You are here

Counter Culture Coffee's Kim Elena Bullock in Colombia in 2009 at a then-new worm compost facility. In her trip report from Colombia last fall, Sustainability and Producer Relations Manager Kim Elena Bullock mentioned a new project to supply the growers of La Golondrina with more organic material for their small, certified organic coffee farms.

Kim recently received an update on the project from our partners in Popayan, and she filed an update in the DEVELOPMENT AT ORIGIN portion of our SUSTAINABILITY section.

Read Kim's update for exciting news about this sustainability development!

Thanks,
Nathan
After four days in Addis Ababa for the Direct Specialty Trade auction, our head roaster, Tim Hill, spent time with Abdullah Bagersh at his office in Addis, and then make my way down to his famous mills in Yirgacheffe. Photo by Tim Hill.After spending 4 days in Addis Ababa for the Direct Specialty Trade auction, the next leg of my trip was to spend some time with Abdullah Bagersh at his office in Addis, and then make my way down to his famous mills in Yirgacheffe. All I could think was that the next few days were going to be like hanging out with my favorite musician, and then going on tour with them. And for lack of more beautiful prose—I was stoked.

In his Addis office, Abdullah explained what he was working on for 2009/2010. He also explained a little bit of the history of his coffees and the Ethiopian coffee trade in general. During that conversation, it occurred to me that while I knew a few of the things that Abdullah was discussing, I wasn’t sure how much of the information has been passed along. With that – in accordance with how I like to start a trip report – I think a little history and back story is in order.

Everyone at the Counter Culture office, and maybe most in specialty coffee industry, knows the coffees Idido Misty Valley and Beloya. These two coffees have showcased a consistency and quality for 5 years that almost single-handedly raised the bar for how good a natural processed Ethiopian coffee can be. What I don’t think people know is that Abdullah and the Bagersh family have been in coffee for generations, and the majority of their business is exporting coffee, not producing coffee in the traditional sense. Speaking to that concept of being a producer, in the case of these coffees, it is a little bit different than we tend to think. Abdullah does not own a farm, but rather he owns the place where the coffee is processed – i.e. the facilities in Idido, Beloya, and his lesser known one at Michile. To get the coffee, he purchases coffee in cherry form from famers around these processing facilities. This type of structure is pretty common all over the world, and coffee buyers understand how big a role these mills play in the overall quality. The people that run facilities, like Idido, have to work with very small producers and help them produce perfect cherry. To guarantee they have access to this perfect cherry, they have to pay more than other mills in the area to ensure that the farmers bring the cherry to them. Then these mills take all the risk to prepare the coffee as best they can and sell it. In the case of Idido, it took Abdullah 8 years of perfecting the way he processed the coffees before he felt they were what he wanted them to taste like. So, after 8 years of Abdullah perfecting his technique and 5 years of Counter Culture purchasing and having this amazing product available, the trade platform for all of Ethiopia changed, making these coffees not possible. This happened not only to Abdullah, but to all owners of these processing facilities that did not own the land the coffee was grown on, or were not part of a cooperative. Coffee buyers who knew how important these places were for the coffee quality were outraged when this happened, and blamed this all on the inception of the Ethiopian Commodity Exchange.

