See the photo narrative on Flickr for Tim's notes on each photo from his trip to the Eastern Highlands of Papua New Guinea in July 2011.
You are here
Tuesday, August 16, 2011 - 6:03pm
Thursday, July 14, 2011 - 3:26pm
Tim and I just returned home from Santa Rosa de Copán, Honduras, where we spent last weekend in the company of 20 of Counter Culture's coffee-grower partners from Central America at the first-ever supply-side Professional Series – La Serie Profesional en español – talking about experiments (and those of you that know the two of us will recognize that I love to talk and Tim loves to experiment so, needless to say, we had a great weekend!).
Experimentation was one of the event's two main topics, alongside organic agriculture practices, but the concept of experimentation frames the whole event, which was something of an experiment in and of itself. Sure, Counter Culture has taught labs for more years than I have worked with the company and coffee education comes in all shapes and sizes, so in some sense this event was a logical extension of our strong supply-chain relationships and our dedication to sharing information. At the same time, La Serie Profesional represents our first foray into formal coffee grower education, so I felt the nervous excitement that accompanies a good experiment as I prepared for the event over the weeks leading up to it.
Here's what I was thinking: we work with knowledgeable and talented coffee growers all over the world, and, due to all sorts of circumstances, some growers have more expertise in certain areas of coffee production and other growers have more expertise in other areas. In the Coffee Department, we do our best to make recommendations to curious, quality-driven farmers based upon what we see, but often we lose track of important details or find ourselves unable to answer specific questions because we lack personal experience in the area that we're reporting on – like, say, building a compost system or a bed for drying coffee. It would be great if more growers visited each others' farms! I decided, and set about trying to make farmer-to-farmer exchanges happen between growers with complementary areas of expertise in close geographic proximity to one another. The more that we tried to encourage exchange, the more obvious it became that our conversation would benefit from more voices, and thus began the planning for La Serie Profesional!
Central America is unique among coffee-growing regions for the large number of growers and groups we work with; for having a single, dominant language; and for the relative ease of transportation between farms, regions, and countries. We invited growers from Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua to centrally-located Santa Rosa de Copán, where we work with a miller and exporter called Beneficio Santa Rosa, for a two-day workshop on topics we chose for their relevance to all parties, in this case organic agriculture and quality experiments. As cars (mostly trucks, really) pulled up to the mill from all over Central America and growers began to introduce themselves to one another, I had my fingers crossed that we had chosen our topics and our group wisely.
We kicked things off with a session on organic agriculture which built on the personal testimony of Roberto Salazar, I introduced him as "the worm guy," since that's what we have called him around here for years, little knowing that I would stick him with a less-than-ideal nickname among his peers. The health and stable production of Finca Pashapa's coffee plants was one of the factors that inspired this event, and I wanted to share his successes in order to get conversation off on the right foot, but I needn't have worried: before Roberto finished talking, half of the growers in the room had interjected questions, begun to describe their methods, and suggested that they could work together on developing better solutions. The energy of the room carried us all through almost three hours of discussion, compost show-and-tell (we asked everyone to bring samples), and, finally ,a call to action by Orlando Arita, a grower from nearby La Labor, Honduras, who suggested forming a committee to collaborate and share best practices.
Session two shifted focus from soil to cup-quality experiments, which is an area where many of our partners in Central America have made great strides over the past few years – adopting East African fermentation and soaking techniques, for example, or separating coffee varieties – but which others of our partners have barely begun to consider. Moises Herrera of Finca El Puente recounted their family's journey from creating a single, undefined lot of coffee to this year's experiments with varieties, geographic area sorting, and post-wash soaking, with all the twists and turns along the way. Although many of the assembled growers foresaw challenges to experimentation and lot separation on their farms and in their cooperatives, they all agreed to think about which experiment they might undertake and to talk about it in the next day's small-group discussion. That night, as we walked to one of my favorite restaurants in Santa Rosa de Copán for a delicious and meat-filled dinner, I felt gratified to eavesdrop on conversations between Hondurans, Guatemalans, and Nicaraguans who continued to reflect on the day's discussions and trade tips long after the sessions had ended.
Saturday began with a fantastic and thought-provoking cupping of four coffee pairs, each pair containing an example of a quality experiment and a sample we called normal (while recognizing that every coffee is a different version of normal, of course). Tim and I decided to keep the origins of the coffees a secret in order to avoid getting hung up on which coffees tasted better, and instead focused on the differences between coffees in each pair, whether it was a separation by variety, by process, by ripeness, or some combination of the three. As we slurped, I marveled at the number of producers cupping but also at the conversation that the cupping inspired. Having introduced these concepts and looked at photographs the day before, we all had context for what post-wash soaking meant by that point, but tasting the same coffee in soaked and non-soaked iterations grounded that newly-learned practice in a cup-quality difference that every attendee could perceive.
