Sniff. Slurp. Spit. Repeat. Coffee Cupping at Counter Culture DC

March 1, 2008

Until recently, my formal beverage tasting experience has been singularly focused on beer. I’ve judged beer in competitions from South Africa to Virgina and held countless semi-formal tastings with friends and family. But, although I roast my own coffee beans at home, I’m a newbie when it comes to professional coffee cupping.


My first official cupping was just last month when I visited the Asorcafe coffee lab (above) in the small town of Pedregi, in the Cauca region of Colombia. The lab technicians were experts, as were my companions from Peace Coffee and Higher Grounds, so I had good coaching that helped prevent me from dribbling coffee down my chin. I did, however, begin the cupping while wearing a cowboy hat which Jody from Higher Grounds suggested I remove so as to avoid knocking over glasses as I bowed my nose to the grounds.

This morning I attended a free cupping at Counter Culture’s lab in the Adams Morgan neighborhood of Washington, D.C. (For background on Counter Culture’s “direct trade” business model, read my online conversation with Kim and Peter from Counter Culture and my other recent post about the chat I had with folks from Intelligentsia, the company that trademarked the term Direct Trade.)

Here’s a primer on the tasting procedure and a report on the three coffees we cupped this morning.

The Cupping Ritual
Our host, Ryan Jensen, Customer Relations, prepared by lining up a set of about ten 8 oz. glasses for each of the three coffees. He scooped about a tablespoon of grounds (13 grams to be exact) into each glass. It’s important to cup several glasses of each coffee in order to avoid mischaracterizing a whole batch based on just one cup. A single glass can exhibit a defect from one bad bean but the rest of the batch might be flawless. Once the glasses were filled with grounds, we were armed with pens, clipboards and cupping forms. Silence and furrowed brows indicated that the ritual was about to begin.

1. Moving from glass to glass, we sniffed and noted the fragrance of the grounds.

2. Then Ryan poured 8 oz. of hot water into each glass. Going glass to glass again, we smelled the aroma of the steeping coffee.

3. We were given small paper cups and large spoons with deep basins. We used our spoons to once again move down the line of glasses and “break” the layer of grounds floating on top of the coffee, noting the fresh burst of aromas released by this technique. The grounds were then removed from the glasses.

4. For the final gauntlet of grounds, we dipped our spoons into the glasses and raised the samples to our bowed heads. Using our lips, we slurped across our tongues, aerating and roiling the coffee throughout the mouth, saturating every taste receptor from front to back, top to bottom, and side to side. After each swish, a few of the cuppers opted to avoid ingesting too much coffee by spitting the samples into their cups. Most, including me, chose to go whole hog and swallow every ounce.

In this last step we actually tasted the coffee, noting brightness, flavor, body, and aftertaste. In beer tasting terminology, brightness is similar to crispness. A bright coffee is snappy and clean like a pilsener, whereas a less bright coffee is mellow and smooth like an ale. (I’m generalizing here, don’t take this beer comparison too far because the exceptions will just make it confusing.)

Flavor wheelFlavor is what you taste. Anything goes – the point is just to recognize all the flavors you can identify. Flavor can be intense or subtle, direct or nuanced, complex or one-dimensional. I relied on one of the handy tasting wheels Ryan had distributed in order to help connect what my taste buds were experiencing with what my food-memory has stored in the recesses of my mind. Body can be full or thin. Going back to beer, Bud Light is thin-bodied and watery, while imperial stouts, barleywines, and double IPAs are rich and robust. Aftertaste is how any flavor lingers on the palate or cuts short and clean.

Here is a summary of my tasting notes.

Coffee #1: Peruvian from Valle del Santuario, Ignacio
Representative of its region, this certified organic, shade grown coffee is an everyday cup, the equivalent of what beer drinkers call a session beer such as an English bitter or American amber. Milk chocolate and brownies dominated the fragrance. Sweet, roasted peanuts appeared in the aroma. The break released leather and malt. As a routine morning cup, the brightness was light and mellow, with an earthy flavor, mild body and little to no aftertaste.

In one word: quaffable.

Kenya GatuririCoffee #2: Kenyan from the Gaturiri and Nyeri regions (auction lot #4486)
After the cupping, the participants unanimously requested this one to be brewed as our cup to savor during the post-cupping discussion. Because of the Kenyan national coffee system, direct, fair trade coffee buying relationships are nearly impossible. So, although this coffee’s region of origin is known, its exact farmers are anonymous. Furthermore, it is neither organic nor shade grown. Damp earth and dark berries and fruits in the nose made way for roasted nuts at the break, followed by a bright, tangy grapefruit, tangerine, spicey cinnamon flavor. While it was perhaps the most rewarding cup of the three, the medium body was just shy of the strength needed to counter balance the punch of citric acid that lingered in the finish.