Yirgacheffe is lush, beautiful, and certain parts make you dizzy thinking about the altitude. Photo by Tim Hill. Now let me back up a little further and explain how things worked before the Ethiopian Commodity Exchange. Before the exchange, there was an auction system. Producers would bring their coffee to the auction, and exporters would go to the auction and bid on the coffee. In the case of Abdullah, in particular, this was more complicated because in essence he owned two separate businesses. He owned Idido, Beloya, and Michile, on the processing/ producing side; but then he also owned an exporting business. More times than not, the Bagersh company would buy coffee from the auction and export it for customers. When Abdullah started producing amazing coffee out of Idido, Beloya and Michile a few years ago, he wanted to export it himself making things a little bit more complicated. To make it happen, Abdullah would first turn in his coffee from Idido, Beloya, and Michile to the auction like normal. Then because of the high quality of the coffee, he knew which coffee was his, thus it allowed him to purchase it as the exporter. Basically Abdullah was selling coffee to himself. (Talk about complicated and little bit strange.) While overall, this practice was maybe frowned upon in the auction system, everyone seemed to benefit. Farmers received higher payment for cherry, Abdullah was compensated for his hard work, and of course we were able to purchase amazing coffee and offer it to our customers. For those reasons this practice wasn’t really regulated. As time progressed though, officials thought the auction system was outdated and needed to be changed. When the update to the system was put forth last year, and the Ethiopian Commodity Exchange came to give real-time pricing, better grading, and better payment practices, it also did away with the loophole that coffees like Idido and Beloya were going through. While many Counter Culture people were saddened by this event and could certainly understand the outrage people felt in not being able to purchase particular coffees anymore, it was also hard to fault a system for more or less cleaning up a loophole. What was enlightening about everything Abdullah was talking about, is that Abdullah very much felt the same. He explained that, of course, it is very disappointing that he couldn’t export his own coffee but he would rather look forward to the future of Ethiopian coffee, roll with the punches, and see what IS possible than dwell on what isn’t. After the conversation with Abdullah, that was so fascinating I could probably write a few more pages on about it, I headed down to Yirgacheffe to see Idido and Beloya. Traveling from Addis Ababa to southern Ethiopia is simply amazing. You leave the high altitude bustling city, and after a very short time driving you enter the Rift Valley. The dry, barren terrain can only be described as resembling a completely different planet. Once you pass the city of Awasa, slowly every small town starts to come closer and closer to the idea of where you might think coffee would thrive. Photo by Tim Hill. Traveling from Addis Ababa to southern Ethiopia is simply amazing. You leave the high altitude bustling city, and after a very short time driving you enter the Rift Valley. The dry, barren terrain can only be described as resembling a completely different planet. Once you pass the city of Awasa, slowly every small town starts to come closer and closer to the idea of where you might think coffee would thrive. And then there is Yirgacheffe. Yirgacheffe just screams coffee, and I can see why 60 years ago someone decided this would be a great place to try to start doing a washed processed coffee. It is lush, beautiful, and certain parts make you dizzy thinking about the altitude. (We are talking over 2,000 meters.) My first stop after arriving in Yirgacheffe was the Idido Mill. As we passed tiny, little hut-like houses, I was wondering where the mill was going to be. Then, all of a sudden, we stopped. The Idido mill is smack-dab in the middle of these houses, almost perfectly integrated. Even though this time of year is the off-season, I was pretty excited to be at the mill. The first time I tasted coffee from Idido, I had one of those "AHA!" moments in my coffee career. It wasn’t because it was a natural processed coffee, but because of Idido I began to understand coffees that have been taken to a higher level of quality. For that reason, this coffee has held a very special place in heart. At the mill, I quickly got out of the car and took in all the scenery. Then I proceeded to ask the mill manager about 50 questions, which he happily answered, because I think he could tell how excited I was. After walking around the washed processing side and the natural processing side, and talking more about all the experimentation this mill has done over the years, there wasn’t much else to see so we quickly headed off for Beloya. When we arrived at Beloya the processing facility was basically in the middle of town, like Idido. There really could have been anything behind the corrugated steel gate. It is somewhat amazing that this hidden little facility in the middle of a tiny little town produces some of the most amazing coffees in the world. Like Idido, the Beloya the processing facility is situated in the middle of town. Photo by Tim Hill.After walking around again, we all talked a little bit about the flavor differences between Beloya and Idido, and what could cause those differences. It is hard to settle on a varietal difference, although you can certainly see all types of coffee trees around this part of Ethiopia, but one thing we could settle on, was altitude. Idido Misty Valley which is known for its bright citrus, floral, and strawberry notes, is at a staggering 1941 meters (according to the altimeter we were using). Beloya, known for its deeper tones of just about every berry you can think of is just a little bit lower at 1771 meters. After postulating and talking about the coffee, there was only one question I had left: Would any of the coffee coming from Idido or Beloya be available this year? This is the question that I had been holding in for this whole time, not to mention for about a year before I even got here, and it just kind of rolled out. When the mill manger said very plainly, “Probably not,” I wasn’t really surprised. All I could think for a second was the word: brutal. Then I realized “probably” … isn’t exactly "definitely." So the conversation continued. You see, Idido and Beloya DID produce some very high preparation natural coffee, but for the most part the facilities were actually leased to other producers to do some washed coffee.

Idido Misty Valley which is known for its bright citrus, floral, and strawberry notes, is at a staggering 1941 meters (according to the altimeter we were using). Beloya, known for its deeper tones of just about every berry you can think of is just a little bit lower at 1771 meters. Photo b Tim Hill.The problem is of course the same as last year. There really is no avenue for coffees from a privately owned processing facility to be sold directly and then exported. So maybe something will show up through some avenue we are not aware of yet, but I would say this is unlikely. What the focus of the conversation came to – and a topic that Abdullah talked about in Addis – was the possibility of getting the farmers around the mills to form a cooperative. If that were the case, Idido and Beloya could assist the farmers in processing, and then the farmers could decide whether or not they wanted to export the coffee through Abdullah. More than likely they would like to export through Abdullah, and a potential better chain would be established between the farmers, Abdullah, and the roaster. Over the next 5 or 6 months all we can do is hope that a structure like this will come together. In the meantime, our partnership with Abdullah is not totally lost. Like I stated in my last report about the Direct Specialty Trade auction, other ideas have cropped up. The next Direct Specialty Trade auction will be on April 8, and I am drying to see if Abdullah will represent other producers as the exporter of their coffee. Also, Abdullah is not opposed to buying great lots from the Ethiopian Commodity Exchange, and offering those to us as well. We will see.

It is somewhat amazing that these hidden little facilities in the middle of tiny little towns produce some of the most amazing coffees in the world. Photo by Tim Hill. Overall, being able to talk with Abdullah and seeing the mills has been eye opening. Ethiopia without question has the most potential out of any country to produce amazing coffee. I am convinced that while the way coffee is traded here can be challenging, good things are coming, and hopefully a more transparent system with better logistics will continue to emerge. So, to answer the question: Will we see Idido again – I think without a question we will. Likely, it will not be exactly like it was, but hopefully it will be a new and improved partnership, and I can only wait for that time to come.

-Tim
A cityscape of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, where our head roaster, Tim Hill, attended the inaugural Ethiopian Commodity Exchange Direct Specialty Trade auction. Photo by Tim Hill.As a few of you know, about a year ago and half ago Ethiopia radically changed the way coffee was traded throughout the country. A trading platform called the Ethiopian Commodity Exchange (ECX for short) emerged and the old auction system was done away with. The new system focused on real-time pricing and trading broken down for virtually every unique region and processing style within Ethiopia. While the new ECX system vastly improved some aspects of coffee trading, it also produced some limitations. One of the limitations was that traceability to a specific lot or producer became much more challenging because different producer’s lots were not necessarily kept separate. Another limitation was that any certification, organic or otherwise, could no longer be attached to the coffee, again because the coffee was being traded in grades and not by a specific producer. Understanding that the exchange was a good platform for many coffees – but that there needed to be another venue for high quality, traceable, and certified coffees for specialty coffee buyers – the leadership of the ECX started building the framework for a branch of the exchange to make those things possible. And this is how the Direct Specialty Trade auction was born.

