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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
As individuals, businesses, and policymakers begin to understand the impact of CO2 and the actions needed to counteract the effects of climate change, we see terms like carbon footprint and carbon neutral gain popularity. We also see that there are different ways to achieve carbon neutrality, e.g. reducing energy use, paying for renewable energy credits to replace the energy that we use from the conventional power grid, and planting trees to sequester CO2 from the atmosphere. Our path toward carbon neutrality begins by reducing our use of energy in all areas of our business, from the propane that we use to roast our coffee to the gasoline in our cars to the electricity that powers our computers and phones. In those areas where we cannot reduce our consumption of energy, we will look for alternative sources of energy. Our goal is to get as close to zero as possible, and then to purchase carbon offsets to account for the CO2 that we have not been able to eliminate from our products and processes. The more we reduce, the less we have to offset, which is good from both a fiscal-sustainability perspective and an environmental-sustainability perspective, as we humans can plant a finite number of trees.

Most people accept that the earth’s climate is changing as a result of human activities, in large part through the carbon dioxide released by the burning of fossil fuels.As we began to investigate our activities, we quickly realized that our footprint does not begin or end with Counter Culture Coffee’s activities. We value the interconnectedness of our coffee supply chains, from producers to consumers, and we work hard to communicate that we are all responsible to one another. If everything we do impacts everyone in the supply chain, how can Counter Culture Coffee be responsible only for the emissions of roasting coffee and for our staff’s energy use? What about the electricity our customers use to heat water for brewing in their shops? What about the fuel used to ship coffee from farms around the world to our doorstep? And what is the impact on the farm level?

Our coffee-producer partners live in some of the most ecologically important places in the world, and the biological diversity of their healthy farms assists in mitigating climate change. No other alternative crop—from corn to cattle—coexists in such a harmonious relationship with a diverse natural environment as coffee. Unfortunately, these beautiful and important places are also some of the places most threatened by the effects of climate change: rising temperatures, inconsistent rain patterns jeopardize the ability of these small farmers to make a living on coffee farms. It’s staggering to consider that our choices as a company here in the United States impact the very people on whom we depend for the product that makes our business possible. Scary as that might sound, the good news is that through these partnerships, we also have the ability to effect change ourselves and demonstrate the value of our beliefs and activities.

Seed to Cup Pilot Project

Aida Batlle is recognized throughout the coffee world as a pioneer in great coffee flavor development, and her coffee is sought after by roasters all over the world. Photo by Counter Culture Coffee.Leveraging our supply chain, we recently initiated a pilot project with a producer partner, Aida Batlle of Finca Mauritania in Santa Ana, El Salvador, and a customer, Peregrine Espresso in Washington, DC, to measure the carbon footprint of Finca Mauritania’s coffee from seed to cup. We are calculating the energy used at each step in the process, converting it to pounds of CO2 released into the atmosphere, and then planting trees with Aida in El Salvador to sequester the equivalent amount of carbon to what we produce in the processing, transportation, roasting, shipping, and brewing of her farm’s coffee. The tree planting initiative is directly funded by proceeds from the sale of Finca Mauritania coffee at Peregrine Espresso, so the program will plant a number of trees in proportion to the amount of coffee produced and consumed in this specific supply chain between farm, roaster, and café.

Click here for a press release about the pilot program.
“Peregrine Espresso is proud of our role in this project and invites our customers to join in this initiative to fight global climate change and create a more sustainable coffee trade,” said Peregrine manager Meredith Taylor. “Our hope is that $0.25 per cup and $1 per pound will not only make an impact on Aida's farm, but that this project will also help our customers to connect their coffee experience with the work farmers are doing at origin."

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. Aida has established Finca Mauritania as a model of sustainable agriculture and fair working conditions, and after three challenging years of transition, she successfully obtained organic certification for the farm in 2008. As Aida often remarks, her ability to produce great-tasting coffee depends on the health of her coffee plants, which in turn depends on the health of the natural environment.

