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See the full set on Flickr for Meister's notes on each photo from her trip to Nicaragua in January 2011 for our Nicaragua Field Lab.

Nicaragua Field Lab Report from Peter Giuliano.

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We're honored to be a finalist for the Institute for Sustainable Development's 2011 Green Plus Sustainable Enterprise of the Year Awards.
We're honored to be a finalist for the Institute for Sustainable Development's 2011 Green Plus Sustainable Enterprise of the Year Awards.

In addition to environmental efforts, the Green Plus awards recognize organizations "for their success in balancing strong business, community, and environmental practices." Please take a look around our Sustainability section for more information about our efforts to strike that balance.

As a finalist, we're also eligible to win a Green Plus People’s Choice Award. Voting is currently open.

POSTED IN: sustainability

I put together a few photographs from my recent trip to Finca El Puente in Marcala, Honduras, where the Caballero-Herrera family continues the quest to continue improving one of Central America's most celebrated coffees. The floral aromas wafting from a hot cup of the farm's coffee may be but a distant memory for you so many months after we sold out of last year's lot, but here in the Coffee Department, Moisés and Marysabel are much on our minds these days because January and February represent the peak of the harvest at Finca El Puente, as well as in most of the northern hemisphere's coffee-growing regions, and we're anxious to see what this year brings.

We have worked with Finca El Puente since 2006. Peter and I made our first trip to meet Marysabel, Moisés, and their family in the spring of 2007 on an exhilarating trip. Looking back, I can't believe that we were able to fit as many sights and activities into the few days we spent with them as we did, but it's consistent with my experiences across countries and relationships that the first visit is a whirlwind of activity – so much to see and it's all so new! – that barely fits into the days allotted.

Conversation we have time for ends up taking place in the car between activities or on the way to the airport, and only on subsequent visits can everyone – farmers and producer relations managers alike – relax enough to spend time just sitting and talking. These discussion-heavy visits are more difficult for me to describe enthusiastically than the first glimpse of a waterfall or the discovery of an unexpected coffee variety, but they are undoubtedly a more valuable feature of my travel and of this company's business model than anything I could capture on the first visit.

 Most of Finca El Puente's coffee is the catuai variety, but they also have some bourbon of a sub-sub-species known as tekisic. Photo by Kim Elena Bullock.
I had a lot to talk about this year with Moisés and Marysabel, not so much in terms of Finca El Puente's coffee quality, which we expect will be better than ever, but rather because recent volatility in the coffee commodity market continues to have us all puzzled. How will record-breaking high prices affect costs of individual farmers? Will fair trade co-operatives be able to convince farmers to stand by their commitment to quality even in the face of easy money from local buyers?
We're on pins and needles as we wait to see how much coffee is available and how it tastes, and from farmer to buyer, everywhere I look I see the same mix of curiosity, anxiety, and frustration at how the beyond-our-control factors of the market impact our ability to do our work well.

Lest I set you all a-worrying, let me explain that I bring up the market's instability in order to give an explicit example of why long-term relationships like the one we have Finca El Puente are valuable for all of us: because real sustainability means knowing, as a grower, that your buyer is committed to your coffee no matter how cheap coffee might be in other coffee-growing countries or regions. Likewise, real sustainability means knowing, as a buyer, that you'll get the same great coffee from the growers you trust, no matter how easy it might to sell that coffee elsewhere for a lot less effort.

The best moment of my trip occurred mid-morning on my third day at the farm as I sat at the dining room table in the middle of a long discussion about prices, hopes, and expectations with Marysabel, Moisés, and Fabio and I suddenly realized that the conversation we were struggling through could never have happened on the trip I made in 2007. The four years and four visits since then have made it possible to arrive at that point, and I felt so thankful for each one of them.
I couldn't capture that experience on film, unlike that of seeing a waterfall (which is still breathtaking, even after you've seen it three years in a row, mind you), but for me, that dining-table moment will be as important to the experience of enjoying Finca El Puente's delicious coffee in 2011 as the information about coffee variety, altitude, climate, and processing methods that I collected the first time I visited.

I hope you enjoy the photos! Stay warm!

Saludos, Kim Elena
Hi folks!

I split a week between Finca Pashapa and Finca El Puente (photo set forthcoming!) in November on an early-harvest, relationship-strengthening trip to see two of my favorite farms and families. Honduras has been in the news a lot more often recently than when I began traveling there four years ago, beginning with the ousting of President Mel Zelaya (in his pajamas, as the story goes) in June of 2009, continuing through controversial elections, and an unusual frequency of violence (in particular, against journalists) in the months since then. All of the political instability that makes the news here at home feels completely unrelated to life in the communities of La Labor and Marcala – hours and worlds apart from Tegucigalpa and the world of coffee farming – so I headed south with the same high hopes as always, headlines be damned.

Coyo, the matriarch of the Salazar family. Photo by Kim Elena Bullock. Would you believe me if I told you that everything about these coffees, farms, and relationships just keep getting better? How is that possible? Is it magic? Nope, it's hard work and lots and lots of practice. Take Finca Pashapa, for example, which is a family operation in the fullest sense of the term: the four siblings of the Salazar family, among them "worm guy" Roberto, divide and conquer the day-to-day tasks of the family's farm, from milking cows and collecting eggs to weighing each day's coffee harvest and paying pickers accordingly, while their parents, Coyo and Jorge, preside over the house and keep the operation running. I idealize Finca Pashapa for its long-time commitment to organic certification, its independence from commercial farming inputs (meaning they make all of their farm's compost and fertilizer out of their own materials, like manure), and the integration of the Salazar family, which owns the largest farm in town, with the surrounding community, but they work incredibly hard every day to make my vision a reality.