In one word: conversational.

Coffee #3: Sumatran from Gayo, Aceh
Certified organic and shade grown, earth and smoke came to the fore throughout this complex cup from the damp forest lands of Sumatra. The nose was rough, like roasted chestnuts, pungent and acrid, with a full-bodied musty, tobacco-like flavor and lingering hide-like aftertaste.

In one word: comforting.

Proof that Beer and Coffee Are the Best Companions
After the tasting, I thought it was only fair to let Ryan know that the reason I attended was that I am an author and I’m conducting research for my next book. He replied that he had just started reading Fermenting Revolution two days ago. I’m hoping to make the Counter Culture lab a place for repeat visits in the coming months of research. I’ll have to treat Ryan to a beer sometime as thanks for his free educational cuppings.


Yachil Xolobal Chulchan (A New Light in the Sky)

December 9, 2007

By Chris Treter

The fog lifts from the steep mountain and the seasonal rain has briefly ceased leaving behind deep puddles of mud. I hand my passport over to a masked joven guarding the gate of the Zapatista headquarters. I’ve arrived again at Oventic, an hours’ drive from San Cristobal de Las Casas in the heart of the Mayan Highlands of Chiapas, Mexico. It was here nearly 14 years ago that a well-organized and determined group of impoverished Mayan farmers rose up against the Mexican government on the day NAFTA began. Telling the world “Ya Basta, they ushered in a glSan Cristobal de Las Casasobal movement for a dignified and just economy.

Just seven years ago, Jody and I hunkered down here on our arrival to Chiapas to serve as human rights observers. Living and working among the community for two weeks, the experience offered a window into the harsh reality of the poorest of the poor in Mexico. Here we learned that the struggle for a just and sustainable existence for the Mayan people does not end overnight. Here we found the heart of fair trade beating inside a people who where brutally subjugated to the “conquest” of the “new world.” Where the likes of Pedro de Alvarado and Diego de Mazariegos placed the Mayan people into servitude of the Spanish elite. Today the global conquistadores, veiled as corporations such as Coca- Cola and Syngenta continue the rampage of the rich and vibrant Mayan communities, playing its role to tear apart the threads of its cultural existence.

The guard, sporting a black pasamontana to conceal his identity from belligerent outsiders opens the gate and ushers me on to the Office of VEZLNigilance where I am questioned once again for the purpose of my visit. Outside, Monika Firl, Cooperative Coffees Producer Relations Guru, visits the women’s artisan cooperative, Mujeres por La Dignidad (Women for Dignity), while I go through the process of authorization to enter Zapatista Territory.

“I’d like to speak with the Junta to discuss our coffee purchase this year,” I tell a half a dozen masked men in a dirt floor shack with one table and a bench. Here after conversation with the Junta – the judicial and administrative body elected in a form of participatory democracy – we get approval to head on to Santa Catarina, the Zapatista municipality where Yachil Xolobal Chulchan (Tzeltal translation of “A New Light in the Sky”) is headquartered.

The rains have been heavy this October; locals say some of the worst they remember. Not only does this lead to a cold and damp life for the Tzotzil and Tzetal Mayans that call the Highlands their home. It also means that already difficult traveling conditions are made worse. Trails that lead farmers to the closest town, sometimes a six-hour hike through the meandering mountain forests, turn to an impassable mud pit. For the privileged class like myself, this equates to mudslides and washed out bridges on the main road as our taxi lumbers toward Santa Catalina with our meeting with Yachil.

Rain pounds the windshield as Monika and I discuss topics ranging from communication problems with our Ethiopian partners to how to meet the green bean coffee needs of 23 small roasters who make up our roasting cooperative. We brainstorm on how we are going to approach our meeting with Yachil – a co-op with almost no infrastructure, facing continued government oppression, extreme poverty, and operating on a shoestring budget.

Upon entering the town square of Pantelho, a run-down, coffee frontier town at the end of the long paved road in this region, our companeros come out of the shadows and lead us to the house of the President of the Co-op. “He had to go to the hospital in San Cristobal,” they say. “We are sorry but his wife has a very bad heart.” Quickly we are reminded of the daily existence of life in the rural highlands of Chiapas. She is one of the 1 million inhabitants, the vast majority indigenous, that do not have access to health care in Chiapas. Though 71.6% of the indigenous population is malnourished, there is only 1 doctor for every 25,000 inhabitants of the state (Source CIEPAC).