To make the auction a reality in such a short time, the leaders of the ECX – in particular, a gentleman named Bemnet Aschenaki – have been visiting as many producers as possible from all over the country looking for the best coffees. The idea is that the coffees they found would be separated and set aside at ECX warehouses around the country. Then, international buyers would have the opportunity to taste these hand-selected coffees and purchase them transparently through the Direct Specialty Trade auction. This system gives producers the opportunity to market their coffee to buyers they never would have had access to before. It also provides a transparent contract with the buyer that stipulates exactly how much of the purchase price will go to the exporter and, more importantly, how much will go to the producer. For Counter Culture, seeing this new platform in action was a can’t-miss opportunity and, of course, also a chance to purchase a spectacular lot of coffee. The first thing to do was to taste the coffees that ECX scoured Ethiopia for.

On the Morning of February 16th, I made my way to the ECX’s main facility in Addis Ababa for a full day of cupping coffee. The ECX was able to assemble 44 different coffees for this first auction, and this was my opportunity to cup through them all. Having that many coffees to cup in one day can be somewhat daunting in any circumstance, but especially cupping at origin. Many cupping labs at origin lack the necessary protocol or equipment to keep everything consistent, and when things are not consistent it can be hard to gauge to quality. Prepared for possibly one of the longest cupping days of my career, I was overjoyed when I walked into a brand new and meticulously organized cupping lab that we would be using. All the coffees buyers were quickly able to dive into cupping and after a solid 7 hour day of tasting we now had a very good idea what the Direct Specialty Trade auction had to offer.

A new and meticulously organized cupping lab made the process of evaluating the quality of the 44 different coffees assembled for the auction a manageable and effective process. After the cupping, all the buyers met with Dr. Eleni Gabre-Madhin, CEO of the ECX, and all the producers that were selling their coffee in the auction to talk about how the bidding process and logistics of the coffee being sold was going to work. One of the major challenges of the auction was that many of the lots represented less than the standard shipping amount; so a few options needed to be discussed. For instance, did buyers want to take the extra expense for shipping less than the standard amount of coffee – adding an extra 20% or more to the cost? Or did it make more sense to work with the producer to purchase more coffee outside of the auction and ship it with coffee from the auction? Or was it possible to purchase coffee from a few producers and have them work to ship all of their coffee together? Those questions are what I like call the somewhat boring side of coffee sourcing, but in reality without figuring them out before the auction, it could make or break what is bought and at what price it could be purchased. After 3 hours of discussing protocol and logistics and getting everything out on the table, the only next step to take was to see the auction live the next day.

The next day, after all the buyers and sellers settled in auction room floor, the auction bell was rung by Dr. Eleni and the very first Ethiopian Direct Specialty trade auction was officially was under way. In the middle of the auction pit (a sunken octagon-shaped part of the auction floor) the first seller stood awaiting open outcry bids for their coffee. For a brief second everyone held their breath and looked around the room. Then bids started going back and forth among the buyers. As the price rose modestly, you could hear people murmuring around the room. After a short time, bidding came to a close and everyone looked over at the auctioneer. The auctioneer then revealed that the seller’s reserve price had not been met. The high bidder and seller negotiated, but could not agree on a price and the coffee went unsold. For the first three coffees this was the outcome. The next five coffees were not bid on at all. Again on the ninth coffee up for bid, the buyer and seller again could not agree upon a price and the coffee went unsold. The tenth was not bid on. Things were starting off slowly, and everyone around the room was starting to get nervous. Being the very first auction of its kind, the kinks needed to be worked out. One of the causes to the slow start was that the quality level, while still very high, represented a greater range than what many buyers in the room were interested in, and many of the first auctioned coffees were in the lower quality range. Also because there was no history for this type of coffee sale, the price levels for what buyer and seller thought was fair needed to come together. So, after a very slow start where almost a fourth of the total coffee went unsold, on the 11th coffee up for bid, the DST auction finally had its first sale. A loud cheer came from the crowd and some of the tension relaxed. The next 20 or so coffees auctioned were hit or miss with six total sales.

The inaugural Ethiopian Commodity Exchange Direct Specialty Trade auction started slowly but shows potential as a venue for high quality, traceable, and certified coffees for specialty coffee buyers. Photo by Tim Hill. The last 10 coffees, however, were a different story. The last 10 coffees represent some of the higher quality coffees the auction had to offer and bidding was much more aggressive. Going back to all the tasting I did of those 44 coffees, one coffee really hit the right notes. That coffee was from the Adado Co-operative (not Idido, just for clarification) in Yirgacheffe. The coffee was sweet, very floral with a good hint of citrus. It is our kind of coffee from Ethiopia. And, now, after waiting for 41 coffees to go through the auction, it was finally time for bidding. I stood hovering over the pit as the bidding started on the Adado Co-operative coffee, and quickly realized that I was not the only one who liked this coffee. Bidding quickly rose higher than all the other coffees in the auction. Four separate buyers bid back and forth until the price forced two to drop out. Still on the floor bidding on behalf of Counter Culture and a few other roasters was Timothy Chapdelaine, a long time importer partner of ours. He bid without hesitation all the way until he reached our cutoff – MORE than 20 percent higher than any other coffee in the auction. In the end someone wanted this coffee just a little bit more than we were willing to spend for the quality, so we would be going home without a purchase.

