their washing stations like Latin Americans identified with their co-ops. Having visited a few, I now believe that sort of identification is only beginning to take place. Coffee farmers from the hills surrounding the Buziraguhindwa
washing station bring their coffee here because of price and proximity
rather than out of a sense of loyalty or obligation.At Buziraguhindwa, I introduced myself and Counter Culture, to the assembly, and I spoke, as I always do, about why we believe that quality and long-term relationships benefit everyone from coffee producers to coffee drinkers. I asked questions about why growers bring coffee to Buziraguhindwa instead of other washing stations and found that the choice consistently came down to price and proximity, more than any sense of loyalty. On one hand, flexibility is not a bad thing, especially in a coffee industry still growing and maturing, in a country still stabilizing after a generation of turmoil. Likewise, plenty of growers in Latin America abandon commitments to their cooperatives and sell to other buyers if they can get a higher price by doing so. But even understanding all of that, it's still awfully hard to feel complete confidence building on a system that isn't necessarily consistent from one year to the next. Well, then, what to do?

Interestingly, while Burundi's specialty coffee industry may be young, it's learning quickly. Following the visit to Buziraguhindwa , we traveled further north to the Rwandan border to visit Ruhororo, the first washing station in the country to be purchased by a co-operative of coffee farmers. Ruhororo is generating a lot of discussion across Burundi's coffee sector because it represents a shift toward grower empowerment and responsibility. The importance of the washing station will not diminish anytime soon – and that's a very, very good thing from a quality perspective – so it is crucial to use the washing stations to incorporate growers into the coffee supply chain. Examples like Ruhororo, active management of washing stations, and more cupping throughout the country are all pieces of this puzzle.

I am proud that Counter Culture is here, on the ground, sharing experiences and strategies from our partnerships around the world in order to help Burundi establish systems that work: for its culture, for coffee quality and for the long term. We're exploring, learning and making progress at an exhilarating pace.

Every afternoon, coffee farmers in Burundi hoist the
morning's coffee cherries onto their heads, or backs, or, occasionally,
bicycles, and bring their loads to the nearest coffee washing station,
where the coffee is sorted and weighed, and the weight of the coffee
recorded for payment.Tomorrow, I head to the cupping lab to taste the first round of Buziraguhindwa samples, as well as samples from a few other washing stations. Cassien promised to meet me there to talk about continuing improvements to the infrastructure of Buziraguhindwa, about how price premiums will be delivered, and about how much coffee they have produced so far in comparison to their expectations. I forgot to mention that the harvest is only now hitting its peak! After a wrap-up meeting with Emile and the BAP team, it's early to bed in preparation for my 3 a.m. flight to Kenya and a whole new set of observations from there!

I will leave Burundi more than a little bit enamored of this country, its people, and its coffee, I admit. With a delicious flavor profile, a nimble and fast-growing coffee industry,and heavy investment by the development community, my head spins at Burundi's potential. Plus, can you believe that many people speak four languages? They don't even blink at switching from Kirundi to French to English and throwing in some Swahili. According to an adage in Kirundi, “It is only the cows that speak just one language,” and while I want to be offended when a group of Burundians tells me this as they tease me about my botched French, their laughter is infectious and all I can do is say murakoze (thank you) – for your patience, your affection and your answers to my endless questions – while I keep trying.

Murakoze,
Kim Elena
5-26-10

The 2010 harvest in Cauca, Colombia began at the end of April. Photo by Counter Culture Coffee. The phrase “100% Colombian Coffee” may appear on many a can of supermarket coffee flavor crystals, but over the past couple of years, the world of Colombian coffee has been anything but boring. Unusual weather patterns and high price premiums made for fierce competition in the market for Colombia’s best coffees in 2009, and, last September, after visiting the growers of our La Golondrina coffee from Cauca, Colombia, I wrote in my trip report about some of the challenges – like soil fertility and low productivity – faced by our partners in the Organica association. Sharing heavily-sweetened coffee and sancocho (the delicious chicken stew of Colombia that farmers take pride in preparing for guests), the growers and I comforted ourselves by reassuring one another that the market would would surely calm down before the following year’s harvest.

Eight months later, I returned to beautiful Popayán, this time with Alejandro Cadena of the export company Virmax and my boyfriend, Kieran, to the same coffee farmers and to the same sancocho, and together we marveled at how wrong our predictions were! This year’s rainy season brought a nasty case of roya, or leaf rust, to farms large and small all over the country, and high price premiums continue as a result of factors outside of our control, like currency appreciation. The silver lining to these challenges is that in working through each one, our ability to communicate, to solve problems, and to trust one another improves enormously.