The meeting begins with 17 members of the board of directors and representatives of the communities to discuss this year’s harvest. We sit in the “living room,” – a vacant room with one computer. Wooden planks used as a bed are strewn across the old tattered and cracked concrete floor. The compas put down their satchels and sit upon them. The wind and rain take turns interrupting our discussions as they find their way between the holes in the aluminum roof and cracks of the old weather worn door. The corn, towering over the house at nearly 10 feet tall (this isn’t Midwest GMO corn!), sways back and forth in the courtyard to the rhythm of our conversation.

”Greetings brothers, I am honored to spend some time with you today.” I state, as Monika and I start the greetings that at times can continue on for minutes in a Mayan community. In the corner against the wall, the representatives of San Juan Cancuc huddle together. They hadchiapa walked for 4 hours – leaving the house at 5 am to make it to the meeting.

As we discuss harvest projections, coffee related projects, and possible damage caused to the fields due to the heavy rains, our conversations are translated from Spanish to Tzotzil and Tzetal, the Mayan languages spoken primarily by the growers in this area. Since the Zapatista uprising in ’94 the number of people speaking these language have actually increased. This is rare in a world where indigenous languages are disappearing at an alarming rate. According to the Archive of Indigenous Languages of Latin America, there are only a third of the 1,750 languages that were spoken in Latin America when the Spaniards arrive still in existence today. The pressure to speak Spanish is evident in our meeting.

“Friends, why are you so quite?” I ask. After contemplation they respond, “We are ashamed, we don’t speak Spanish very well.”

”You should be proud of your language. I should be ashamed, I don’t speak Tzotzil or Tzeltal.” I say in a customary reply made dozens of times in my many travels here.

”Well you may be ashamed buy I am afraid! Chris is one of my 23 bosses and if we don’t figure out how to overcome these challenges he will be mad.” Monika chimes in, trying to break the ice.

It works as the room roars in laughter. It seems they know my demeanor and disposition too well to fall for that! We return to our meeting, unified and in understanding that we are working together to overcome the evil and oppression brought on by the conventional coffee market and global economic policies.

From then on the meeting moves quickly. They need pre-financing if they are to get the beans from the growers this year. Many of them do not have an income other then their crop and need money immediately to feed their families. The co-op has nowhere to store the coffee and needs to get three trucks on the main roads. Once the beans are harvested and dried the growers will bring their coffee to the trucks for collection. But no one is trained to prepare the coffee for exportation.

Overcoming these challenges are necessary to provide a better livelihood for the growers. Last year the farmers received 23 pesos per kilo from the co-op. The coyotes – the pesky competition in the conventional market – only paid 17 pesos (and that was in a high market). The 5 pesos difference is very important to communities of growers that are literally leading a “hand to mouth” existence. In addition, Cooperative Coffees leaves the contract open and pays $.30 cents above the market price.

This year, Cooperative Coffees is paying $1.70/ a pound – nearly 30 cents more then the certified fair trade/organic price. In addition, Cooperative Coffees keeps a buffer of 30 cents above the market price at all times. So, for instance, if Yachil closes the contract on the day the market price reaches $1.50, Cooperative Coffees will pay $1.80. Higher Grounds has put profits generated from coffee sales to help fund water and school projects in Zapatista communities.

Our offer is appealing to the co-op and such face-to-face conversations are necessary to understand the overwhelming challenges of this underdeveloped cooperative. They sign the contract, committing to sell us a container of green beans and hand it back to Monika. Now the hard work will begin.

Following picking, depulping, fermenting, drying, and sorting, the farmers must store the bags of coffee in their homes until enough coffee is ready for them to hike it out and deliver to the trucks which will rush it off to the processing center in Tuxtla Gutierrez to be sorted for exportation. Once 40,000 pounds are split up into 152 pound jute bags and processed into cafe de oro – export grade green beans, a truck takes off to the coast of Veracruz where the coffee is loaded on to a ship and sets off for New Jersey. Once through customs safely in the U.S., a semi brings us bags of Yachil’s coffee to our roastery where it is roasted fresh and delivered to customers around the country. A long tedious process, but well worth it once its signature flavor, notes of chocolate and a clean, smooth aftertaste, hit your tongue.