“Everyone at Finca Mauritania is thrilled to be a part of this project, which will contribute to both the ecological health of our farm and the long-term quality and sustainability of our coffee,” said Batlle. “Uncompromising commitments to quality stewardship, sustainability, and transparency make Counter Culture Coffee and Peregrine Espresso ideal partners, and we look forward to building upon this exciting pilot project in the future.”

The tree-planting project is scheduled to begin in summer 2010 between Finca Mauritania’s next two coffee harvests. A diverse mixture of trees, including nitrogen fixers, lumber producers, and fruit trees will be selected for planting.

“Tree planting on coffee farms offers myriad ecological benefits, including slower maturation, sweeter fruit, reduction of fertilizer dependence, and the prevention of topsoil erosion,” said Counter Culture Coffee Sustainability & Producer Relations Manager Kim Elena Bullock. “In addition, tree trunks, branches, and canopies provide habitats for birds and other wildlife; and a tree can sequester 50 pounds of carbon per year, helping to counteract the effects of deforestation.”
Straight away after my trip to Ethiopia, I boarded another plane bound for Guatemala. The timing couldn't have been better – Guatemala is just beginning their harvest season, so enthusiasm was running high. In addition, I arrived on the first of November, which is Dia de los Muertos or “Day of the Dead” in Guatemala. A national holiday where people honor their friends and relatives who have passed away, Guatemalans observe Dia de los Muertos by having graveyard picnics and flying special, traditional kites which symbolize the spirits of loved ones ascending to heaven. It's a beautiful thing, descended from Mayan tradition and rife with pre-Colombian symbolism and spectacle.

I met Jorge Recinos of Finca Nueva Armenia in Guatemala City, and we began the long drive north to the Huehuetenango region, where Finca Nueva Armenia is located. As we drove, we passed the many small, traditional villages of the Guatemalan countryside, each flying dozens of kites from their jungled hilltops. It was a sight to behold. Southern Guatemala is mountain country, and the Sierra Madre range which covers this area is dramatic and beautiful. Giant volcanoes tower over steep canyons and ravines, and the high mountaintops are home to some of the best coffees in the world.

We arrived at the farm at nightfall, and dark clouds were moving through the canyons, concealing the mountaintops where the coffee is planted. It's a funny feeling to be in the mountains when they are this cloudy – although you can't see them, you can feel the mountaintops looming above you. We went to sleep to the roar of torrential rain on tin rooftops. The next morning, the clouds literally parted, and Jorge and I set out to walk the farm.

Finca Nueva Armenia is a really special farm, for many good reasons. First of all, as any observant coffee drinker already knows, the coffee produced here is delicious and irreplaceable. But visiting the farm, I was reminded of the reality that Finca Nueva Armenia is as much a forest as it is an organic farm; in fact, the farm was declared a “Forest Preserve” by the government of Guatemala! Not content to simply leave things as they are, the Recinos family seeks to actually improve the environment of their farm, and this year embarked upon a reforestation effort to help the spread of native trees throughout their farm. Since tree-planting is such a powerful tool in offsetting carbon use and fighting global climate change, we recognized that this project was an awesome opportunity to support the local environment in Huehuetenango and, at the same time, have a positive effect on the global environment. We've made that the “good work” behind this year's Holiday Blend, and $1.00 from the sale of each pound of 2009 Holiday Blend will go to support this small-scale reforestation project. To the left is a little video of the nursery in action.

So, first on my list when visiting the farm was to see how preparations for the tree-planting were going! In short, the folks at Finca Nueva Armenia have worked all year to prepare 7,500 seedlings for planting on local mountains. Native plants of all kinds will be spread around the farm, including native trees, flowers, and vines. Once planted, these trees will offset around 375,000 pounds of carbon per year every year for their entire lifetimes! It's an amazingly powerful thing. The seedlings themselves are impressive, lined up and ready for planting over the next few months. Jorge then gave me a tour of the forest, showing me what each tree would look like when grown into an adult. My favorite, of course, was the tree that graces the holiday blend label – the native Guatemalan avocado, which towers above the farm and produces food for birds and other wildlife.

