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Competition Is None

The Big Eastern competition opens on Friday and for this week’s tasting we’ve chosen three coffees that have appeared in the routines of competitors in barista and brewer’s cup competitions at the regional and national levels over the past two years.

Notes on the Coffees

After making its competition debut as part of Jonathan Bonchak’s routine for the US Brewer’s Cup in Seattle in April of 2014, Olke Birre’s coffee is the choice of multiple competitors in both brewing and espresso realms this weekend. In blind cuppings of our many Ethiopian coffees, Olke’s coffee consistently takes the top spot for its balance of floral aromatics and clear-as-a-bell citric acidity. In addition to possessing one of the most perfect flavor profiles we can imagine, this coffee’s appeal is compounded by the fact that it hails from a single farmer and that we know him personally, which is unusual in Ethiopia. Plus, as I’ve told you many times before, he is a head taller than most farmers and was wearing a gold medal when we first met him, so he made quite an impression.

Next up is Ngunguru, one of our current offerings from the flavor capital of the coffee world, Kenya. In the spirit of full transparency, I’ll admit that I meant to send Thiriku, on the wings of which Lem Butler soared to victory in the Southeast Barista Championship in 2012, but ended up typing Ngunguru, instead. Oops. But never you mind, for this coffee’s complexity is equal or superior to that of pretty much any other coffee you could imagine. It’s precisely that complexity—the combination of brightness, mouth-watering savory notes, and brothy body—that make Kenyan attractive for competition settings where unique tastes, memorable descriptors, and creative flavor pairings win points.

Papua New Guinea’s Tairora rounds out the lineup with juicy flavors that are reminiscent of today’s other two coffees, but with a fuller body and more notes of nut and sweet spice than we usually find in East African coffee. Erika Lee Vonie, now at Everyman Espresso, took Tairora to the national stage in April of this year and combined it with herbs and fresh cucumber for a delicious signature beverage. Of today’s three coffees, Tairora was harvested most recently, and, after two years of struggling with both shipping delays and inconsistent quality, it arrived early and is tasting great. We are very thankful to have found the Colbran family and their coffee farm, Baroida, four years ago, and Tairora, which comes from smaller farms around Baroida, demonstrates the mostly unrealized quality potential of these highlands.

Rollout Dates and Availability

All three coffees are available now, but Olke Birre’s time is running out, so savor these last sips. Ngunguru will be around through December, at least, and we hope Tairora will last through March, though it's selling like hotcakes, so I’m not making any promises. 

-Kim Elena
Root Capital is a 15-year-old non-profit organization with headquarters in Cambridge, MA—and satellite offices and staff across the globe—that has been getting a lot more attention from the coffee industry over the last few years. A "social investment fund," Root Capital promotes prosperity in poor, environmentally vulnerable places in Africa and Latin America by lending money, providing financial training, and helping connect farmers to buyers.

In partnership with organizations like USAID, Keurig Green Mountain, and Starbucks, Root Capital has become well known for offering low-interest rates on pre-harvest financing loans for farmers.

Coffee farmers generally receive one payment a year for their entire harvest. This means planning out expenses can be difficult, and, once preparations for the next harvest come around, they often have little money left over to invest in their crop. As such, they often look for loans to be able to apply to their agricultural needs each season. Root Capital sets itself apart from micro-lenders like Kiva because they are loaning amounts upwards of $40,000 each time.

Lending money to smallholder farmers can be risky. If a farmers experiences difficulty meeting volume or quality expectations with their crop, they would not meet sales goals and, ultimately, would not be able to pay back the loan. One way lenders mitigate this risk is by charging high interest rates. Root Capital, on the other hand, chooses to provide low interest rates—offers ongoing training to farmers to help to ensure their ability to repay the loan. They also engage in conversations about best practices for environmental stewardship and long-term sustainability.

I have long appreciated Root Capital's transparency: they openly share both their operation's approach, as well as a commitment to sharing the metrics used to measure what success means.

Counter Culture has been watching their good work for some time and continually tried to identify places of overlap, as well as potential partnerships. Our first entré came this year when we brought Root Capital into a study regarding coffee farmers’ adaptation to climate change that we embarked on with Duke’s Nicholas School of Environmental Management.

