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It’s a Numbers Game

We have a single coffee to taste this week—Number Forty-Six—and a single brewing style—cupping—but by manipulating variables of brew time, water temperature, and grind size we will take it from okay to very good (and we’ll explain why, too).

Style of Tasting

Cupping

Measure twenty (or twenty-four, or twenty-eight) cups of Number Forty-Six and divide them into four sets of five to seven cups each. We will treat each set differently, so I’ll write separate instructions for each of them.

Set #1: This set is the control for our semi-experiment, so I’ll ask you to use the coffee-to-water ratio, grind setting and pour technique you might usually use for Friday cuppings. I don’t know how many of you measure water temperature for cuppings (and if you do, great!), but we’re going for about 210F, or right off the boil, for this set. While this may be hotter than some of you are used to, I know that for our fifty-something-person cuppings here in Durham around the holidays, we tend to grab kettles off of induction burners and begin brewing immediately with water that is hot, hot, hot.

Set #2: Follow the same steps used for the first set, but bring the water temperature down to 200F.

Set #3: Follow the same steps as in the second set (low brewing temp) but grind on a coarser setting (say, old-school French press).

Set #4: Grind coffee on a fine setting (not as fine as the Dittig “espresso” setting, but significantly finer than your regular cupping setting) and use 192-195F water to brew. After making your initial pour and letting the coffee bloom, return to this set and add water to the cups, trying to keep the majority of each cup’s crust intact, until the crust is level with the top of the cup. Also, break this set at 2:30 minutes instead of 4 minutes.

Cupping leaders of the Type-A persuasion may be wondering how to juggle these different parameters and it will definitely be a good idea to have a few extra hands to help, but as long as you have kettles of water at different temperatures ready simultaneously, it should be pretty straightforward. Pour the last set at about the 1:30 mark for the other three sets so that all four are ready to break at once.

Notes on the Coffees

We are all familiar with Number Forty-Six, but I suspect that few of us brew and drink it regularly. Since the departure of La Forza and the various French roasts, this product has held the title of our darkest coffee, which may seem like a dubious honor to some of us but still probably attracts more coffee drinkers than it dissuades. I’m one of those people who rarely drinks Number Forty-Six, in part because I feel like I know it well after so many years and in part because I lean toward our lighter coffees (I admit it, I let my prejudice against darker-roasted coffees keep me from choosing this coffee for my morning brew even when it contains awesome ingredients). Anyway, when I DO taste Number Forty-Six, it tends to be on the cupping table and, sadly, the coffee usually tastes bitter and astringent.

Many in our peer group would immediately attribute negative qualities to dark roasting, but what if it’s not about flaws in the roast as flaws in our cupping protocol? Think about this: the Cupper’s Handbook lists appropriate brew temperature as between 195 and 205 degrees Fahrenheit, but when was the last time you cupped with 195 degree water or considered changing the water temperature for different coffees? The handbook also suggests a roast level and when we cup on Fridays, or when we cup production roasts, we often venture outside of that range. We know from the Brewing Science series that changing one parameter of brewing triggers the need to change others and our hope is that today’s exercise serves as a reminder to examine cupping as a brewing method so that we don’t unwittingly give advantages to some coffees at the expense of others.

I think this is one of the most interesting tastings we’ve done in a while and I am REALLY curious about how you, and your audiences, react to the four samples. If you or your audience is generally pro-lighter-roast, do any of the changes we make to the brewing process serve to open minds? If your audience is pro-darker-roast, does the first coffee still taste good? 

Rollout Dates and Availability

Number Forty-Six may outlast us all.

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#AnyCoffeeAnyBrew

Toscano and Rustico grace our tables and grinder hoppers today with recently reformulated recipes that reflect the seasonal change that we promise for all of our year-round products.

Notes on the Coffees

Toscano and Rustico are both tasting really good right now, so we decided to use this week’s tasting as an opportunity to spend a little bit more time with them. It’s easy to overlook these coffees when it comes time to choose what we taste on Fridays because we look first to what’s new (and much of the time, we have something new or almost new to feature, explain and explore), then to what’s about to go away (and that’s not uncommon, either, especially when we have new offerings), so we don’t spend as much time on Fridays with these kind of coffees as we do with some coffees that represent much smaller volumes for us. After so many years, I have no doubt that we all know what these coffees taste like, but it’s important to stay connected to them.