If the first session on organic agriculture spoke to the day-to-day life of the attendees, the last session, on the interest of the market (and by that I mean our customers, since these growers all work with Counter Culture), pushed the boundaries of most of their experience. I worried that I might lose their interest with the breadth of the subject – not to mention that no one ever has quite the energy on the second day of an event as on the first – but, in fact, the consumer perspective is very much on the minds of our producer partners and one even suggested that consumer interests could be a topic for the next Serie Profesional. Speaking of suggestions for a follow-up session, we have a whole list of those after ending the event with small-group discussions on how to implement changes this year that will bring every producer and group closer to shared goals of sustainable organic production and better-tasting coffee.
I have always felt that we work with amazing people and the more years we spend working together, the more I appreciate the relationships and coffees we have built together. One thing that distinguishes us as a company, and it came up in discussion at the event, was that we don't just want to find great coffee in our supply chains through cupping, we want to create it through collaboration. I felt so gratified to be able to tap into the network of knowledge and skills of these 25 producers in this first Serie Profesional, and I can't wait to see – and taste – the long-term results!
Thursday, July 14, 2011 - 1:34pm
We make no secret of our passion for coffee education. We know that education improves quality at every step from seed to cup, and while we focus a great deal of our Counter Intelligence educational efforts on the craft of brewing, service, and coffee science, we are devoting increasing resources to developing education projects with our producing partners at origin.
Earlier this week, we wrapped up our inaugural producer-focused Professional Series – La Serie Profesional en español – centering on farm and processing experimentation, organic agriculture practices, and inter-farm communication and resource sharing. Taking place in Santa Rosa de Copán, Honduras, the 2-day educational event was led on site by Sustainability & Producer Relations Manager Kim Elena Bullock and Coffee Buyer & Quality Manager Tim Hill, who co-organized discussions among the 20 producer partners in attendance.
Both Kim Elena and Tim posted reports on the event this week – in prose and photos, respectively – and it's clear from both accounts that the conversations and sharing of knowledge were nothing short of inspiring, and that this is but the first of many Professional Series events with our partners at origin.
"As we walked to one of my favorite restaurants in Santa Rosa de Copán," recalls Kim Elena, "I felt gratified to eavesdrop on conversations between Hondurans, Guatemalans, and Nicaraguans who continued to reflect on the day's discussions and trade tips long after the sessions had ended."
POSTED IN: education
Tuesday, July 12, 2011 - 2:15pm
Baristas have it kind of easy when it comes to peer-to-peer knowledge sharing: Most folks can get to a local TNT or barista jam by hopping on a subway car or putting their bike pedals to the metal. But what about coffee producers? What kind of opportunities exist for farm owners and crop managers to gather in a room and share ideas, ask each other questions, and maybe even commiserate a little?
Hopefully, that sort of thing just got at little easier – at least for a select group of producers in Central America.
Last week, our Sustainability & Producer Relations Manager, Kim Elena Bullock, traveled to Santa Rosa de Copan, Honduras, to host the first-ever "Origin Pro Series," which she describes as a kind of "grower's summit on soil fertility and quality experiments."
Kim Elena said the idea sprung from a kind of intellectual match-making that she and Tim Hill, our Coffee Buyer & Quality Manager, had long been trying to arrange between two of their most experimental and quality-obsessed producing partners: Aida Batlle of Finca Mauritania in El Salvador, and Roberto Salazar of the Honduran farm Finca Pashapa.
"Aida wanted to learn about Roberto's organic composting success, and Roberto expressed interest in Aida's quality systems," Kim Elena said. "And, the farms lie less than four hours from one another by road!"
The relative geographic closeness of the two farms, as well as both growers' enthusiasm for learning more from one another, got Bullock thinking: "It occurred to me that other growers and co-ops would also benefit from Roberto's knowledge of soil amendments and Aida's experience with quality experimentation. So what if we got a group of Central American producers whom we know to be capable of creating great-quality coffee into a room to talk about the issues that we hear the most questions about, namely, organic agriculture practices and quality development?"
Kim Elena and Tim, along with Counter Intelligence manager Lydia Iannetti, developed a two-day curriculum geared toward providing a group of Counter Culture's Central American producing partners – from growers to co-op leaders – a chance to learn from one another in person, rather than having to hear anecdotes or conduct isolated research on their own.
"We buyers, who visit farms regularly, see certain farmers excel at different areas of coffee growing and processing, and we do our best to cross-pollinate and share best practices between them," Kim Elena said. "[Our] lack of personal experience on … topics where we find ourselves giving advice definitely limits the extent to which we can address concerns; other growers with years of successes and failures can much more effectively help their peers find answers to these questions."