Root Capital and Counter Culture have a shared interest in applied research—meaning, we don’t want to do research just for the sake of researching something. We want the research to be of use, to generate an agenda, to mean something concrete on the ground to the people who were initially involved in the research. This type of project is unique in that it brings together a university, a coffee roaster, and an NGO. None of us working alone would be able to understand the issue as comprehensively as we are now able to working together.

Mike Younis, one of the six Duke students involved in the research, had the opportunity to tack on some extra time with Root Capital in their offices in Lima, Peru, as part of the overall project. Here’s what he had to say about the experience:
"It was very exciting for me to be a part of Root Capital's mission to support rural prosperity. Following up my master's thesis research on Climate Change Adaptation for Coffee Growers in Latin America with an internship at Root gave me a greater appreciation of the organization’s expertise with the important issues faced by its clients and passion for tackling these challenges in order to improve the the livelihoods of those in Root Capital communities. I am grateful for the opportunity that Counter Culture Coffee, Root Capital, and the Nicholas School of the Environment provided me with this past summer!"

Both of our business and Root Capital's business are impacted by external factors that can be hard to control. We each have to look for ways to protect ourselves and our supply chains from risks—in this case the vulnerability brought on by climate change. When farmers are impacted by climate change, their overall supply of coffee is less stable, and they are less likely to be able to repay loans or have a consistent supply for buyers. Root Capital and Counter Culture Coffee will benefit from better understanding the impacts of climate change and hopefully be better poised to be a part of the solution.

Moving forward, I believe that collaboration among interested parties from different industries and organizations—all with common goals and interests—will only continue to blossom within the coffee industry. Results from the climate change adaptation study will be shared on our website and elsewhere late-spring 2015.

Hope you’ll keep following along and be in touch with any questions or comments!

-Hannah Popish


Holiday Coffee

In accordance with our annual tradition, we have created a unique coffee in honor of the winter holiday season yet again this year. Today’s tasting we will be the first time that many of us get to try the 2014 iteration, and for fun, we’ve included the two single-origin coffees that comprise the blend in addition to the holiday coffee to encourage further flavor exploration. 

Notes on the Coffees

Holiday coffee is an interesting product. Looking at it one way, we could use almost any coffee and the product would still probably sell pretty well given that a) apparently coffee is a popular gift item, b) the word “holiday” is prominently displayed on the packaging, c) the packaging is especially nice, and d) it’s our company’s only consistent foray in the realm of “coffee for a cause,” which resonates with a different audience than our core customers. On the other hand, we want to use really delicious coffees as ingredients because we recognize that this will be many peoples’ first taste of Counter Culture Coffee and we want hook them on taste, story and everything else we do well.

This year’s holiday coffee combines two coffees from our favorite South American and African supplier cooperatives: Cenfrocafe of Jaén, Peru, and Yirgacheffe Coffee Farmer Cooperative Union (YCFCU) of Yirgacheffe, Ethiopia. Cenfrocafe’s coffee comes from a combination of producers from among their 2,400-and-counting members whose coffees stood out to the cooperative’s cuppers for being exceptionally clean and sweet. Although we don’t have the level of community specificity from this lot that we have from Valle del Santuario, the farms, elevation, and flavors are similar, and it’s coffees like this one that make Cenfrocafe our largest supplier from the Americas. Idido comes to us by way of YCFCU, from which coop we buy more coffee than from any other. Our holiday coffee from 2011 also came from YCFCU and, at the time, the Coffee Department talked about it as part of a campaign to popularize Ethiopian coffees. Three years later, coffees like Idido have made their way into more of our blends and year-round products over and they have and slowly but insistently shaped both flavor profiles and palates around their floral and citrusy characteristics.

