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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
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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
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Tasting @ Ten – Three from Nariño, Colombia!This week’s tasting offers a us tour of Nariño, Colombia, which is arguably the coffee giant’s best region for the production of high-quality coffee, in three coffees: La Florida, Rosales, and Jorge Avilio Cabrera.

Style of Tasting:
Set up a cupping of the three coffees and brew the favorite (or the Cabrera, if you want to make the call as to what is going to be most worthy of extra attention) as a pour over.

Notes on the Coffees: 
On my first trip to Colombia in 2007, I participated in a cupping event that included coffees from a variety of regions: Cauca, Tolima, Huila, and Nariño. (As an aside, my favorite was actually from the farm of Nelson Melo!) All of the coffees were delicious, and, while the Colombian coffee experts and experienced cuppers agreed that every one of the four regions had fantastic growing conditions, over and over again, I heard that Nariño had amazing potential. In the same breath, however, they’d comment that it was "difficult," or even "too difficult" to work in the southernmost region of Nariño because large buyers—Nespresso chief among them—dominated the region. Though the price premiums Nespresso offered weren’t as high as what a buyer like Counter Culture could offer, the volume they could commit to buying and their existing relationships made it seem, for years, like working in the region would be paddling upstream, at best, and at worst, a total waste of time.

Our perspective on Nariño changed in 2012 when buyer Tim Hill joined the advisory board of Catholic Relief Services’ (CRS) Borderlands project. The project’s mandate includes accessing and developing markets for coffee growers who want to differentiate their product from the standard stuff leaving the region, and, as Tim began to visit particular communities and meet individual farmers, it quickly became clear that what was true of the region on a macro scale didn’t apply to every farmer, and that, in fact, many farmers were eager to explore opportunities afforded by differentiation even if it meant a lot of extra work.

Over the three years of the project, we’ve tasted hundreds of coffees (some of them more than a dozen times) and, with help and guidance from Borderlands staff, we identified the community of La Florida for purchasing. For a description of the coffee and its significance, I'm going to direct you all to this post by Michael Sheridan, the director of the Borderlands project, who is an extraordinary thinker and writer working at the intersection of development and coffee.

In addition to investigating coffee varieties and linking coffee producers with buyers, the Borderlands project has devoted a lot of time and resources to separating coffees from individual farmers. The lot we have from Jorge Avilio Cabrera is one of those standouts that not only gives Counter Culture a chance to showcase the best-tasting coffees from within a community or cooperative we work with, but also gives us the opportunity to deliver a tangible reward to farmers as a demonstration of the potential of our market.

As much as we have learned from and benefited from international development projects in coffee-producing countries around the world, it also can be risky for a business like ours to invest in coffee supply chains built by aid money, because the money and organizations that create the linkages do ultimately disappear. Unfortunately, all too often, farmers and cooperatives don't have a firm enough foundation to continue without international aid. No one wants that outcome, of course, and one way in which Borderlands is working to secure the future of these supply chains beyond the timeframe of the project is by engaging buyers of diverse sizes from abroad and exporters working in Colombia, as well. Virmax, an exporter with whom we work regularly, also has a seat on the project's advisory board and, as they’ve gotten more involved in the region, they've begun building supply chains separate of the project.

Our last coffee, Rosales, comes from a community that CRS is engaged with, but as opposed to going through the same management process as the coffees from La Florida, this coffee took a more traditional route. This year, Rosales is not as refined as La Florida’s coffee, but it’s got the same potential when it comes to coffee geography, climate and varieties, and it’s also a coffee supply chain that exists independent of external funding.

Enjoy today’s dive into Nariño and if you can’t fit everything you want to say into your tasting this week, rest assured that we’ll be getting to know many more coffees from these farms and communities in the future.

Kim Elena
NOTE We will not be hosting a weekly tasting on Friday, January 23, at any of our regional Training Centers. We will return to our regular schedule the following week. Thanks!