After this many years (this will be 10 between Counter Culture and Finca Pashapa!), I'm happy to endure Roberto's teasing as I wax poetic about environmental sustainability and beseech him to share his farm's experiences with other growers. I have tried to organize farmer exchanges between Finca Pashapa and Finca Mauritania, and between Finca Pashapa and Finca Esperanza Verde because I believe that the Salazar family's model for organic production embodies real sustainability – environmental, social, and fiscal – better than any farm I have seen and that is an incredibly valuable example to share! But, as I mentioned before, that success comes at the price of hard work, which means that Roberto is a busy guy. Almost impossibly busy, I would say, between the family's farm, the mill he runs, and the cooperative he manages.

Finca Pashapa has long been committed to organic certification, dedicated to independence from commercial farming inputs (meaning they make all of their farm's compost and fertilizer out of their own materials, like manure), and the integration of the Salazar family, which owns the largest farm in town, with the surrounding community. Photo by Kim Elena Bullock. One evening, sitting outside his office and waiting for him to finish another 14-hour day of work, I decided that he's like that friend who never returns your calls, EVER, but yet somehow always makes you feel, whenever you're together, that you are still the one who benefits more from the relationship. I have learned so much from Roberto's observations on everything from co-operatives to compost to cupping protocol over these past few years that I would be a fool not to wait, no matter how many hours.

On that note, I hope you enjoy the photo set's brief glimpse at some of the most interesting farms – and people – I know!

Hand brewing via French press or dip cone improves taste and efficiency.In pursuit of our CUPS goal of carbon neutrality by 2015, Counter Culture Coffee is trying to shrink our carbon footprint by using less: less paper, less packaging, less gasoline, and less electricity. Estimates of coffee’s seed-to-cup carbon footprint vary greatly: anywhere from two to eight pounds of carbon dioxide per pound of coffee. No matter how it’s measured, analyses show that the final stage in coffee’s lifecycle – brewing – is responsible for a large portion of that footprint.

While we continue to work on reducing the number of miles we drive and the electricity we use at our facilities, and as our grower partners continue practicing sustainable agriculture and working to reduce the energy they use on their farms, we encourage each of you to reduce your, and your cup of coffee's, carbon footprint. As of today, we added five simple, yet effective green brewing tips on our Brewing Guide page to help you avoid wasting energy and resources while brewing a delicious-tasting cup of coffee!

Kim Elena

Coffee from Brazil has always been an anomaly at Counter Culture. Since I started here, we have never featured a coffee from Brazil as a traditional brewed offering. Only twice have we featured a Brazilian coffee as a Single-Origin Espresso. While we know great coffees can come out of Brazil, it has always been a rare find. The lackluster growing altitude, averaging probably around 1,000 meters, combined with a greater focus on a rustic natural or pulp natural process, has for the most part made these coffees more appropriate for a mild, sweet espresso base. Over the last year or so though, I have tasted some very impressive naturals and a few pulp natural offerings that have made us wonder exactly what is possible. If you remember, in particular, the last Brazil single-origin espresso offering from Fazenda Santa Rita, the sweetness and clarity it had for natural processed Brazil really made us to visit to try to figure out these coffees a little bit more.

In Brazil:

When I arrived in Belo Horizonte, I immediately hit the road Northwest to Patrocinio, where the majority of the producers we work with are located. Within a short distance of driving (and seeing the rows and rows of coffee along the hillsides), I realized that Brazil is not only an anomaly for the origins that Counter Cultures sources from, it is an anomaly in the way coffee is done altogether. While certain areas have similarities to how coffee is picked and processed in other parts of South and Central America, much of Brazilian coffee is produced in a highly organized and mechanized fashion. Farms here can often times produce more than 100,000 pounds of coffee – and some produce well into the multi-millions of pounds. Coffee many times is picked by machine, and the real art of quality is in the separation. The green cherry needs to be separated from the ripe, the ripe needs to be separated from the already dry, and all the levels in between.

When I actually arrived In Patrocinio, I was greeted by a bunch of producers whom I knew of from tasting coffees this past year and realized that they were all friends. I also got to meet Ernesto and Edinelson Fornaro, the producers of Fazenda Santa Rita. Over the next few days, I spent a lot of time at farms and realized that, although Brazil is like no other producing country, the producers here are just as passionate about quality and farming practices as anywhere else in the world. I tasted great microlots and talked about advanced processing techniques with many of the producers. The producers here are very receptive, and, in certain cases, even more willing to try something new. Overall, as I bounced around the country my eyes were constantly opened, and I learned a ton about the coffee here. I could go on and on about how this place shattered my concept of coffee production and how great the people I met were, but like my last report, I will let the photos tell the rest of the story. Visit the Counter Culture flickr site for the full set of photos from this trip.

Check out our other flickr sets for photos from coffee-related events, farm visits, and more.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kim Elena