Just as the packaging and ingredient philosophy of our holiday coffee continue to evolve every year, so does our goal with the per-pound donation. We have used holiday coffees to raise money for local charities, NGOs working in coffee-producing communities, and projects spearheaded by farms and cooperatives whose coffee we purchase, and the steady growth of our company has resulted in an ever-bigger pot of funds to donate. Growth is great, of course, but we’ve found that at times, the amount of money we raise can be overwhelming for the comparatively small-scale projects that our suppliers undertake, so we were looking for a way to break it up this year. Conveniently, CCC has a program called SEEDS that awards small grants of three to five thousand dollars to suppliers of ours, and since its creation in 2010 we’ve received applications from, and funded, producers across Latin America and East Africa as they planted trees, held compost trainings for their members, and developed strategies for income diversification. Instead of choosing a single project as the outlet for this year’s holiday fundraising, we’ll use the money to bulk increase the SEEDS budget by almost 50% and reach more growers across our diverse supply chains. Also, instead of limiting the donation opportunity to this one particular coffee and thereby sending the signal that the purchase of one does good and the purchase of the other… doesn’t… we opted to make the donation apply to any coffee purchased from CCC during the months of November and December. It’s less convenient to promote than one dollar per pound, but it’s worth the work of explaining because it’s a better representation of the holistic, measured approach we take to building relationships and buying coffee.

Rollout Dates and Availability

This year’s holiday coffee rolled out at the beginning of the month and we’ll sell it through the first week of January 2015.

–Kim Elena


Peru + Peru = PERU

Today we welcome Chirinos and Huabal—both from the Cenfrocafe cooperative, the same co-op that brings us Valle del Santuario and La Frontera coffees from Peru.

Notes on the Coffees

Cenfrocafe has long been a darling of the coffee department. They are forward thinking, have sound business practices (for the most part), ask the right questions about how to maintain the balance of quality and volume of coffees, and do their very best to put advice received from multiple sources into action.

With these coffees, we embark on the process of getting more-transparent coffees that hit higher quality marks from this important, historic partner. We hope that these coffees are just the beginning of increased volumes, transparency, and quality out of Peru.

Chirinos is known as the land of coffee and natural forests. Cedar, eucalyptus, and pine trees abound. They are also well known for some of the most beautiful waterfalls in the area. The coffee farms are broken up into three altitude groups, high, medium, and low.

Many of the farms in the mountains of the region have only been settled and planted for a generation, as opposed to the southern regions of Peru where the agricultural history dates back millennia. Cenfrocafe's members hail from some 30-odd communities around Jaén and smaller towns like San Ignacio, Chirinos, and Tabaconas.

Chirinos has 11 base organizations that deliver coffee to Cenfrocafe and 235 members total.

Look for: creamy, caramel, plum flavors

Huabal (pronounced wa-BALL) is known as a higher altitude quality coffee growing zone. In addition to coffee, there are large areas of protected forest and unique wild animals that add to the biodiversity of the area. Their base organizations are located close to our long-term favorite Valle del Santuario in San Ignacio, Peru.

Huabal has 8 base organizations that deliver coffee to Cenfrocafe and 284 members total.

Look for: pronounced flavors of almond and green grape

Rollout Dates and Availability

Both coffees are already available for purchase as of this week. We will likely have Chirinos in house for about a month-and-a-half while Huabal will be closer to three months because we have a larger volume of this coffee.
Over the next two months, we will share stories about organizations doing exceptional work in coffee growing communities where we purchase. We often say that, while we know a lot about how coffee should taste and something about why it tastes the way it does, we know comparatively little about how best to support coffee farmers in their daily lives outside of coffee farming. Farmers might grow the best coffee in the world, but if they struggle to educate their children, put food on their tables, access health care, find clean water, or address other basic needs, our relationship—and by extension, our business model—is not sustainable.

Today, we will take a look at a non-profit we admire out of Burlington, VT, called Food 4 Farmers. Their mission is "to facilitate the implementation of sustainable food security programs in coffee-growing communities." In particular, they focus on collaborative work by emphasizing building local knowledge and capacity for individuals to solve their own problems by working through coffee cooperatives.

"Through a collaborative approach and partnerships, our goal is to transfer the tools and knowledge that coffee-farming families—and their communities—need for long-term food security," said Janice Nadworny, Co-Director of Food 4 Farmers. "One of the most exciting aspects of our work is witnessing this transformation from dependency to self-sufficiency."