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We're very (very) softly launching a next Limited-Release Blend (think Holiday Coffee + last summer's Equilibrium) in a few weeks and will be tasting the blend and its components this week at our training centers.A preview of Underdog, our next limited-release blend

Style of Tasting:
Cup the four components, then brew the blend.

Notes on the Coffees: 
I don’t know about you, but I root for the underdog in sports and in life almost exclusively.

Of course, in terms of coffee, like most of you, I love coffees from Ethiopia, Kenya, Colombia, Guatemala, and a host of other countries that hundreds of roasters—including us—carry amazing lots from every year. But when a coffee comes great in from a place that I don't see a lot of other roasters focusing on—or from a producer or place that in the past hasn’t had quite the best coffee—that's when I really celebrate.

This year, the Colbran family in Papua New Guinea delivered the best, most consistent harvest they have ever had—in one of the most difficult years they've had producing coffee—and that's why Tairora became the base for this blend.

Until recently, no one in the specialty industry carried coffee from Burundi. Two years in a row, Mpemba has made a pristinely sweet coffee that is my personal pick on the offerings right now.

East Timor wasn’t even close to being on our radar this year, but, when we starting tasting the coffee from Haupu and Lacau, we were hooked. And now we can't wait to keep exploring how good these coffees can get. (There is certainly a lot of work to get them as good as we think they can be.)

Last but not least: Buziraguhindwa Natural Sundried from Burundi. This is simply the best-prepared natural sundried coffee we have ever seen from a country that, until we bought this coffee last year, never produced this type of coffee—and now other producers in Burundi are imitating this style of processing.

Of course, we are proud of every coffee we source, but these four coffees represent the ones we've had to maintain the most patience with and commitment for, the ones that have surprised us the most, and the ones that might not have the odds in their favor but have come from behind to steal the show.

Tim
Twin Trading is no stranger to the sustainability limelight. This year, they received the Specialty Coffee Association of America's 2014 Sustainability Award for their project "Congo Coffee Revival: Regenerating Communities by Linking Remote Farmers to Mainstream Markets." Twin Trading invests all proceeds from Twin—its parent company—into charity initiatives. They have been intentionally working on community development initiatives with a cooperative we buy from—Sopacdi.

The company refers to itself as “a pioneer and leader of the fair trade movement, working to build better lives for the poorest and most marginalised in the trading chain." They have enacted this mission for the last 25 years as an importer of agricultural goods—primarily coffee, cacao, and nuts.

Currently, their work involves 18 countries and more than 50 democratic farmer organizations. Twin understands that businesses are uniquely poised to support parts of the supply chain that are vital for their business's success and are often too easily ignored.

Recently, to better support their mission, they turned their focus to issues of gender justice and, specifically, inclusion of women in the agricultural sector. Twin recently printed a report with analysis of data gathered between October 2012 and July 2013. Their team interviewed and conducted field assessments in Peru, Nicaragua, Malawi, Ghana, Uganda, and India, and surveyed 14 producer organizations total. Twin quotes a statistic from a Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations Global Policy Brief in their gender report: "Globally, women own between 1–50% of agriculture land; on average less than one quarter of arable land is owned by women in developing countries." This statistic denotes a true barrier to women's access, representation, and ability to improve their livelihoods.

The aim of Twin's study was to examine the division of labor at every step of the coffee growing process. For coffee farmers, this meant gaining greater understanding of what women do that is different from or the same as men—from land preparation and maintenance through processing and drying to transporting the prepared good all the way to export and receipt of funds and financing. By understanding where the responsibilities fall, the hope was that they could understand issues of power and empowerment, as well. The report then provides a list of suggested best practices for more full inclusion of women as key players in the agricultural sector.

To better understand the depth and importance of Twin’s work, Kat Nolte, Coffee Marketer & Marketing Advisor at Twin, was kind enough to provide a Q&A session.