After the last two coffees were purchased and the auction came to a close, there was a big sigh of relief around the room. While the auction started out very slow, and of course there are many things to work out, I still believe buyer and seller alike saw it as a small success. Overall, 16 coffees sold for a very good average price above the market with the Adado Cooperative lot considerably higher. Also after the bidding session, a great opportunity to talk with producers came up. The conversations I had revealed that some producers were disappointed with the results, in particular a few that received no bids for their coffee, but that even those producers still had great optimism for the system in the future. Their hope was that the ECX would learn from this auction and iron out the system.

One other interesting outcome from the auction was that a partner of ours, Abdullah Bagersh, had the chance to represent another producer's coffee as the exporter. Because Abdullah is not only well-respected for producing great coffee and for making coffees better through his meticulous export preparation, the coffee he represented received the third highest bid at the auction. While that was great in itself, after the auction Abdullah received many phone calls from other producers asking him to represent their coffee in a the next Direct Specialty Trade auction. So, about a month from now the second Direct Specialty Trade auction is going to take place, and from what I understand the bar is going to be raised on quality, logistics and bidding will be better figured out, and the exporters who we love to work with will hopefully have more coffees to represent at the auction. I don’t know what everyone else thinks, but I believe we might be bidding again.

-Tim
Hi all,

Counter Culture Coffee's Kim Elena Bullock in Colombia in 2009 at a then-new worm compost facility. In my Colombia trip report of (what seems like) many months ago, I mentioned a newly-begun project to supply the growers of La Golondrina with more organic material for their small, certified organic coffee farms. Almost a year ago, Virmax and Orgánica, the association of growers behind La Golondrina, decided to purchase worms and build a small composting operation together on land adjacent to Nelson and Liliana’s farm outside of Popayán.

In August, I spent an afternoon driving around the city of Popayán with Nelson and Giancarlo Ghiretti of Virmax to buy construction materials for the first worm beds, and, since then, the project has come a long way: I am happy to report that the first batch of compost is ready to harvest and that the worms are doing great! Our partners have learned a lot through experimentation about how factors like humidity, food, and pH balance impact worm productivity. The next step is to send samples from the different worm beds to a lab for testing and for recommendations about the ideal amount of compost to apply to coffee plants, and once they have that information, Organica plans to start distributing their worm compost to farmers.

The first batch of compost is ready to harvest and the worms are doing great at compost project associated with our La Golondrina coffee farms. I feel like I have been excited about this project for nigh on forever because it is so easy to fit worm compost into a model for long-term farm sustainability: good compost leads to good soil, which leads to good-tasting coffee, (of course) but also a consistent supply of coffee, which is at least as important to a small-scale grower as a year of hitting the jackpot with microlot scores and prices.

Counter Culture Coffee made a donation to this project in the name of our customers this past holiday season, and (spoiler alert!) we are already planning our 2010 holiday program with La Golondrina and this worm composting project in mind.

Root, root, root for the worms, I say!

Saludos,
Kim Elena
POSTED IN: education, Seeds
Coffee was brought to Indonesia by the Dutch, who first
planted coffee on the volcanic island of Java. Photo by Peter Giuliano.Ok, first, let’s review the history: coffee was brought to Indonesia by the Dutch, who first planted coffee on the volcanic island of Java. Within just a few years, Dutch plantations on Java were more productive than any on earth, and “Java” had become synonymous with coffee itself. Then, disaster struck: in the 1870s, a disease called "coffee rust" appeared and destroyed the Dutch plantations, which were planted in the wet, warm lowlands of Java. In the 1890s, they re-established plantations on the dry, high Ijen plateau in the east of the island. These plantations, or “estates,” called Djampit, Pancoer, Blawan, and Kayumas, were run by the Dutch colonial government for decades. That is, until Indonesian independence in the 1940s, when the new Indonesian government established a special branch to manage the estates called the PPT. Therefore, every coffee buyer knows that all Arabica coffee in Java comes from these 4 estates, is sold by the PPT, and is known as “Estate Java.”

Here’s where the story gets personal: in 1987, while working my first job as a barista, a coworker handed me a cup of coffee and said, “Taste this.” I did, and experienced my first coffee epiphany: the coffee was deep, chocolaty, and velvety, and had a kind of savory, dark cherry undertone that I found incredibly delicious. The memory of that cup of coffee is burned in my mind. It was, of course, an Estate Java – from the Kayumas estate. And, there you have it – my first coffee crush was Kayumas Estate Java. By the mid-1990s, however, good Estate Javas seemed impossible to find. There wasn’t much coffee available, and what was available was lackluster and had none of that delicious character I remembered. When I visited Java for the first time in 2003, I discovered the reason: the PPT had grown bureaucratic and apathetic, caring little for quality or tradition. “Why should we care about quality?” one official actually said to me, “We sell everything we produce anyway.” Touring the estates, I saw firsthand what had become of a formerly grand coffee tradition: casual picking and processing, the elimination of shade trees, contempt for sustainability, and little quality control. Bitterly disappointed, I gave up on Java coffee altogether, and resolved never to return.