Coffee farmer Arismendes Vargas's mother presented Kim Elena with a cake on behalf of all of the growers in honor of her birthday! This year’s harvest began at the end of April, which is early for the Orgánica growers, and my arrival to Popayán last week coincided with the first week of heavy coffee picking. Visiting farms at the peak of the harvest provides great perspective on the variations in selection, sorting, and processing among the many small farms of the association. After Orgánica leaders Nelson Melo and Liliana Pabón picked us up at the airport, we headed immediately out to revisit the coffee farms that produced Counter Culture’s microlots during the mid-season, or mitaca, harvest: Finca Villa María, owned by Manuel Melenje and Inés Borrero, and Arismendes Vargas’s Finca Villa Nueva. Both of these farms have experimented with the coffee fermentation process, which is unusual for small-scale growers, and, given the success of their coffees, it’s important to us that these growers not only receive recognition from us but also share their experiences with their neighbors and other members of the association who might never have considered trying something new.

After lunch at Finca Villa Nueva, Arismendes’ mother presented me with a cake on behalf of all of the growers and a rousing rendition of Feliz Cumpleaños ensued in honor of my birthday – the birthday which I had purposely tried to keep under wraps! I blushed and cut slices of a (thankfully) gigantic cake for 21 farmers and Arismendes’ five children. Oh, and it was a carrot cake with simple white frosting, if you’re wondering, washed down with cane-sugar Coca-Cola. Mmmmmm, sugar.

We struggled to get growers to pay much attention to recommendations about best practices for coffee quality because a fungal disease called leaf rust has affected their trees dramatically. Photo by Counter Culture Coffee. Although Manuel and Arismendes accompanied me to a number of different farms, we struggled to get growers to pay much attention to recommendations about best practices for coffee quality because a fungal disease called leaf rust has affected their trees dramatically. Coffee historians might recall that in the 1870s, leaf rust (hemileia vastatrix) reduced the production of modern-day Indonesia by 90 percent in just a few years. A fungus that incubates in moist conditions but spreads with heat, leaf rust is almost impossible to control once it reaches the leaves of the coffee plant, which will appear to be covered in a rust-like powder and then fall off, leaving the tree starved for the nutrients it needs to ripen its coffee fruit.

Some of the growers in the association have little to no rust on their farms, whereas others stand to lose up to 50 percent of this year’s crop. Asking about the discrepancies, I discovered that some farmers took heed of warnings from the Colombian Coffee Federation, Virmax, Orgánica’s agronomists, and others to take precautionary measures against rust, while others did not, and that in this case, as in so many things, an ounce of prevention – organic as much as chemical – is worth a pound of cure.

Coffee from Manuel Melenje's Finca Villa María was one of our mid-season microlots from our La Golondrina project.We spent four days on farms around Popayán and, aside from inevitable loss in this year’s crop precipitated by leaf rust, the farmers responsible for La Golondrina are making progress toward even better-tasting coffee and stable productivity levels. Work continues on Virmax’s farm, Belgravia, where they have applied the first “harvest” of worm compost to young coffee plants, and Nelson and Liliana have built a similar set of composting beds at their farm.

Most of La Golondrina’s growers lack the necessary quantities of fertilizer and have disorganized composting operations when they have them at all, so we’re all anxious to see how both plants and farmers respond to the worm compost. Will they see the value in buying it, at subsidized rates, from the association? Will some of them buy worms and begin their own operations? I have my fingers and toes crossed for this … as well as for the recovery from leaf rust … and for stability in the Colombian coffee market … not to mention, as always, for the quality of the harvest! It’s a lot to hope for, but I’m forever an optimist.

Saludos,
Kim Elena
Oaxaca's unique blend of indigenous Mexican and colonial Spanish cultures make semana santa a popular place to watch parades and processions. Photo by Kim Elena Bullock. I arrived in Oaxaca, Mexico, for one of the most exciting weeks of the year: semana santa, or holy week. The days between Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday have a special significance in Catholic communities around the world, and Oaxaca's unique blend of indigenous Mexican and colonial Spanish cultures make it a popular place to watch parades and processions. In Latin America, it also traditionally means vacation! Not so for the young, dedicated leaders of the 21 de Septiembre cooperative who spent semana santa hard at work cupping coffee, visiting farms, and continuing to develop the relationship that the co-op and Counter Culture have built over the past four years.