Hannah: Why does Twin think it is important to specifically focus on women for their projects of late?

Kat: Twin isn't just focusing projects on gender justice, we've built it into the six pillars of our approach to sustainable development. Empowering smallholder farmers is at the heart of Twin's mission. Eighty percent of the world's coffee is produced by smallholders, and it is estimated that women perform 70% of that work. Without a gender-balanced approach, our work in coffee quality, good governance, and sustainable agriculture would be very limited in scope.

When we embed a gender component into our projects, we ensure that all of the people performing the work in coffee production receive crucial technical information. Women's empowerment isn't about the promotion of one sex over the other, it's about balance, equality, and the engagement of all the relevant players in a supply chain.  

H: Why is it important for an importer to be involved in community development efforts in coffee growing countries?

K: The SCAA tells us that "great coffee doesn't just happen." And it is so true. Specialty coffee requires people who are passionate about their craft—from farmer to barista. And passion for coffee comes after you and your family are fed, clothed, and healthy. Passion comes after you have access to clean water. Passion comes after you have an education. Passion comes after you have a good place to sleep at night. For an industry that requires so much passion, it is not only important, it is essential to see to it that your coffee is coming from thriving communities.

H: What is Twin most proud of in its approach to or results from the "empowering women farmers in agricultural value chains" initiative?

K: As far as results on the ground, there are so many anecdotal and qualitative responses that my colleagues and I could give to this question, which is proof that working in gender justice produces fantastic results.

Bukonzo Joint in Western Uganda—who is also a Direct Trade partner with Counter Culture—is certainly at the top of my list. This group went from producing coffee scoring a 79 to producing specialty lots that have scored 87+ in just two short years. And they are continuing to invest in quality, gender, and their environment in order to keep improving.

When asked how they achieved this, the group starts by talking about their work in "gender balance." They finish with technical information on farm rehabilitation, cherry harvesting, and improved processing—and the technical know-how is usually explained by women from the group. They know that farming households sharing a joint vision between men and women to produce specialty coffee are successful. They also know that households struggling to communicate about how and when to harvest and where to sell their coffee also struggle to produce the quality necessary to reach specialty markets. They have built their business on the philosophy that men and women should be equal participants in decision making and equal participants in workload.

H: What makes this type of work possible? Who are key stakeholders or partners that you recommend for optimal success?

K: Meaningful work in gender justice is possible when you have buy-in from the whole supply chain. For example, if an organization is committed to producing "women's coffee" as a way to promote economic opportunity for widows who lost their husbands in armed conflict, the market needs to also support the program with purchases or investment. Likewise, if you have men and women who are working together to produce a higher quality coffee with a gender balanced approach, the market should also recognize the investment in gender justice that went into the production, or the organization could lose traction in the push toward quality.

Over the years, Twin has come to realize that project success is at its peak when a holistic approach is taken. Approaches to development through trade which interrelate multiple areas of need simultaneously reach communities deeply and over the long-term. In addition to engaging the whole supply chain and taking a holistic approach, patience and long-term commitment is required in this kind of work. One of our biggest challenges is reconciling long-term development approaches to a dynamic, ever-changing global coffee market across diverse cultures with diverse perspectives, values, and needs.

H: What does the future hold? What are some key hopes or expectations you have as these projects and the research continue to develop?

K: We are launching a very exciting five-year project in East Africa that incorporates work in gender justice, climate change adaptation, and technical assistance in coffee production with seven producers who will prioritize needs and invest in their organizations. This project is expected to continue to demonstrate that work in gender is positively correlated to improvements in coffee quality.

My hope is that the specialty industry continues to embrace initiatives that economically empower women. We work with a group in Rwanda who have a women's coffee field named Ejo Heza, which translates to "a beautiful tomorrow." My hope is that women in coffee find this "beautiful tomorrow" as these projects continue to promote and provide equality in economic opportunity, land ownership rights, and decision-making power.

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