But it wasn't all tree talk. The farm is geographically spectacular, as well – it's planted on a soaring mountainside. The best coffees come from the very top ridge of the farm, and it was there we hiked. Along the way, we walked past a number of the pure-water springs that dot the property, and marveled at the view of the Huehuetenango region that one gets from the top area of the farm. This area is home to the Bourbon Rojo and Typica varieties which help make this coffee so deliciously round and fruity. In addition, the processing at the farm – at their 50 year old washing station – is like going back in time.
The Recinos family processes their coffee using techniques unchanged for a hundred years and are slow-fermenting and spring-water washing in the most traditional, handcrafted manner possible.

Towards the end of my visit to the farm, Jorge and I shook hands on next year's purchase, thereby ensuring that we all get to drink this fantastic coffee next year, too. I leave you with another little video, this one, from the top of Finca Nueva Armenia, where the best coffee is from.

-Peter
Hello, Everyone!

The people of the mountains of the Southern Region of Ethiopia were known to the ancients as 'the people who live in baskets' after the beautiful basketlike huts which line the roads and farms. Photo by Peter Giuliano. Well, I promised another update. As I mentioned before, part 2 of this trip to Ethiopia was exploring the Southern Region of Ethiopia, and the coffee regions of Sidama and the most famous little coffee town in the world, Yirgacheffe.

It’s a long trip from Addis to the mountains of the Southern Region, but making this trip has always felt like a trip to Mecca for me. The landscape is heartbreakingly beautiful, and as the car climbed from Lake Awasa into the mountains of Sidama, I began to feel giddy and excited. Here is the ancient homeland of coffee, where ancient Ethiopians discovered the marvelous coffee bush and its sweet cherries, where they first dried and roasted the coffee seeds, and where the first dark, intoxicatingly fragrant cups of coffee were first shared among friends and family. Everyone in this country drinks coffee every day, and the fragrance of coffee rides along the breezes, along with the ever-present smell of fresh grass, rain, and flowers. The people of this region were known to the ancients as “the people who live in baskets” after the beautiful basketlike huts which line the roads and farms of these hills.

I was on a mission to get to as many villages and coffee mills as I could and talk to as many farmers and mill managers as possible about the upcoming harvest and the changes in the Ethiopian coffee industry over the past year. I’ve lost track of the order by now, but I wound up visiting Bagersh’s Michile, Idido, Biloya, and Fischa Genet mills; Salomon Worka’s Wendo and Koke mills; Ambessa’s Kochere mill; and a couple of smaller Akrabi-owned mills in Sidama and Yirgacheffe. The harvest is just getting underway in the Southern region, and farmers are bringing their first baskets of coffee to the mills. It’s an exciting time, especially because the trees are loaded with fruit—this season appears to be producing a bumper crop, and farmers are celebrating. Women at the drying tables sing as they sort the coffee under the sun, men chant work songs as they use their wooden rakes to wash the coffee beans of their sticky mucilage. In any agricultural community, harvest time is a celebration, and Yirgacheffe is no different. Here are a couple of videos of washing and drying taking place right now at the Idido mill in Yirgacheffe (shown above), and the Michile mill in Sidama.

I was also able to spend time with farmers, learning about coffee varieties, local coffee prices, and their thoughts about quality in coffee. I was able to thank the farmers in the town of Aricha surrounding the Idido mill for producing some of my favorite coffees of all time. In turn, I learned about the Kurume, Dega, and Wolisho varieties, which without question are a huge part of the magnificent flavor of the Idido Royal Washed and Misty Valley Sundried coffees. Which brings up the million dollar question: will Biloya, Wondo, and Idido—now famous producers of incredible-quality coffees—be able to direct-export coffee this year? Well, the answer is complicated. The good news is, they are all producing great quality coffees already, which will be tendered to the Ethiopian Commodity Exchange. And, since the Exchange has established new qualifications for its grades 1 and 2, with extra quality analysis and geographical indication, it is clear that there will be some extraordinary lots coming through the Exchange.