Kim Elena & Co. decided to focus this inaugural program on two prominent issues facing small farmers and co-ops: organic soil fertility and the risk-reward balance of conducing quality-based experiments. Kim Elena explains, "We are unusual among quality-focused coffee companies for our commitment to organic certification, and one of the most common issues that certified organic farms face, especially small farms, is the availability of certified farm inputs that will help them to maintain consistent yields and fertile soil.
Our second topic – quality experiments – complements our dedication to sustainability with our pursuit of new, different, interesting flavors in coffee. We want growers to experiment with varieties, processes and lot separation and offer price incentives to encourage that experimentation, but many growers find it intimidating because it's a risk, and they have only heard tell of these experiments, never seen them or met growers that have succeeded at producing exceptional results."
Around 20 growers and co-op representatives from Honduras, Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Guatemala took part in the first incarnation of this program, which has an open-ended future. "I feel confident that in addition to encouraging practices that increase productivity and improve quality, this event demonstrates Counter Culture’s commitment to our partners and will in turn strengthen their commitment to us as a buyer," said Kim Elena. "It's not the only event to bring producers together to share experiences – from Let's Talk Coffee to Ramacafe to EAFCA, there are plenty of grower-focused conferences – but it is unique for its focus on only two topics, intimate class size, and single-language presentation."
Check back for Kim Elena's full report on the program.
Tuesday, June 28, 2011 - 5:49pm
See the full set on Flickr for Tim's notes on each photo from his trip to Buziraguhindwa, Burundi, June 2011.
Friday, June 3, 2011 - 3:17pm
Transparency is one of our core values, and not only to do we try to embody it; we seek it out in our partners throughout the coffee trade. We published our first Counter Culture Direct Trade Certification (CCDTC) Transparency Report in 2009 and today we are excited to release our 2010 report, which aims to give a succinct, transparent summary of our financial and personal relationships with the producer partners whose coffees received CCDTC in 2010.
We hope you read the report, but, in short, 2010 was a dynamic year for our producer partners and us. Our Coffee Department spent more time on the road than ever to support our mission to improve coffee quality in the cup, quality of life for producers, and quality of relationships with growers. We were reminded of the incredible importance of good communication and solid relationships as we watched coffee prices skyrocket. Thankfully, we have long been committed to open, constant, and transparent communication, and our relationships at origin have never been stronger, helping make 2010 a great year for us and setting the stage for an even better 2011.
POSTED IN: sustainability progress reports
Thursday, June 2, 2011 - 8:03am
I recently got back from a week in Peru and Ecuador, where I had my fill of winding Andean roads and guinea pig lunches while working on relationships old and new: in Peru, with the Cenfrocafe co-operative and the growers of Valle del Santuario, and in Ecuador exploring a potential new partnership. I would guess that 90 percent of you guys are now wondering what's up in Ecuador, since that's a coffee-producing country we've not visited before, but that story will have to wait, because first and more important is the relationship we began four years ago in San Ignacio, Peru, with the five communities of Valle del Santuario.
We arrived at the warehouse in San Ignacio at sunset after a full day in the community of Alto Ihuamaca, and I was surprised to see Renán Neira and two other men comfortably settled on milk crates full of beer bottles playing cards.
"Where were you today?" I asked Renán, who is one of Alto Ihuamaca's representatives in the co-op and usually a fixture at meetings, "I saw your motorbike pass by this morning and I talked to your wife at the meeting, but you never showed up."
"Well," he explained, "With the harvest, you know, I had other responsibilities to attend to today."
"I see," I responded, looking at the card game and raising an eyebrow.
Renán smiled sheepishly as he said, "We finished early. Also, I thought the meeting might be … difficult."
It was neither the first nor the last time during my days in Peru that a member of the co-op's leadership made such a reference – I heard that "things are complicated" for the growers and "they want to talk to you" – to avoid stating outright that growers want a higher price for their coffee this year.
"What do you mean, difficult? You mean because the growers want a higher price?" I asked Renán.
"Yes," he said, looking relieved that I had understood his implied meaning.
"They did ask for more money, but that didn't make the meeting difficult," I commented, "it's what made the meeting good – I mean, that's why I'm here, right? That's why we have meetings."
"True. So it was good?"
"Absolutely. I only wish that everyone could have been there."
"Next time, Elena, next time," he laughed, clasping my hand in an interminable handshake, "and how soon will you be back?"