On our way out of town, we run into the President of the co-op and his wife. She stands stoically and silent to the side of her husband. Shoeless, she is dressed in a traditional Mayan huipil with a shawl to protect her from the cold and rain.chiapas Her husband fills us in on the journey, “She is still sick and the doctor isn’t sure how to cure it,” he tells us. “The rain has completely washed away the bridge on the main road leading back to San Cristobal, you will have to cross the river by foot. You should hurry, it is getting late.”

For the members of Yachil Xolobal Chulchan, it’s another day in the life of an indigenous coffee farmer. Who after 500 years of the Conquista, continue to struggle against a global economy that is threatening the very existence of its language, culture, and indigenous identity. Another day where the happenings on the floor of the New York Board of Trade influence the amount of food a farmer can bring home to their families. Where U.S. immigration policy is a conversation had huddled around the family fire between bites of tortilla and beans. And where the privatizing interests of an increasingly powerful Mexican Government threaten traditional Mayan governing systems practiced daily in the juntas and community asambleas across the region. Here, the translation of the word “fair trade” does not just mean a price paid to a certified coffee grower. It is the tedious and time-consuming construction of lasting dignified direct relationships. It is the transformation of trade relations into a partnership for a better future. Where a New Light in the Sky can someday shine down even on the rainiest of days.

Beans in the Home Roaster

November 22, 2007

I started home-roasting my own coffee a few months ago. I use a “Nesco Smokeless Roaster.” I chose this model partly because it has a catalytic converter to capture most of the smoke generated during the roasting process. It takes me 20-25 minutes to roast up enough beans for several pots of coffee. Here’s a picture below of the roaster (coffee porn?). If you have a microscope, you might notice that it says “Zach and Danis” on the side. That’s the old name for this model. I snagged the image from Seven Bridges and they apparently just have an old photo, but I actually got the Nesco from them and its the same as what is pictured here.

Nesco I also ordered a five pound sampler bag of ten different varieties of green beans. They are all certified Fair Trade and USDA organic.

Using the roaster is very simple, but I’m still learning about which kinds of beans I like best and how long each should be roasted. So I’m going to blog about each roast as a way of teaching myself more about the beans and their roasts, and in order to share a little info about the coffee growers that grew the beans.

This morning I roasted some Sumatra Takengon. According to the Seven Bridges website, these beans are shade grown on the highland slopes of the Gayo Mountains near Laut Tawar in the Takengon region of Northern Sumatra where over 200 small coffee producers involved in producing this varietal. The farmers and communities of this remote region face a number of environmental and socio-economic challenges, including soil erosion, deforestation, low and unstable incomes. The organization, production, technical assistance and higher prices for certified organic, fair trade coffee help them fetch higher prices for their harvest. The beans are “semi-washed,” and come described as being “full bodied, slightly fruity, and clean with a sweet finish. . . great as a varietal, blender and perfect for espresso.” If you’re interested in Sumatran coffee, you can also check out the beans Higher Grounds sells from the Gayo Organic Coffee Growers Association.

I roasted about 5.5 ounces in the Nesco for 23 minutes. At first whiff, they smelled very acrid so I’m afraid I might have burnt them. I’m already drinking my morning mug of “1st Grade Ethiopian Arabica” from a company called Mamo Kacha PLC so tasting the Sumatran will have to wait until tomorrow. Sorry to leave you hanging! Oh, and for the record, I would have cited the Ethiopian regional growing name and referenced its certifications but this coffee came as a gift from a friend who recently traveled there. Since she bought the beans in-country in a grocery store, they aren’t labeled in the way they would be if they were being sold in the specialty coffee market here so I don’t know much about them except that they are delicious (and free!).

Is there Fair Trade Clothing for a Conscientious Coffee Drinker?

November 22, 2007

Conscientious coffee drinkers know to seek Fair Trade, organic, shade-grown beans for their morning buzz. But as important as coffee is to the world economy and to its millions of devotees, its just one of the many things we buy. What does an enlightened fair trade coffee drinker don when its time to pull on something as simple as a t-shirt?

Fair Trade began in the 1940s when a number of religious groups like SERRV International and Ten Thousand Villages started marketing hand-crafted goods from economically impoverished artisans in less industrialized countries in the global south. Other early fair traders created direct trading relations between Northern marketers and small Southern artisans as part of a larger political movement aimed at countering corporate-lead capitalist imperialism.