Coffee farmer Gebede Bare at the Idido mill, with whom Peter met to begin building a relationship with the hopes of eventually developing a direct trade buying opportunity. Photo by Peter Giuliano. At the same time, there exist the very beginnings of a new way of trade in Ethiopian coffee. Our negotiations at the national level created an opportunity for direct negotiations with farmers, supported by millers like Bagersh and Worka. I know it sounds intuitive, but it is actually a big step for Ethiopia, where true Direct Trade with farmers has never really been done. I was able to sit down with coffee farmer Gebede Bare at the Idido mill, and start the trust-building process that sets the stage for purchasing his coffee directly. It’s a new dawn for farmers like Gebede, who have never even thought of selling their produce directly to a roaster—they were always able to sell their coffee locally to a co-op or mill, and that was that. So, in the end, the challenges of the new system can wind up bringing buyer and farmer still closer, which is something we love. I left my business card with Gebede, and we shook hands, promising to figure this whole thing out. I popped a coffee cherry into my mouth, and tasted the effervescent sweetness of Idido coffee, fresh off the tree. We’ll be tasting this again soon.

-Peter
Hello from Ethiopia!

Dr. Eleni Gebre-Medhin. Photo by Peter Giuliano. Well, I’ve been in Ethiopia for about a week now, and haven’t written any reports yet. The reason is, I’ve been super busy! Let me tell you all about it.

I’m here wearing two hats: my first is as Vice President of the Specialty Coffee Association of America. Here’s the story: Last year, the country of Ethiopia made some dramatic changes in the way they manage their national coffee sector. Coffee is both culturally and economically important to Ethiopia—coffee’s birthplace is in Ethiopia, and every Ethiopian regards coffee as part of their national heritage. In addition, coffee exports are by far the largest source of income for the country. So, when the Prime Minister decided to engage in a program of market reform in the Ethiopian coffee sector, it was a big deal. Enter Dr. Eleni Gebre-Medhin, an incredibly charismatic and insightful woman who has made market reform in Ethiopia her life’s work, from her studies at Cornell and Stanford to her career at the World Bank. Dr. Eleni, as she is known in Ethiopia, was given the task of adapting her innovative model of an African-created commodity exchange—developed to improve markets all over Africa—to the Ethiopian coffee industry. This was a monumental and controversial task, and her genius and enthusiasm has made her a celebrity in Ethiopia and abroad—she was the subject of The Market Maker, a PBS documentary, and her work has become a touchstone for economic discussion and research worldwide.

Peter visited Ethiopia with a small delegation representing SCAA and its sister associations in Asia and Europe. Unfortunately, Dr. Eleni’s introduction of the new Ethiopia Commodity Exchange (ECX) was marred by controversy in the coffee world. The introduction of the ECX corresponded to the national government’s tightening of regulations in the coffee industry, which had grown lax over the past few years. The market reacted with suspicion and anger, since certain coffee projects (like our favorite Idido Misty Valley) now fell outside the system and would not be possible. This all began to emerge late last year, and as chair of the SCAA’s Symposium, I was able to add an emergency session to the schedule, where Dr. Eleni came in person to explain the changes to an upset coffee industry. It was a bit of a bloodletting, but what emerged was a working group between the ECX and the SCAA to try and adapt the new Ethiopian system to the needs of the Specialty Coffee marketplace. Sound complex? It is. Dr. Eleni, myself, and a small task force have been engaged since then in work to introduce enhanced quality, transparency, and traceability to the innovative Ethiopian coffee system.