Employees of the 4 estates in java who lived in the mountains surrounding the Ijen plateau would occasionally pocket a few coffee seeds, and plant their own coffee trees in their own backyards. Photo by Peter Giuliano. So why am I here? Well, there is an interesting twist: it turns out that over the past 100 years, employees of the 4 estates who lived in the mountains surrounding the Ijen plateau would occasionally pocket a few coffee seeds, and plant their own coffee trees in their own backyards. Intended initially for their own consumption, these estate workers soon learned that they could roast and sell the coffee to nearby townspeople for a little extra cash. It needed to be kept on the lowdown, since everyone knew that Java Arabica was officially grown by the government on the estates, so even most Javans didn’t know about these hidden coffee farms. Over the years, these secret coffee farms spread, and by the time I visited in 2003 there were hundreds of hidden coffee farms in the mountains surrounding the very estates I was visiting – I just couldn’t see them. When I asked my hosts – from the PPT, of course – if there were any other Arabica coffee farms in Java besides the estates, they told me flatly no. That wasn’t true.

Enter a coffee trader named Asnawi. Asnawi was a buyer and seller of Robusta coffee; the lower quality, disease-resistant variety of coffee with which the Dutch replanted the lowlands in the 1880s. Asnawi had a good relationship with Robusta farmers, and was helping support quality improvement and development in family farms. One day, a farmer came to him and said, “Mr. Asnawi, why don’t you buy coffee from us, too?” He was, of course, a leader of a group of secret Arabica coffee farmers near the Kayumas estate. Asnawi contacted the Indonesian Coffee and Cocoa Research Institute to learn more about Arabica coffee, and together they put together a project to help the secret farmers process high-quality Arabica coffees, instead of the poorly-prepared coffees they were selling to the local market. When I heard this story, I immediately arranged a side trip from Sumatra to Java to check it out.

Samsul Arfin and his son have lived in the mountains surrounding the Ijen plateau their entire lives. Samsul owns 8 hectares, which he has planted with coffee, ginger, cloves, avocado, jackfruit, vanilla, mango, and starfruit, among indigenous albasia, mahogany, and teak trees. Photo by Peter Giuliano. I flew from Medan to Jakarta, and then to the East Java capital of Surabaya (which gets my vote for favorite place-name: it means basically “crocodile vs. shark”). I then made the loooooong trip up to the mountains surrounding the Ijen plateau. When I arrived at the outskirts of the Kayumas estate, you could have knocked me over with a feather: there, hidden under abundant shade trees were the glorious little secret Arabica farms, in the backyards of the workers who planted them. I visited a number of these farmers, some quite old by now, to hear their stories. First, I met Samsul Arfin and his son. Samsul has lived in these hills his entire life – his father worked on the Kayumas estate. When Samsul got his own farm when he was 25, he obtained some coffee seeds from his father and planted them behind his house. He now owns 8 hectares, which he has planted with coffee, ginger, cloves, avocado, jackfruit, vanilla, mango, and starfruit, among indigenous albasia, mahogany, and teak trees. In 2005, he began learning about quality coffee production, and he now sells his coffee to Asnawi for export, more than doubling his previous income.

Peter spent 2 days traveling the hills surrounding the Ijen plateau, meeting the farmers, having coffee in their houses, and touring their farms. I spent 2 days traveling these hills, meeting the farmers, having coffee in their houses, and touring their farms. I even got to see one of the backyard roasting plants they still use to sell roasted coffee to neighboring villages – in a homemade, hand-cranked roaster heated with firewood! I was inspired by these farmers and their story, and I can’t wait to try some of this year’s crop – the coffee fruits are still tiny and green on the trees. I spent my final days in Java tasting last year’s crop – past its prime by now – but I leave the island refreshed, my romance for Javan coffees rekindled.

I’m on my way home now, I’ll see you soon.

-Peter
Hello friends and family,

Gayo country is a long way away. It takes more than 40 hours of travel to reach the highlands surrounding Lake Tawar where the Jagong mill turns out some of the best Sumatran coffee available. Photo by Peter Giuliano. Gayo country is a long way away. It takes about 30 hours to get to the island of Sumatra, but once you get to the port city of Medan you’re not there yet. It takes another 11 hours of driving to get to the Gayo highlands surrounding the placid Lake Tawar. Takengon, the city by the lake, is the headquarters of the Gayo people, an ethnicity which has a rich cultural heritage and long history. The Gayo have farmed and fished these highlands for thousands of years, and have their own language, culture, and traditions. It’s a beautiful land – rolling mountains lined with farms and topped with forests, and Gayo villages nestle along the steep, winding roads of this country. This is coffee land – about 90 percent of the Gayo people’s income comes from coffee growing and export.

I’m here to visit our partners, the Gayo Organic Coffee Cooperative, and their leader and exporter, Mr. Irham. Irham is a special person – he has been working in coffee in this area his whole life, growing up collecting coffee from local farmers, driving it down to the port city of Medan, and selling it to exporters. Doing this, he gained the respect and trust of the local farmers, and, about 4 years ago, after the tragic Acehnese civil war ended, Irham was able to start exporting coffee himself. We got the tip and began buying coffee directly from him. In the meantime, Irham led the formation of the Gayo Organic Coffee Cooperative, a democratic cooperative of organic coffee farmers.

The Gayo people have farmed and fished highlands for thousands of years, and have their own language, culture, and traditions. Photo by Peter Giuliano. As we continued to buy the cooperative’s coffee, we wound up discovering something special – coffee Irham marked “Jagong” was distinct from the rest, with a cleaner, more delicious flavor. Turns out, Jagong is a washing station in the valley of the same name, and I visited for the first time in 2007. It was an amazing find – most coffee here is processed casually on the roadsides. The Jagong mill, on the other hand, is a truly artisanal mill where farmers bring their cherry for crafting. The motto of the Jagong Mill “Jagalah Kebershian” which means “keep it clean” is a perfect descriptor for the mill – it’s a completely unique place in the Sumatran highlands – a place where coffees are fully fermented and washed before wet-hulling and drying.