Eventually, fair traders, or “alternative traders” as they were also known, realized that commodity goods like coffee could be powerful levers in rebalancing the global trade machine since agricultural goods generate the most cash income for millions of the world’s poor. Today, a sophisticated global system is in place for verifying “fair” trading relationships between peasant farmers and the northern customers who consume the goods they grow. Just look for Fair Trade Certified coffee, tea, cocoa, bananas, wine or any of a number of other commodity food goods.

But the global apparel industry has yet to catch up. Worker exploitation still runs rampant throughout the world’s many sweatshop apparel factories. So where does a conscientious coffee drinker turn when its time to buy some threads (besides the thrift store)?

A handful of “sweatfree” clothing producers have been working to perfect a fair trade model for working with garment workers. Five years ago Maggie’s Organics helped a group of women in Nicaragua build their own factory called The Fair Trade Zone. They documented the story in a brief video called Ants that Move Mountains. If the tale of how these women overcame the destruction of Hurricane Mitch and built their own factory doesn’t make you want to go out and buy their camisoles, you must be a nudist.

A new business on the block is called Counter Sourcing. Company owner Joe Falcone recently contacted me to share news about their success converting the University of Wisconsin campus to cotton tees delivered through their fair trade channels. Here’s the model they use for equitable distribution of the profits made from the t-shirt trade.

Pie chart

An essential link that remains missing in the apparel trade is certification – who is verifying the claims made by companies like Maggie’s and Counter Sourcing? Personally, I have confidence in Maggie’s Organics since I’m friends with the owner and know her commitment runs deep at a personal level. Likewise, Counter Sourcing appears to be on the level; the founder has a long list of credentials from the garment worker justice movement, and I have social links to him too through a mutual friend that introduced us. These kind of social links are important in establishing credibility. But trusting a personal friend who runs a business is different from trusting an unknown company who makes a fair trade claim in a hang-tag without having any verification to back it up. Should the average consumer trust these company claims?

So the good news is that fair trade or “sweatfree” apparel is inching its way into the marketplace. Maggie’s and Counter Sourcing are just two examples of a growing cadre of conscientious clothiers; check out Co-op America’s National Green Pages for a directory of many more.

These small companies are a great start. They are blazing the fair trade trail for others to follow. In fact, Counter Sourcing even claims to be in dialogue with TransFair USA about creating a Fair Trade certification standard for clothing. That needs to happen, whether its with TransFair or another group, in order for this small movement to move beyond being a niche and become a viable strategy for replacing the conventional trade system – one that relies on widespread worker abuse and exploitation. For an example of how this leads to success, look at the growth the organic food movement has experienced as a result of the nationalization of standards with the USDA National Organic Program – organic has been the fastest growing segment of the grocery industry ever since the standards went into effect ten years ago. Its time for that to happen with fair trade clothing.

Coffee, Kids & Health

November 21, 2007

SpavaThe Washington Post reports today that Houston-based Voyava Republic Corp. has teamed up with the La Selva coffee growers cooperative to give organic coffee fortified with folic acid to kids and women as a health supplement in Chiapas, Mexico.

According to the Post article, studies have linked coffee drinking in adults with reduced risk of Type 2 diabetes, Parkinson’s disease (for men) and Alzheimer’s. But detractors of the coffee-for-kids plan argue that mugs of black-buzz are not the right way to deliver nutritional supplements to kids.

According to officials from Voyava and La Selva, most of the kids in Chiapas already drink coffee, so using coffee is an appropriate way to improve their health, particularly in this way, which will help address the common problem of anemia. Jose Juarez, La Selva’s director, says “We don’t want to saturate them with coffee. One 150-200 milliliter cup a day is more than sufficient to give them the nutrients they need.”

Voyava already markets an extensive line of fortified coffees in the U.S. under the “Spava” brand name, including blends marketed as enhancing “Clarity, Immunity, Flexibility, Metabolism, and Calm.” According to their website, all the coffees are USDA Organic and Fair Trade Certified.

Starbucks Goes rBST Free

November 6, 2007

frankenbucksAccording to a Sept. 4th Reuters story, Starbucks pledged to rid their 5,600 stores of milk containing Monsanto’s recombinant bovine somatotropin (rBST), i.e. the bovine growth hormones used to stimulate hyper-production of milk in dairy cows.

The drug has been a target of consumer advocates like the Organic Consumers Association (OCA) for years. OCA has also called on Starbucks to make more of their coffee and chocolate Fair Trade certified.