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Nearly a month ago, Tom Philpott, over at Grist, did a tasting of several different coffees, and North Carolina-based Counter Culture coffee came out on top. These guys import coffee from the “finest, most-well-run coffee farms in the world,” roast it here, and make it their mission to educate people about coffee.

Here in NYC a former Slow Food staffer (Cerise Mayo) and a former Slow Food intern (Rachel Graville) headed out to Franny’s restaurant on a recent rainy morning to one of their weekly “cuppings” (coffee speak for tastings) of Counter Culture coffee. Below, they share their experiences.


Counter Culture’s Director of Coffee and Co-Owner, Peter Guiliano was on hand to lead the cupping and to provide some history on the coffees cupped and Counter Culture itself.

The four coffees to be cupped were La Golindrina from Columbia, Kuta from Papau New Guinea, Linong from Sumatra, and Urgacheffe from Ethiopia. They were ground and placed in small glasses. We were walked through the process of smelling the coffee dry (aroma), smelling it once hot water had been poured over (fragrance), smelling while moving the grinds with a spoon (breaking), and (finally!) tasting. After all the tasting was done, the group reconvened to discuss the results. This was a blind tasting so the names were revealed only after the coffees were tasted and notes taken.

The Columbian coffee presented aromas of brown sugar, chocolate, and black pepper. On the palate it was bright and light with bitter chocolate and floral notes with a clean finish. The Kuta coffee smelled of red apple, which shifted more towards a savory broth with hints of overripe pear on the tongue. The Sumatran was a heavier sensation, smelling earthy, like pipe smoke and black sesame. Someone picked up clove the fragrance and Peter said that’s because cloves grow in around the coffee beans on the farm where this coffee originates.

Finally, the last coffee, the Urgacheffe from Ethiopia, was the most controversial. When asked for a show of hands of who loved the coffee and who hated it, the group was split almost in half. Peter said this is indicative of his experiences tasting this coffee in the past. Some people smelled tart yogurt, others gym socks.

And from Cerise:

Following a short break for grub, Peter gave a slideshow of his 2007 travels, having spent half the year scouting and solidifying partnerships with his growers. What quickly became apparent is how the relationships that they have built over not that many years have revolutionized the coffee market—from bean to cup. Counter Culture, along with just a handful of other direct roasters, have literally transformed the landscape, as well as the business model, for how coffee is grown, processed and produced. In any part of the world, smallish sized coffee farms are usually no larger than 10 hectares, which necessitates a town or regional coffee cooperative in order to process the beans. Due to the scale and remoteness of their operations, fermentation and drying varies wildly, depending on who taught the farmer, be it a skill passed down for generations, or a random representative from a large company/government body that is not necessarily prioritizing nuance and unique flavor.

Peter said that there are many examples of growers who cannot tell him the reasoning behind why they ferment their beans for the length of time that they do, just that someone at some point came and told then that that set length of time is beneficial. They are now learning to cultivate and process differently–whether in the highlands of Papua New Guinea, the Southwestern region of Colombia or the island of Sumatra. Luckily, with roasters like Counter Culture, growers are not only being paid a fair price for their product (they sell their beans for top dollar at auctions), they are now constantly in dialogue with their market, enabling them to sell the highest quality coffee while sustaining their unique corner of the world.