The Jagong mill was apparently built as something as an experiment by the Dutch, trying to develop better, more consistent coffees from the area. During the Achenese war, the mill was abandoned, and Irham was able to negotiate a purchase – so the Jagong mill is now owned by the Gayo Organic Coffee Association, and we are the main buyers of this coffee. In the confusing and chaotic landscape that is coffee from the Gayo highlands, I’ve come to consider this mill and its coffee – grown in the surrounding valleys and washed in Jagong – the treasure of the Gayo mountains.

The farmers who contribute to our Gayo coffee have been working hard in recent years to focus on cherry ripeness, which contributes tremendously to sweetness. Photo by Peter Giuliano. So, of course, Jagong was the first stop on our trip here, and I was also out to solve another mystery: this year, our favorite coffee was marked Atu Lintang. Was this another Jagong? Since Irham speaks no English and I no Gayo, email was no help. I finally figured it out on my first day here – Atu Lintang is the name of the valley right next to the Jagong valley, and the Atu Lintang farmers bring their coffee to Jagong for processing. Jagong wins again! See what I mean about something special? I was therefore able to concentrate my travels on these two valleys. Trekking around was made easier because the roads have been much improved this year – the trip from Takengon which used to take 3 hours now takes an easy one-and-a-half!

I am filled with respect for the farmers of Jagong and neighboring valleys. The Gayo have a reputation for being extraordinary devout and hard-working, and they are fiercely protective of their culture and heritage. Every farmer knows that this coffee is special, and that it is unique to these highlands. Local legend says that this was the very first place in Sumatra where coffee was planted, and I believe it. These are still the spice islands, as well, and farmers grow cinnamon and cloves on their farms, along with fruit trees like tangerine, snakefruit, and the famous spiky durian. Irham and the farmers have been working harder in recent years, focusing on cherry ripeness. Ripeness, of course, means sweetness, and we’ve indeed noticed that the sweetness of Jagong coffee has increased in the past few years. We spent time discussing how Counter Culture can support further forays into coffee perfection, and we're working on some very special coffees from these farms. Stay tuned for that.

Ina, the 24-year-old daughter of the Gayo Organic Coffee Cooperative's their leader and exporter, to the big city of Medan to tend to the coffee exports. Photo by Peter Giuliano. I’ve also had a great time traveling with Irham and his family. Tragically, Irham’s brother, confidant, and partner died suddenly last year, and this has been tough on Irham and the cooperative. Luckily, Irham’s two children, Andi and Ina, were ready to start taking some responsibility. It’s charming to see serious, stern Irham gently showing his children the details of the coffee trade. Andi now sits as the cooperative’s president, and 24-year-old Ina has moved by herself to the big city of Medan to tend to the coffee exports. It’s a big responsibility, but she is ready for it, and she’s especially excited to take coffee quality to new heights in the next generation. It’s exciting and it makes me so happy to be laying the groundwork for a durable relationship in Aceh – a place that has known so much instability. “We work together to improve quality,” Ina said to me in English first thing yesterday morning, a phrase which she had clearly been practicing.

Anyway, I’ve got tons of notes and have been making lots of plans. After 4 days in the highlands, we made the 11-hour drive back to Medan yesterday, and will spend today visiting the dry mills and port facilities. Then, this afternoon, we fly to Java for the next leg of the trip. Yes, you read correctly, Java. I’ll tell you all about it next week.

Meanwhile, I miss you all. See you soon.

-Peter
[Note: Because of a technical issue, Kim Elena's trip photos didn't reach us. The photos included here are from visits to Finca Pashapa from the last two years.]

Roberto Salazar and Kim Elena examine drying coffee beans at Finca Pashapa in 2009. Photo by Tim Hill. I just arrived in Managua, and I’m gearing up for a few days of visits to growers, followed by Counter Culture Coffee’s annual trip to Nicaragua, the Origin Field Lab, which will begin later this week.

Ahh, but I am getting ahead of myself by telling you what’s to come without telling you where I have been! I spent last week in western Honduras, working on a project: namely, to make 2010 the year of Finca Pashapa. This year marks the eighth consecutive year that Counter Culture Coffee will purchase coffee from Finca Pashapa, a 30-acre, certified organic farm owned and run for three generations by the Salazar family. This was my third trip to the farm and with every year that passes, I am more enraptured by Pashapa and its people: where else can I spend a morning learning farming techniques and strategies on a model organic coffee farm, followed by an in-depth cupping and discussion of flavor profiles and nuances with those same growers in the afternoon? The farm’s diverse shade and worm composting set a standard for real environmental sustainability that no farm I know of has yet touched, and the coffee’s eight-year record of consistent cup quality is both laudable and all-too unusual, even among the greatest coffees.

In order to maximize the potential deliciousness of Finca Pashapa’s coffee, the first challenge facing Counter Culture Coffee was to address the mysterious aging of Honduran coffee in general. Among buyers, coffee from Honduras has a unique and unfortunate reputation for tasting flat and “past crop-ish” more quickly than coffees from other countries. Most people attribute this unfortunate tendency to a problem in the way that coffees from Honduras are dried. Between the drying machines common to Honduran mills and the humidity of the Caribbean coast where coffee leaves Honduras for the United States, I cannot deny that the supply chain is rife with hazards to coffee quality and longevity.