An important coffee conference in Ethiopia would not be complete without coffee ceremonies.Last week, the ECX hosted a conference in Ethiopia to introduce and discuss this work with the Ethiopian coffee sector. About 150 Ethiopian coffee exporters, farmers, traders, and policymakers gathered in Addis for this important conference. I came with a small delegation representing SCAA and our sister associations in Asia and Europe. It was a huge deal here, the conference was constantly covered by national newspapers and television networks! We engaged in a busy four days of discussion and negotiation, and we achieved a lot! I am so proud to have taken part in this work, and I am especially proud that Counter Culture’s innovations in direct trade with coffee farmers had a profound effect on those who work in the coffee industry here, and our direct trade system helped provide some of the groundwork for ECX’s introduction of an innovative “Direct Specialty Trade” auction system where buyers like us will be able to purchase lots directly from farmers and farmer groups in an open, modern marketplace in Addis. Exciting!

The recent ECX conference was constantly covered by national newspapers and television networks. The work itself was thoroughly enjoyable, not least because an important coffee conference in Ethiopia would not be complete without coffee ceremonies. Just before the opening remarks, the main parties of the conference shared a coffee ceremony at the front of the auditorium, demonstrating our understanding and respect for the cultural importance of coffee here. The coffee ceremony never stopped for the next four days, and I could pop out of a policy-making session at any time to sit down for a cup of fragrant, sweet Ethiopian coffee. Awesome! In the end, we emerged with a very positive and concrete set of proposals to the Ethiopian government, which will be rolled out over the next few months. If you’re interested in the details, you can read ‘em here!

I spent the rest of my time in Addis learning more about the innovative ECX trading system, which takes coffee trading to a whole new level. It’s truly amazing. I also spent lots of time with the exporting community, including our old friend Abdullah Bagersh, and new friends from across the industry. It was great to talk shop and get the scoop on what is happening with this year’s harvest, which is just getting underway in the countryside.

Peter's final duty with the ECX was an 8-hour drive to the town of Dilla, where the ECX was inaugurating a new regional warehouse and quality laboratory. My final duty with the ECX was an 8-hour drive to the town of Dilla, where the ECX was inaugurating a new regional warehouse and quality laboratory. Dilla is in the south of the country, in the region known as Sidama, and we made the long trip through the dramatic and captivating rift valley by bus. We arrived to a major local event—the unveiling of this new system is a really exciting thing for the coffee community in places like Dilla. The media were in attendance again, as were local government officials, the Minister of Agriculture, and the local elders, the King and Prince of the Gedeo people, the primary ethnicity in this part of Sidama. We were welcomed effusively with dancing and speeches, and Eleni and I were given traditional Gedeo outfits by the elders to make it all official. Excellent! It was a great way to end what I’m sure will go down as a historic meeting in the modern history of the Ethiopian coffee trade. We then embarked on a series of visits and dinners to local traders, who all wanted to celebrate Dr. Eleni’s innovations and the new era of the Ethiopian coffee trade. Many lambs were slaughtered for the occasion, and we attended at least five huge feasts of injira bread, roasted lamb, and coffee ceremony. What an experience.

We all spent the night in beautiful huts in Yirga Alem, and the next day I embarked on the second part of my trip, this time wearing the hat of a coffee buyer, exploring Sidama, Yirga Chefe, and parts beyond. I’ll leave that story for the second part of my report. Until then, Bunafi naga hinabina. (May you never lack coffee or peace.)

I miss you all,
-Peter

Next: the road to Yirgacheffe!
Raised drying beds at the Ndaorini mill in Nyeri, Kenya.We’re excited to announce that our fresh Kenya Single Lot from Ndaroini in Nyeri, Kenya, has just qualified for Counter Culture Direct Trade Certification (CCDTC). The first of our Kenya Single Lots to meet all CCDTC criteria of communication, price, quality, and transparency, this lot of Ndaroini was purchased directly via the “second window” from the Gikanda grower cooperative.

For many years, Kenya’s small-scale, artisan farmers were required by law to tender their annual coffee harvests to a weekly auction in Nairobi, where coffees are sold to the highest bidder. Traditionally, most of these lots are bought by exporters, who then mix them into proprietary blends. Even so, we have for years gone directly to the bidders to secure pure, uncut auction lots that represent the most authentic, delicious expressions of Kenyan coffee. Recently, however, a “second window” opened in Kenya up to allow quality- and relationship-focused buyers like us to form direct partnerships with grower communities and collaborate on ground-level quality development and direct purchasing. As evidenced in the cup, our direct work with Ndaroini has yielded rich rewards.