Currently Toscano is comprised of 70% Finca Nueva Armenia from Guatemala and 30% Dulce Nombre, a part of El Puente in Honduras. Rustico is comprised of 70% La Voz from Guatemala and 30% Idido Natural Sundried from Ethiopia.

Rollout Dates and Availability

Recipes change but the flavor profile remains the same all day, every day.

Town of Idido, Yirgacheffe, EthiopiaTheme

We Got Options

Today we welcome Idido and Haru, two stars of stage and tasting table hailing from Yirgacheffe, Ethiopia, back to Counter Culture for a fourth year of delicious citrus, floral and juicy berry sweetness.

Style of Tasting

Anything Goes

We sent a pound and a half of each coffee so that you might brew at least one of these coffees as espresso (Haru would be the obvious choice) and because these are favorites of so many of us that I imagine higher-than-average levels of curiosity about how they taste in various brewing methods. And don’t forget ice! Should you cup, you will notice the different roast levels immediately, which might obscure some of the flavor comparison that you might be looking for.

Notes on the Coffees

We bought a lot of coffee from the Yirgacheffe Coffee Farmer Co-operative Union this year, and by a lot, I don’t mean a single container or a particular coffee, which we (sometimes confusingly) refer to as lots, but rather a very large volume. I mean a LOT of coffee. We bought washed coffees and sundried natural coffees from eponymous mills in the villages of Haru, Idido and Biloya; we also bought washed and sundried natural coffee from individual members of the YCFCU co-op living in the aforementioned villages and others that include Hafursa, Hama, Adame Gorbota and Banko Gotiti. Every year, these coffees receive some of the highest scores we award to any coffees from anywhere in the world, and every year, Idido is the coffee to beat. The elevation is right, the mill is exquisite and the resulting coffees reflect a combination of terroir and processing executed perfectly.

Today’s Haru is roasted and labeled as “for Apollo” in order to showcase the range for these coffees and their flavors, but due to the volume and diversity we have to work with this year, it’s likely that we won’t actually use the majority of this coffee for Apollo but rather dedicate it to Number Forty-Six. For today, though, it’s a beautiful showcase of the bright, juicy flavors epitomized by Apollo.

Rollout Dates and Availability

Idido rolled out this week and my heart swells to tell you that we will have it for months. Months! I love the summertime. Haru, as I said, probably won’t roll out on its own.

 
We're pleased to announce the debut of Espresso Fundamentals—the newly updated full-day course which replaces Beginner Espresso in the Counter Intelligence curriculum!

Espresso Fundamentals is a dynamic blend of context-building lecture and hands-on tasting and technique exercises, designed to introduce new baristas to the foundational skills needed behind an espresso machine, and to take more experienced baristas to the next level in their understanding and crafting of espresso and espresso-based drinks.

Learn more and sign-up on the Espresso Fundamentals page.

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Finca El Puente

We will focus all of our attention this week on welcoming this year’s lot of Finca El Puente from Marcala, Honduras, into our coffee lineup.

Style of Tasting

Brewing Rodeo

Finca El Puente’s coffee is one that I recommend often to people new to Counter Culture and our coffees, in large part because its flavors are forgiving of brewing methods that might not meet our standards. Some of the more delicate aspects—characteristics we call purple, for example—may be lost in a twenty-year-old Krups, but we have the means in our training centers to highlight nuances and differences. You have two bags of the coffee, so dig in to brewers and recipes, and test as many ideas as your crowd has patience to taste.

Notes on the Coffees

Every year, when it comes time to tell the story of Finca El Puente, I wonder how to balance what’s new (or at least, new in the past year) with the years that preceded this one and keep the story to fewer than a thousand words. It’s easy to get carried away when talking about this coffee because it’s a perfect example of the kind of coffee that helps people understand and trust Counter Culture: it’s very good coffee without being inordinately complex in flavor, it’s consistent from year to year and, not for nothing, almost all of us know the farmers responsible for creating it.

