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How Counter Culture runs quality control – with Katie Carguilo

Posted by Michael McKay on Sep 1, 2016 9:30:00 AM

This week we spoke to a Quality Analyst at one of the most respected specialty coffee companies in the United States – Counter Culture. Basically, she makes sure Counter Culture’s coffee is up to snuff through regular cupping sessions and visits to coffee farms in Columbia, Uganda and other countries. 

Not only does this particular coffee professional run CC's West Coast coffee quality laboratory – she's also a former US Barista Champion. We’re talking about Katie Carguilo


How did you get into coffee?

I started as a barista. It was a part-time job in college, and I just ended up falling really in love with the coffee community. I started liking the people and the beverage itself. When I finished my studies, I continued working in a café in Washington DC called Murky Coffee. Then I took a job with Counter Culture Coffee in New York City, whom I work for now.

I was doing customer support, which basically involves a lot of barista training and helping people order coffee, track down packages, fix equipment, all that kind of stuff. It was during the seven years I was doing that in New York that I competed in barista competitions a few times. And then in 2012, I won the United States Barista Competition.

Last year I moved to California. I’m still with Counter Culture; we opened up a roasting facility just outside of San Francisco. So now I do quality control on roasted coffee, traveling to our producing partners and that kind of stuff.

Now you live in Oakland, right? What would you say is the biggest difference between the coffee culture in Oakland and New York?

In New York there are a ton of cafes and there are also more roasteries opening up. But when I got there eight years ago, there weren’t that many coffee roasting companies based in New York City, and most of them were really old. They got their start a hundred years ago and they weren’t really as third-wavey quality focussed. So the scene in New York has tended more towards the retail business side.

With Oakland being a port town, it has a ton of coffee importing companies and also a pretty robust roastery scene. I think what's more prominent in San Francisco is having a café that roast its own coffee. In New York, as a café you get your coffee from another vendor.

So what does a typical day of quality control at Counter Culture look like for you?

The roasters do a lot of cupping of their roast in general. They put up different tables every day and once they roast the coffee they read it through what’s called a color track, so they cup anything that may have cupped slightly outside of the spec.

If I’m in the country, I’ll join in on those cuppings and once a week we’ll take a random sample from all the coffees that we roasted on the East Coast and all the coffees we roasted on the West Coast. And we’ll do a big flight together to make sure we don’t need to reapproach the way we roast certain coffees or change the recipe.

"I think the thing that was most astonishing to me when I started traveling for coffee was that there are certain environmental factors you need for quality coffee."

That’s kind of the week-to-week of QC for the roasted product, and then the other part of the job is to approve pre-ships and arrivals of coffees, and also looking for new coffees for Counter Culture to serve. Because we’re growing every year and we’re always looking to grow with different partners that would fit with the Counter Culture model.

A lot of people randomly send us samples. Sometime I solicit samples from different importers, but we do both a physical and sensory analysis of coffee. The physical analysis involves tasting the moisture and examining the coffee for even drying and any defects and then roasting and cupping the coffee and giving the coffee a score and sending feedback to whoever sent us the coffee.

You were telling us about some coffee-themed journeys earlier. What’s the last one you went to and what did you do on that trip?

Last year I went to Columbia, Uganda and also Honduras and El Salvador. In some places like Honduras and El Salvador I was visiting producing partners that are like a decade old for Counter Culture. We’ve been buying coffee from one of these guys in Honduras for thirteen years. Those trips are more me checking in on them and touching base on the relationship and where we’re going in the future. And during that time, it was also at the end of harvest, so we had already contracted most of our coffee. It was just approving the pre-shipment so the coffees can get out of the country without having to send samples to the US.

In Uganda it was a little different; the relationships are pretty new there. So there I was doing more actual instruction on what we look for when we buy coffees, because the worst thing that can happen is that we’re not clear about our expectations and they send us a coffee that falls short. Because there’s no way to go back in time once the coffee is finished.

What was the first trip you went on, and what did you take away from it?

The first time I traveled was in 2012 when I went to El Salvador. That whole trip was about learning the fermentation process that coffee goes through. I later went on some other coffee trips in Ethiopia, Kenya and Columbia, and I think the thing that was most astonishing to me when I started traveling for coffee was that there are certain environmental factors you need for quality coffee.

You need it to be a certain elevation, and you definitely need to be growing certain varieties. There are all these things that farmers have control over that really affect whether or not a coffee is specialty or commodity, or whether a coffee is good or excellent. There are all these systems in countries of how people build fermentation tanks and what type of drying they use.

And all that gets done in the dry mill, that’s actually a critical part in making specialty coffee. All coffee have defects. The dry mill exists to make the product uniform. When I get it – I might not have realized this as a barista – but there are certain things like the uniformity of the size of the beans makes a big difference in what we experience in the cup. A lot of that happens at the dry mill and on the farm level, and that requires a lot of logistics and farmer training. I hadn’t really thought about it that way; of all the steps that go into making it excellent.


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