Ndaroini, which resonates with classic Kenyan flavors of blackcurrant, tropical fruit, and dark chocolate, represents not only the astonishing skill and craft of Kenya’s coffee farmers, but also the tremendous quality made possible by direct, transparent relationships between coffee partners.

Best,
Mark
POSTED IN: sustainability
Saludos!

My love for Colombia is no secret, so it is with even more pleasure than usual that I write to all of you about my recent trip to visit the Orgánica association of Popayán, Colombia, from whom we purchase our La Golondrina coffee. This is the second year that we have purchased coffee exclusively from this group, and I set off with hopes of strengthening the relationship and understanding the issues facing the growers in the coming year.

One of Kim Elena’s favorite people in the wide world of coffee, Nelson Melo. Photo by Kim Elena Bullock.I met up with Giancarlo Ghiretti of Virmax, the exporter of La Golondrina, in Bogotá and together we headed south to Popayán, the beautiful colonial capital of the Cauca region. One of my favorite people in the wide world of coffee, Nelson Melo, picked us up from the airport and as soon as we had exchanged hugs, we began what would become five days of non-stop conversation: news from the growers, news from Counter Culture Coffee and our customers, and news of our families. We picked up his wife, Liliana, and their two children, and departed for the family’s farm, Las Acacias, which is located in the hills just outside the rapidly expanding city.

Nelson and Liliana consistently produce fantastic coffee, in addition to heading the organization of 142 families, and all of us—from Counter Culture Coffee and Virmax to the growers and even Nelson and Liliana themselves—are trying to learn the successes at Las Acacias. To that end, Virmax and Nelson agreed last year that Virmax would purchase land from Nelson in order to set up a model organic coffee farm on which they could test different coffee varietals and growing techniques. Seeds have sprouted, but it will be a few years before we taste any coffee from Virmax’s experiments. In the meantime, Virmax and Orgánica have another project progressing on the land: organic compost production.

Having proved that they can consistently produce great-tasting coffee, the biggest challenge that the growers of Orgánica face is the productivity of their small organic farms. This challenge results from the higher costs of organic compost application as well as the difficulty of creating adequate volumes of organic compost one one’s own farm to nurture the coffee plants every year.

In explaining the differences between organic fertilizers and conventional fertilizers, Giancarlo made a useful analogy between coffee plants and the human body, saying that applying chemical fertilizers to a plant is like taking a pill when you’re sick—not only does the pill include the drug compound to make you feel better, but it also has other compounds that help the body absorb the drug quickly. With chemical fertilizers, you see the coffee plant’s response to fertilization almost immediately. Unfortunately, these plants also go into withdrawal when they don’t receive fertilizer because the soil doesn’t hold onto the nutrients in the chemical fertilizer. Organic fertilizers, on the other hand, act slowly and plants respond to them slowly, but these fertilizers also build nutrients in the soil over time to make the whole ecosystem stronger.

Most of the growers of La Golondrina apply two pounds of organic compost to each coffee plant every year, which is about half of what they need, so Virmax and Orgánica want to make up the difference at an efficient, centralized worm-composting facility at Virmax’s farm. Orgánica will distribute the resulting compost to its members at a low price and use the money to fund their farmer-support activities (as well as further composting). From a sustainability perspective, this project is killer: helping a grower to increase the volume of coffee he produces will increase his income without increasing costs very much, as well as insuring healthy soil and long-term stability of the farm environment. We are excited at the progress that Virmax and Orgánica have made so far and excited to contribute directly to the costs of creating a distribution system for the compost in the months to come!