While I always strive to be optimistic, I wasn't exaggerating or sugar-coating the truth when I told Renán that our meeting was good. In fact, it was probably the best grower meeting I have ever attended, for reasons that I could never have predicted when I stood up in front of this group for the first time and collected votes for a coffee name four years ago. I admit that endless co-op meetings and price negotiations don't make for good stories, the way we usually tell them. Where's the new-relationship magic? Where's the adventure? That said, I always want my trip reports to give a behind-the-scenes look at life on the ground in the communities where we work and right now, growers are having a lot of meetings to talk about price: with their neighbors, with their co-ops and on my visit, with their buyer.
This idyllic little valley may seem remote to me after a two-day journey, but the Peruvian coffee market figured out that this area produced good coffee long before Cenfrocafe's coffee started winning awards. Competition from the local market (multi-national companies with representatives in and around San Ignacio) has only gotten tougher since we started working with these five communities and even since my last visit nine months ago, the commodity futures price for coffee has risen almost 50 percent! So what does such an increase mean to the growers and to our partnership? That's exactly what I aimed to find out.
"Last year's price wasn't as good as the price the year before," said Segundo Llacsahuanga, and other growers nodded their heads in agreement.
"It feels like we are working harder to produce better coffee than anyone else but the price isn't different," explained Soledad Cruz, the group's secretary.
It can be maddening to hear complaints like this because blame for the current situation should rest on the volatile, unreliable international market that for years we – growers and buyers – agreed had no bearing on the real costs of coffee production and great quality. Unfortunately, blaming the market gets you nowhere in negotiation – it's like blaming the weather or something.
Conversations about money are challenging whenever emotion is involved and, in a long-term relationship, emotion plays a role pretty much all of the time. But the point of a relationship isn't to make things easy, it's to make things better. Thankfully, most of the growers took advantage of the opportunity provided by my visit to share their experiences. We spent almost four hours brainstorming around the ways we could structure a contract – including a discussion of the advantages and disadvantages of different pricing structures to Counter Culture, the growers and the co-op that supports us – and somewhere in the middle of it I realized that this meeting, boring by many standards, was one of the most meaningful, riveting, powerful experiences I have had in my coffee career so far because I could see the progress we have made in the years of this relationship reflected in the way that growers talk and puzzle, thoughtfully and deliberately, through the implications of different pricing strategies. And while the answer isn't easy, the discussion is.
"So what is the solution this year? Can we decide?" At the end of four hours, a chorus of growers pushed for resolution.
"I know that part of me wants to make a decision today because it would feel good to resolve things before I leave," I said, "but it's only May and we have time, so we should use it. I can talk to my team at Counter Culture about what makes sense for us and you can talk to your families and the growers that are not here about what you want to do, and then we can both talk to the co-op because they are really good at understanding both their members and their buyers."
"We understand," said Soledad, "And we agree. The most important thing is to keep selling coffee to you." And as we left the meeting and moved on to farm visits and lunch (yup, guinea pig), I could hear and feel the buzz between growers about the opportunities this year presents and I felt just as excited as I did on my first visit … just a different kind of excited!
Wednesday, May 25, 2011 - 2:06pm
Although they provide state-of-the-art settings for Counter Intelligence – our cutting-edge coffee education program – our training centers are much more than classrooms. Staffed by teams of passionate coffee experts and equipped with the latest and best brewing, grinding, and handcrafted coffee equipment, our training centers are regional focal points of hands-on learning and shared community spaces where all levels of coffee and food experience are welcome. In addition to our regular schedule of Counter Intelligence courses, Professional Series programs, and public coffee cuppings, our training centers from time to time host tasting and pairing events, brewing and latte art competitions, and focused education events centered around a single technique, tradition, or piece of equipment.
In this spirit of advanced, focused learning, we recently held a series of Lever Espresso Machine Workshops – led by 2009 World Barista Champion Gwilym Davies – at our training centers in Washington, DC; New York; and Chicago. Co-sponsored by Nuova Simonelli, the event gave the lever veteran Gwilym an opportunity to shed light on the lever espresso machine experience from the expert barista's point of view, delving into pressure manipulation, temperature profiling, and the pros and cons of the most manual of modern espresso machines.
All three cities had great turnouts, but the Chicago event (in our newest training center) attracted the most people from both inside and outside the professional coffee community. Our team of Rich, Deanna, and Josh made our entire lineup of espressos available and assisted Gwilym and friends from Nuova Simonelli in leading attendees through the interactive workshop, which was the but the first of many special education events that Chicago coffee lovers can expect from our new training center in the West Loop. Special thanks to Matthew Gasaway for photos of the event; check out the flickr set here.
NOTE: Our delivery carriers will not pick up or deliver on Monday, May 30, in observance of the Memorial Day holiday. Orders received after midnight Thursday, May 26, will be roasted, packaged, and shipped on Tuesday, May 31. Orders in transit may also experience some delay.