The most eye-catching piece of their work to someone like me—who has been a part of and studied a number of non-profit and NGO models—is the following, in their own words:

"We don’t import a simplistic, one-size-fits-all model—we help communities identify locally appropriate solutions and strategies—and support them in managing their progress."

Though they are a fledgling non-profit, their small staff brings a range of experiences from the non-profit and academic world to the table. They are already well respected within and connected to the coffee industry with the likes of Rick Peyser (formerly of Keurig Green Mountain Coffee, currently working with Lutheran World Relief) on their board of directors.

Over the last four years, they have worked to design, implement, monitor, and evaluate food security strategies in Nicaragua, Mexico, Guatemala, and Colombia.

We are now in the second year of funding a food security project with Food 4 Farmers in Chiapas, Mexico, with CESMACH, a co-op that is part of Union el Triunfo. Food 4 Farmers is currently assessing the strengths and challenges of and resources available to the cooperative as they work to address seasonal hunger.

"Counter Culture has been a key partner in this work, stepping up to make the long-term investments necessary to help coffee-farming families thrive," Nadworny added.

To learn more about the great work Food 4 Farmers is doing click here.

More soon,
Hannah Popish


There's Only One Grand Reserve

Aida's Grand Reserve enters its ninth year, and, as always, it's at once a delicious coffee and great fodder for conversation about quality, relationships, and what makes a product special.

Style of Tasting

Cup and Brew

Tasters familiar with Aida's Grand Reserve will definitely want to cup it to get as much sensory information as possible, so begin by setting up the two coffees for cupping. Also be prepared to brew a batch or two of AGR to enjoy in at a more leisurely rate either as your cuppers are arriving or after you finish cupping—or both!

Notes on the Coffees

A few weeks ago, I said that Finca Mauritania is an example of how good a coffee can be with average elevation and good varieties when every step of the harvesting and processing of that coffee is flawless. Well, Aida's Grand Reserve, which we purchase from the same Aida Batlle who's responsible for Finca Mauritania's coffee, represents how much better a producer can make coffee when she has the option to complement coffee from better elevation and varieties with perfect processing.

Let me explain. Of the farms that Aida's family owns, Finca Mauritania is the lowest elevation and the only one that is 100% Bourbon variety, while her other farms—Los Alpes and Kilimanjaro—are higher up the Ilmantepec volcano and have more complex-tasting varieties like Kenia, Pacamara, and Typica.

Of course, Aida is not changing the varieties or elevation of coffee from an individual farm. But, unlike most farmers, she is able to apply the picking, processing, and selection techniques—the techniques that make Finca Mauritania so good—to varieties and elevation that are even better.

For most farmers, varieties are difficult to experiment with, because projects require at least five years to produce adequately and experimenting with elevation is impossible—unless you have money to spend on buying more land to farm and planting it with coffee, which, as you might expect, is rare.

Getting back to Grand Reserve, this is the ninth year that Aida has challenged herself to create a small lot of extraordinary coffee from among the many coffee varieties and methods of processing that she has available, and it's also our ninth year selling this coffee.

The idea began as a way to recoup costs from the damage caused by the 2005 eruption of the Ilmantepec volcano and has since become a coffee that Aida is incredibly proud of—over which she spends countless hours agonizing each year. Saying that every batch is unique is an understatement of comic proportions: A few years ago, there were no fewer than 27 different components to Aida's Grand Reserve coming from three farms, three processes (washed, sundried natural, and pulp natural), and three fermentation styles (Kenya, Ethiopia, and El Salvador) within the washed coffee segments.

The 2014 lot is simpler in its composition—which is exclusively washed coffees from Finca Kilimanjaro and Finca Los Alpes (i.e., no naturals, no Mauritania)—but the flavors don't lack for fruitiness or complexity. Though there are fewer components this year, Aida's Grand Reserve is by no means basic, as we're still talking about three varieties (Bourbon, Typica, and Kenia) from two farms and fermentation techniques borrowed from Burundi and Kenya.