Roberto Salazar walking the farm at Finca Pashapa in La Labor, Honduras, in march 2009. Photo by Kim Elena Bullock. So what is a lover of Honduran coffees to do? One answer is to accept the risk of premature aging and account for it by purchasing minimal amounts of coffee from Honduras. When we plan for the coming years at Counter Culture Coffee (long-term planning is a huge benefit of our long-term relationships), though, we always agree that the enormous potential of Honduras’s Finca Pashapa is too great a sacrifice to pay to this rapid-aging mystery. Hence, we have no choice but to resolve it! With both short- and long-term futures in mind, this year I called on every member of the supply-chain team – from the coffee’s growers and exporters in Honduras to the importer in San Francisco – to assemble in Honduras and attempt to resolve this problem, at least as it relates to coffee from Finca Pashapa.

Our group convened at the offices of the exporter, Beneficio Santa Rosa, in the mountainous city of Santa Rosa de Copan to taste coffee together and to strategize. After spending hours discussing our experiences with Honduras’s coffees and eliminating factor after factor in search of the answer to the aging mystery, we kept returning to the hot and sticky climates of San Pedro Sula – where most of the country’s coffee is processed – and Puerto Cortes – where it is exported.

It’s no secret that coffee suffers humidity terribly, and together we determined that we would address these challenges in three ways: by adding a special, air-tight bag to our coffee to protect it during its journey down from the mountains and over sea, by avoiding San Pedro Sula completely, and by setting a 24-hour time limit for our coffee to wait to embark at Puerto Cortes. We are on track for 2010!

The second part of the two-part quality project relates to the as-yet unrealized flavor potential of Finca Pashapa’s coffee. Last year, Counter Culture Coffee added a dimension to our relationship with these growers in the form of a microlot from the highest-altitude parcel of the farm, called El Lechero. Roberto Salazar – who, in addition to running the farm with his family, also supports a co-op, manages a mill, and serves on national cupping juries – has methodically tasted the coffee from each part of the farm for years. In El Lechero, he recognized an opportunity to produce exceptional coffee and the family began paying higher wages to the farm’s employees to pick and sort El Lechero’s coffee with special attention to detail. The results of that differentiation – only the pure, ripe, sweet coffee fruit made it into the lot – indubitably made a difference, and since that first tasting of El Lechero’s coffee, we have not been able to stop ourselves from wondering, “What would it be like if ALL of Finca Pashapa’s coffee was harvested and sorted with such attention to detail?”

This year, Roberto and I had an honest discussion about whether it would be possible to apply such standards across the board, and what the costs would be, and I am confident that this farm will continue to produce better coffee every year, and that we will continue to expand the scope of our partnership.

Roberto and his father Jorge examining drying coffee beans in 2008. This year, for the first time, I visited farms around La Labor other than Finca Pashapa, and I met growers who belong to the cooperative that processes coffee with the Salazar family in La Labor. Roberto has been working for years to identify growers with the farming conditions and determination to produce great coffee, and to encourage organic production, as well. We believe that at some point in the not-too-distant future, these farms will produce coffee to rival El Lechero, and in the meantime, Roberto will be cupping coffees like crazy to find those special micro lotes (micro lots).

Though I spent a scant five days in Honduras, I was still able to enjoy the hospitality of Roberto’s parents, Jorge and Coyo, who never fail to make me feel like part of the Salazar clan (in a good way). With six grown children and at least six grandchildren, most of whom live within a stone’s throw of the casa paterna (parents’ house), Coyo’s kitchen is constantly churning out meals of eggs and meat from the family’s hens, beans, tortillas, and vegetable stews made from the spoils of their gardens, juice from their citrus trees, and cheese from their dairy cows. Dinner usually begins around 5:30, when the sun goes down, and I happily spend hours at their table, talking coffee and politics, gossiping about the village, and laughing as the Salazar brothers make fun of one another. As I said, we are very lucky, and as you might imagine, I can’t wait to go back.

Now then, it's Nicaragua time. I miss you all and I look forward to hanging out soon.

abrazos,
Kim Elena
Aida Batlle's farms in Santa Ana, El Savlador, include Finca Mauritania, Finca Kilimanjaro, and Finca Los Alpes. Photo by Kim Elena Bullock. I arrived in El Salvador two weeks ago on the first day of the coffee harvest at Finca Mauritania! It was purely coincidental, of course, but I like the correlation because it reinforces the feeling that we have gotten the year off to an auspicious beginning. Speaking of beginnings, this trip was my first to El Salvador and to the venerable Finca Mauritania, if you can believe it. I met Aida Batlle on her first trip to visit Counter Culture in 2004, only a few months after I joined the company, and since that time Counter Culture's relationship with Aida has become a model for relationships we have constructed elsewhere in the world. Various Counter Culture Coffee employees and customers have visited Aida's farms over the years to learn about the work that goes into producing her extraordinary coffee, so I headed to El Salvador with high expectations. Thankfully, I was not disappointed.

Our first order of business was to visit Aida's farms. We stopped by Finca Kilimanjaro and Finca Los Alpes before making our way to Finca Mauritania, where we arrived just as the pickers congregated to weigh and sort the day's coffee harvest. As I crouched to take photographs of the pile of beautiful, ripe coffee cherries, it occurred to me that I felt like I already knew the farm manager, Adonai, and his wife. I have seen countless photos of the perfectly-picked cherries at Finca Mauritania, and I have shown these photos to other coffee producers from around the world, only to watch them gape with disbelief: they can't believe that anyone would invest the effort in picking such uniformly ripe coffee! I hate to echo other trip reports, but it bears repeating that Aida's dedication to quality and perfectionism is unsurpassed (and maybe unsurpassable).