Our primary challenge has been, and continues to be, that the 21st lacks the ability to separate lots by producer (the way our partners in Colombia and Peru can) because they haven't finished building a cupping lab or trained a cupper. Oaxaca, Mexico, April 2010. Photo by Kim Elena Bullock.We began in the cupping lab at the offices of Sustainable Harvest, our importer, in Oaxaca City. The harvest has all but ended for the 950 members of the cooperative, and the 21st is anxious to divide coffees among their buyers as efficiently as possible. Every year, Counter Culture pays a premium to the co-op for the coffee that we sell as our 21st de Septiembre in order to guarantee access to their best coffees. Our primary challenge has been, and continues to be, that the 21st lacks the ability to separate lots by producer (the way our partners in Colombia and Peru can) because they haven't finished building a cupping lab or trained a cupper. They do separate coffee by community, and we gravitate toward Zaragoza because it has historically produced the best coffees, as well as the most coffee – almost half of the co-op's total comes from this one town! This year, I cupped lots from Zaragoza as well as a few other communities that have contributed coffees to our total lot in years past. When I asked why we didn't focus exclusively on Zaragoza, the 21st explained that the "special lot" they make for Counter Culture Coffee is one of the best tools they have for inspiring growers to work on producing better quality coffee and that, because of that potential, the co-op wants to make sure that we consider other, smaller communities that lack Zaragoza's altitude but have better farming and processing practices. That seemed fair, so we cupped all of the samples without knowing which coffees came from each community. After sorting out the better coffees and making some blends among them, my top-scoring coffee of the day ended up being a blend of 80 percent Zaragoza and 20 percent Nueva Esperanza, which goes to show that sometimes, the whole is better than the sum of its parts. And what a sum it was! Red fruit and orange-y acidity stood out over the classic, chocolate-milk flavor profile and reminded me again that this co-op produces coffee unlike any other coffee we have tasted from Mexico.

Seedlings of heirloom variety coffee shrubs are being cultivated to eventually replace old-growth plants. Photo by Kim Elena Bullock. With coffees chosen, we set off on the long, twisting road from Oaxaca City to Putla, the small city where the co-op has its office. From there, it's a short distance as the crow flies but a long one as the truck crawls up into the mountains, and I felt a familiar sense of relief and awe when we finally made it to the mountaintop town of Zaragoza. As word spread of our arrival, growers congregated in the coffee warehouse at the center of town. I immediately recognized many of the faces – and voices – of the growers in this cooperative, and I was struck by a comment made by the 28-year-old president of the co-op, Diracsema José, who told me that the co-op faced "two age-related challenges," their aging coffee plants and their aging members. These challenges led us directly into a discussion of my current favorite topic: soil fertility.

The harvest has all but ended for the 950 members of the cooperative, and the 21st is anxious to divide coffees among their buyers as efficiently as possible. Photo by Kim Elena Bullock.These days, I sound like a broken record as I ceaselessly encourage farmers, particularly on certified organic farms, to invest in making and applying compost that will help them achieve stable, sustainable yields from their farms. Though it requires time and energy up front, better soil and consistent productivity allow a grower to spread the costs and labors of farming over more coffee. The 21st has begun worm composting projects, which I always love, and they have also invested heavily in starting new coffee plants from seed to replace the sprawling40- to 50-year-old coffee trees on the farms. Replanting efforts usually make me cringe because it often means sacrificing heirloom varieties, but the 21st is replanting with the same Typica and Bourbon varieties that have always grown on these farms and simultaneously preaching the virtues of these great-tasting coffee varieties to farmers! Seldom do growers in any country receive encouragement from agronomists (or anyone else) within their home countries to prioritize cup quality; usually it's high-yielding, flat-tasting coffees that end up replacing the heirlooms.

Addressing an aging membership is a lot more difficult than replacing aging coffee plants. Mexico, April 2010. Photo by Kim Elena Bullock. Of course, addressing an aging membership is a lot more difficult than replacing aging coffee plants. Most of the children of these growers don't see a future in coffee and would rather migrate to cities – or out of Mexico altogether – than take over for their parents. We talked about the potential of cupping as a profession, and I described the growth of the (mostly) young barista culture in the United States – and the enthusiasm and ideas that young people can bring to the industry that these growers, Counter Culture, and the baristas serving 21st de Septiembre single-origin espresso are all a part of. It's a big task, fitting these supply-chain puzzle-pieces together and making them work in unison, but as I looked around at the leaders of the co-op – under 30, full of energy, internet savvy, and lovers of espresso, all of them – I felt excited that maybe, this is just the group to do it. I look forward to the arrival of this year's coffees and to many more years pursuing deliciousness, sustainability, and innovation with this amazing cooperative!

Saludos,
Kim Elena

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