After a night at Nelson and Liliana’s farm, we jumped into a couple of days of farm visits in Timbio and Piendamó, small towns to the north and south, respectively, of Popayán where many of the La Golondrina farms are located. The generous farmers who hosted us served us delicious lunches (four in one day) and in our discussions of the environmental commitment of these growers, soil fertility came up time and time again, further reinforcing my enthusiasm for the compost project. We saw a lot of flowers on the coffee trees—which bodes well for next year’s harvest—and a good number of coffee berries maturing on the branches, as well.

Colombia is one of few countries in the coffee-producing world that has two harvests each year instead of one: in addition to the main crop, most farmers have a smaller, “fly” crop in the middle of their year. In the Cauca region, the primary harvest takes place between April and June, and the smaller harvest in November and December. In the past, we have purchased only from the primary harvest, but this year it looks as though we will have the opportunity to purchase La Golondrina fly crop coffee, as well. Are you thinking what I’m thinking? La Golondrina could be in season all year! I look forward to what this winter brings.

One of the highlights of my trip was getting to meet Manuel Melenje and Inés Borrero of Finca Villa María, who are the growers behind this year’s La Golondrina microlot. You heard it here first! Inés is a tiny, hilarious storyteller who recounted her life history to me within a few minutes of meeting me, and Manuel is equally friendly and engaged in pursuing quality on the land they work together. We have tasted coffee from Manuel and Inés in the past, but their coffee didn’t jump off the table until this year, so I had to ask, of course, whether they had changed anything about their process. Not really, Manuel said, they didn’t change anything except the fermentation, which they started to do, get this, underwater!

Manuel Melenje and Inés Borrero of Finca Villa María, the growers behind this year’s La Golondrina microlot, with Kim Elena Bullock.Underwater fermentation, though common practice in Kenya and increasingly in Rwanda and Burundi (following Kenya’s example) is almost unheard of in Latin America. Through the kind of cross-pollination of ideas that comes from coffee-driven people, Manuel and Inés heard about underwater fermentation from one of Virmax’s cuppers and decided to try it. Whether it made all the difference or not, we don’t know, but it’s an experiment worth repeating, both at Finca Villa María and on other farms!

The other highlight of the week was the all-grower meeting, if you can believe it (I mentioned previously that these meetings can be a bit boring). On the morning of the meeting, I awoke at 6 a.m. to the sounds of meringue music blaring from a "chivo," the colorful buses that serve as transportation around the Colombian countryside, and soon thereafter found myself squished between growers on my way to the event facility in Timbio that would host more than 70 of us for a day of discussion of the past year, the year to come, and, significantly, our costs of production.

Counter Culture Coffee set the goal of using a farm’s costs of production as a starting point for price negotiation. Photo by Kim Elena Bullock.Many of you will recall that Counter Culture Coffee has set the goal of using a farm’s costs of production as a starting point for price negotiation, and if you’ve looked at our Sustainability Scorecard this year, you’ll see that we’re making progress toward that goal but that more producers don’t know their costs than do know their costs. Nelson and Liliana are working hard to create a culture of tracking costs among the growers and they requested that Virmax and Counter Culture Coffee share our costs, as well. We happily complied, and this is a great example of our commitment to 100 percent transparency (which is also one of Counter Culture Direct Trade Certification’s tenets). Farmers want to know how the coffee that we purchase for $2.29/lb. ends up costing our customers $8.50/lb. to purchase and $2.00/cup in a shop, and unlike many buyers, we want to tell them! When our grower partners understand the costs of doing business and the investments we make in maintaining the quality of the coffee they grow, they can trust us and trust the relationship we’re building together. This meeting made me proud of the amazing supply chain that can comfortably talk about anything, answer each other’s questions and leave the meeting more committed to our collective success than ever.

I followed up the all-grower meeting with a meeting of the community leaders to strategize for the year ahead, then headed back to Bogotá. As I write this, this year’s lot of La Golondrina (as well as Manuel and Inés’s microlot) is on a boat bound for Counter Culture Coffee, and I can’t wait to share it when it arrives.

Abrazos,
Kim Elena

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