The harvest had just begun in early December when Kim Elena made her first-ever visit to the farms of Aida Batlle in Santa Ana, El Savlador. Photo by Kim Elena Bullock.Different versions of coffee perfectionism were on view at two other farms we visited in other parts of Santa Ana: first, on a farm owned by Alejandro Duarte, we saw a plot of "BLC," or Bourbon Low Caffeine, planted for the famous Illy company. The experimental variety was technically a secret until about a year ago, and if you're wondering whether I got to taste it, the answer is no: this coffee is Illy's property through and through, and, in fact, if the company decides to pull out of the experiment, the producer must destroy the plants! The second version of coffee perfectionism was yet another experiment unlike any I have seen in coffee, this time in grafting: at a lower-altitude farm owned by the J. Hill Company (which owns the mill where Aida processes her coffees) they are experimenting with grafts of Bourbon-type coffea Arabica plants onto coffea Canephora, or Robusta, roots, in hopes of improving the Bourbon's drought and disease resistance. Again, I can't make any judgments on cup quality, but I felt lucky to get a sneak peak at these experiments.

Aida Batlle's dedication to quality and perfectionism is unsurpassed. Photo by Kim Elena Bullock.But back to Aida's coffee! This year's crop of Finca Mauritania will be the seventh that Counter Culture purchases from Aida, and each year we work together to broaden the scope of our coffee experiments and to deepen our commitment to one another. This year, Aida and I picked December for a visit because the coffee harvest is not yet in full swing, and we have an unusual new coffee-related project to work on: carbon.

About six months ago, after conversations here at Counter Culture and with Meredith Taylor of Washington, DC's Peregrine Espresso (who had just begun a long-distance, sustainability-focused internship with Counter Culture), I approached Aida with a proposal to calculate the seed-to-cup carbon footprint of Finca Mauritania's coffee and to plant trees that would sequester the carbon produced at each step in the chain. Though I couldn't give her many details—at that point, I hardly even knew what I was asking for—Aida good-naturedly agreed to let us make Finca Mauritania the carbon guinea pig and to help me however she could. Meredith and I spent months learning about carbon, researching carbon calculators, testing carbon calculators, talking to carbon auditing organizations, and following just about every lead you can imagine that has the word “carbon” in it, before creating a worksheet of our own to quantify the energy used at each step in the creation and preparation of Finca Mauritania's coffee, right up to the brewing. From gallons of diesel to therms of natural gas to kilowatt hours of electricity, I haven't done this much math since high school! As we neared completion of the energy-consumption puzzle, we realized that the most challenging information to obtain was that information coming from our supply-chain partners at origin.

Beneficio Las Tres Puertas is the mill to which Aida brings Finca Mauritania's coffee for processing. Photo by Kim Elena Bullock.Beneficio Las Tres Puertas is the mill to which Aida brings Finca Mauritania's coffee for processing—that is, everything from removing the skin of the cherry to drying, sorting and bagging the coffee for export. Understanding their operation is crucial, both from the perspective of cup quality and from the carbon-footprint perspective. The mill manager, Mario Mendoza, walked us through the ecological features of the mill, including a wastewater treatment system more extensive than any I have ever seen and a unique energy generator that burns the skins of coffee cherries for fuel. It is always important to Counter Culture to meet and build trust with everyone in the supply chain, since transparency is one of the criteria for Counter Culture Direct Trade and our model relationships. This trust becomes all the more important when you're asking for something out of the ordinary, which is exactly what I was there to do: we needed to know how much energy was used to wash, dry, and prepare Finca Mauritania's coffee for export in order to calculate the total pounds of CO2 generated in that process, and Mario was eager to assist us.

Aida Batlle, owner-operator of Finca Mauritania, stands out as one of coffee’s most innovative and passionate individuals, and coffee lovers in the U.S. have celebrated her dedication to growing the heirloom Bourbon coffee variety since Counter Culture began working with her in 2004. Photo by Kim Elena Bullock. Interestingly, I have found that when I tell most people about the carbon-counting project that Counter Culture, Peregrine, and Aida are undertaking together, they are really excited to hear about it and happy to get involved. When it comes to calculating a year's worth of data for the electricity used in one of our training centers or the total gallons of fuel used in transporting the coffee from El Salvador to New Jersey, sometimes the process gets a bit stickier! I keep reminding myself—and telling all of the many supply-chain participants who do the legwork of finding the information I ask for—that when we do finally fill in the blanks, find the total carbon footprint of this coffee from seed to cup, and then plant trees to sequester the carbon we collectively produce, then we will, as a group, have made an inspiring step in the direction of real sustainability. And this group includes everyone at Counter Culture Coffee. The number of miles driven and flown by Counter Culture employees contributes directly to the footprint calculations, while energy-conservation behaviors can help reduce that footprint. It is all connected.

Likewise, we are all participants! Everyone who has had a cup of one of Finca Mauritania's coffees—including Pulp Natural, Pasa, Espresso—has already become involved in this project, and that, to me, is amazing. I raise a cup of Aida's Grand Reserve to all of us in recognition of the dedication, trust and support that makes such amazing things possible!

abrazos,
Kim Elena

Pages

FAQ