Having tasted so many iterations of Aida's farms' coffees over the years, as well as the annual Grand Reserve lot, we have encouraged her to focus on the farms with the best elevation and varieties, as opposed to including all of the farms and all of the processes she knows—as she did in that year of the 27 components. I'm sure there's a sports or musical analogy to be made about demonstrating true mastery through refinement, as opposed to sheer volume, but, for this audience, Aida's coffees probably need no analogies in order to make sense.

Rollout Dates and Availability

Finca Mauritania is already on the menu and Aida's Grand Reserve is slated to roll out in mid-November, pending brand-spankin' new packaging.

–Kim Elena

Chris Colbran of Baroida in the Eastern Highlands of Papua New Guinea.Theme

Kudos to the Colbrans

This week, we’ll taste and celebrate the first roasts of this year’s Baroida and Tairora from the Eastern Highlands region of Papua New Guinea.

Style of Tasting

Brew Two

As we only have two coffees and they come from the same place, I suggest brewing them both through paper and putting the emphasis on the farm and the freshness of these two lots, as opposed to the cupping ritual.

Notes on the Coffees

Papua New Guinea is a long way from Durham, NC, and, until we started buying coffee from the Colbran family four years ago, Counter Culture hadn’t had a relationship there last more than a year or two. We persisted in trying to find a foothold there because the geography, climate, and varieties are all excellent, and we knew the coffees could be excellent, too.

With that history in mind, we feel extra appreciation for the relationship that we have built with Chris Colbran and his family since 2010—which was the first year they ventured into marketing their coffee directly to buyers instead of selling it to an exporter to blend. The coffee we purchase from their farm, Baroida, and the surrounding Tairora tribe are consistently great and only getting better as the family continues to refine their work.

Though they come from similar geography and varieties, Baroida has typically been more savory and fuller in body than Tairora, which seems true again this year. It’s early yet, though, and this is our first tasting, so please do share your feedback and questions now and as we continue to taste this coffee in the months to come.

Rollout Dates and Availability

Baroida and Tairora roll out on Monday and, between this first container and the late-harvest lots that will arrive in a month or so, we have a good volume of both. Thank goodness for that, too, because we count on these coffees to get us through the dark days of winter and into the springtime, when we begin to anticipate the return of coffees from the northern hemisphere.


Closer to Home

With the staggering number of extraordinary coffees we have from East Africa, it’s easy to forget that this is still peak season for coffees from some of our neighbors in Central and South America.

Style of Tasting

Cup + Brew

These coffees are different enough to stand out in cupping, so I recommend doing that and following your cupping with a pour-over demonstration of the crowd favorite and a brewing discussion. 

Notes on the Coffees

What can I say about Finca Mauritania that hasn’t been said? Probably very little. I’m going to repeat something I said a few weeks ago when we tasted this coffee, which is that Finca Mauritania is a great reminder of how good coffees can be when every minute step in growing, picking, and processing coffee is done with the utmost attention to detail and quality. The farm's elevation is quite poor for quality, but to find a farm in Central America without a single Catimor-type plant, and to have a guarantee that every single seed comes from a sweet, ripe coffee fruit, then to have it all processed carefully and dried evenly and slowly, makes this coffee capable of competing with and surpassing coffees that have far more geographic and climatic advantages. While Aida Batlle— fifth-generation coffee farmer—would never call herself disadvantaged, in quality terms, Mauritania represents the kind of hard-working, up-by-the-bootstraps story that we love.

With two harvests per year, it’s easy to forget to mention the arrival of La Golondrina, but it’s here! It’s new! Rejoice! Though we never have trouble selling this coffee, that doesn’t stop us from believing it could be better and trying to make progress, which for the growers of Orgánica entails better selection of varieties and slower drying.

Finally, we bid farewell to Concepción Huista this week after another fruitful and fruit-flavor-filled season. We have invested a lot in building this relationship, and, at times, the co-op can still feel a little bit chaotic, but the organization has a strong foundation, and they definitely have some of the best coffee-growing terrain in Huehuetenango, if not Guatemala. It will be back next year, and, with good luck and good management, Concepción Huista will be its best yet.

Rollout Dates and Availability

We'll have Finca Mauritania for another two months, I imagine, La Golondrina rolls out Friday and should last until March and Concepción Huista, as I mentioned, will be no more as of next week.