I hope that most of you had a chance to attend at least one of last October’s Variety Show events in our training centers and to spend time with Moisés and Marysabel, who are two of the most gracious and generous people in the coffee industry. They have been great friends to us ever since we began buying their coffee in 2006, but in the early years they seemed most happy doing what they had always done. Often, these weekly dispatches include a comment about the challenges of introducing new ideas to smallholder farmers, and though Finca El Puente isn’t so small, coffee farming is still risky enough without introducing experiments that they were hesitant to mess with what seemed to be working just fine. We never stopped pitching ideas, and because we balanced asking for new things with our commitment to do a really good job buying and marketing their coffee, Moisés eventually let his guard down. Once he let himself embrace unusual varieties, East African processing methods and organic agriculture techniques, momentum began to build and now, well, he grows seventeen varieties and executes at least one new idea every year (including something really amazing this year, which will be coming in the second shipment and about which I will keep you in suspense another month or so).

We feel very fortunate to have Moisés and Marysabel as collaborators who trust our ideas, feel comfortable challenging us, have the financial means to take risks, participate enthusiastically in the international coffee community and value the opportunity to connect with our staff and customers. It all keeps getting better every year and with the experience we have, we know better than to take that for granted. Raise your cups to another great year of Finca El Puente!

Rollout Dates and Availability

Finca El Puente will roll out on Monday, June 2, and is available to everyone, everywhere.

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Four by Four

Why four by four? Well, build your own, be constructive, that's the theme today. Today we bring you four coffees from Honduras and hope you'll explore. Also, many moons ago, Selin Recinos, placed fourth in the Honduran national competition the year prior to the existence of the Cup of Excellence!

Style of Tasting

Cupping, Iced, Espresso, and ... Roll the Dice

Anybody's game. Why not have a few cups of each out and ready to taste cupping style. Then, choose a couple of favorites and try them iced, try them as espresso, and, frankly, try them however you think they might taste best, and then tell your coffee friends all about it! Even better, if you are able, discuss just "how strong is your brew" as we approach the next Pro Dev.

Notes on the Coffees

All four of these coffees come from within a small radius, geographically speaking, and they have similar taste profiles. The subtle nuances, however, make tasting them interesting.

We have a long history of selling Finca Pashapa as a darker roast or tucked away in a No.46. This, however, is its year to shine. Much like Moises and Marysabel of Finca El Puente, Pashapa's owner, Roberto Salazar, has come to be like family for Counter Culture. I've already heard comments around HQ, “Pashapa is my favorite right now,” and “Check out Pashapa's brightness.” So, it's the week of the underdog for sure. You'll be pleased with the syrupy stone fruit and sugar cane notes.

Roberto helps to run the Cocafelol cooperative in Marcala, Honduras. He's also a co-op member. Cocafelol recently took over an abandoned farm: They thought to themselves, "We know what to do with available land!!" Thus, Finca Liquidambar appeared on the scene. The roughly 3.5 hectare farm is run by the leadership of the cooperative. "Liquidambar" is the spanish word for gum trees, of which there are plenty on the farm. This year was the farm's first year with enough coffee to taste and ship in any great quantity! Look for delicate notes of brown sugar and apricot.

Selin Recinos is also a member of Cocafelol. We asked to try a few producers' coffee separately this year, and we are glad we did. Selin has one of the larger farms in the group with about 10 hectares. As referenced above, Selin has been in the spotlight for some time—since his 2004 national coffee win. In the cup: some sparkle, green apple, citrus, and almond.

We'd be remiss not to pause for a moment and remark on how great a name Estanislao Bojórquez has. In the Coffee Department we were rooting for him based on name alone. You'll find his coffee to be nice and sweet with medium acidity and a touch of fruit. There is a slight earthy undertone which is why we most likely won't sell the coffee separately, but it is still quite a nice coffee.

Rollout Dates and Availability

Finca Pashapa became available last week and will likely last through the end of June.

Señor Recinos and Finca Liquidambar will make their debut Friday, May 23, and will likely be around about two to three weeks—but that of course depends on demand. Estanislao ... today is his day! Enjoy it now and, potentially, only now.
May 2014 Pro Dev: How Strong is Your Espresso?How strong IS your espresso, really? And, are you sure?

Join Counter Culture for Pro Dev on Wednesday, May 28, at 3 p.m. in our Training Centers as we explore espresso extraction using tools that have become industry standard: the VST coffee and espresso refractometer and the Extract Mojo app.

We’ll discuss how these tools and other VST technology contribute to our understanding of espresso, and why/how Counter Culture uses these tools to objectively measure brewed coffee.

Of course, we’ll be tasting as we go, so come prepared to consume some espresso!

Counter Culture Regional Training Centers host monthly Pro Dev sessions the last Wednesday of the month. Free and open to all coffee professionals.

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Good Judgment 

This week we taste two versions of two coffees: first, long-time favorite Tairora Project from the Eastern Highlands region of Papua New Guinea and a new-to-you coffee from Chema in the Kapchorwa region of Uganda. One bag of each coffee is labeled as tainted or defective, with the Tairora showing flavors of premature aging, or fade, and the Chema smelling and tasting of chemicals.

Notes on the Coffees

We have tasted coffee from the Tairora Project numerous times over the past few months and years, and this isn’t the first time that we have explored its highs and lows by comparing fresh-tasting and faded-tasting Tairoras on a cupping table. In prior tastings, we have acknowledged that Baroida and Tairora aren't necessarily exceptional for being inconsistent when it comes to fading, especially among farms in Papua New Guinea. Rather, they are exceptional for the fact that the Colbrans are happy to bag, label, and ship each day's harvest separately as opposed to blending it all together and mixing the better with the worse. We have also celebrated the work of the roasting department for cupping coffee from every ... single ... bag ... when it arrives before deciding whether it's fit to roast and sell (and over the course of the season, that’s at least 500 bags).

People, including some of you, I’m sure, have asked us whether it's worth the work. The coffee department has always said that it is because the payoff is so good. Tim has worked tirelessly over the past couple of years with Chris Colbran to communicate our experiences and encourage better infrastructure for consistent quality. Being thorough in our assessment and tenacious in the relationship have made it possible to strengthen the relationship and improve quality holistically (not just for Counter Culture's lots) at the same time, which is something we're way better at than the other coffee buyers we know.

If drying is comparatively easy to address, it should be a snap to fix Chema's tainted flavor because the chemical overwhelming the coffee comes from the paint—or perhaps a thinner added to the paint—that is applied to the jute bag. I always find myself feeling a little bit heartbroken when I taste coffees like this because I think about the fate of a bag of coffee hinging on one instant, and I imagine how it could have gone differently. On a less somber note, though, an instance of this same sort of accidental contamination occurred in Honduras in 2007 with ALL of the coffees from the Cup of Excellence competition, and the mill that made the mistake of using bad jute has recovered and since grown to be one of the most successful specialty mills in Central America, if not the world.

Chema's coffee would be a flat-out rejection for many companies, but because we tasted the good stuff first, we knew that some of it was good and as it turns out, only half of the bags are tainted (maybe because someone ran out halfway through, we don’t know). Uganda is a place where we are investing time and energy in cultivating relationships, and this is a new group for us, as well as a relatively young importer. So, instead of dismissing the coffee, we are taking the time to go through it in hopes of building good will and trust for the future.

If this seems like a lot of work, you’re right! As I said before, the payoff is great in Tairora’s case, and it has the potential to be great in Chema’s case, as well. Taking a bigger picture view, these bad flavors pose challenges, but they are of the sort that we as buyers are in a much better position to address than other challenges we face: potato defect, coffee leaf rust and its myriad effects, bad-tasting varieties, and, worst of all, low elevation. Nine times out of 10, if we can taste greatness in an inconsistent coffe,e and the growers or suppliers are willing to put in the work to change that, then we are, too.

Rollout Dates and Availability

We’re down to the final bags of Tairora, so enjoy these slurps! The harvest is underway in Papua New Guinea, and that means next year's crop isn't too far off. Chema will be a component of Number 46 this year, and our future purchases of this coffee aren't yet known, but Uganda is a place with a lot of potential for us. so we'll be hoping to hear, see, and taste more from this group in the months and years to come.

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