Seasonal Coffee

Not too long ago, while visiting a number of coffee bars in a particular city, I began to notice a peculiar phenomena. It is fashionable these days if you are a third-wave coffee bar to offer a few different coffees from a select number of roasters, usually whoever happens to be the new hip thing. The rationale behind this selection is the latest buzzword in coffee: seasonality.

What was peculiar was that I began to notice it was the same few coffees coming from three roasters. At one shop it would be Roaster A with Coffee X, Roaster B with Coffee Y, and Roaster C with Coffee Z; but at another, Roaster C would have Coffee X, and Roaster A would have Coffee Y, while Roaster C would have Coffee Z. This pattern would switch around randomly from shop to shop. Each bar, of course, when asked why they had a particular coffee from said roasters would share the gospel of seasonal coffee.

The concept of seasonal foods and seasonal eating has been gaining traction in recent years with the popularity of farmers markets, slow food, and farm to table eating. It is a response to the increasing commodification of food and the adverse effects of diets that are largely made up of processed foodstuffs. Adherents to this philosophy point to the increased flavor and nutrients of eating foods that are in their harvest season, along with the health benefits of a variable diet that reflects the changing seasons. It stands to reason that one should not expect the exact same foods year round, but with globalization that is exactly what we see in grocery store aisles. Almost anyone can taste the difference from a tomato sourced locally from a farmers market or backyard garden to one from the supermarket.

It seems only inevitable that this concept would be appropriated by the coffee industry. Here's how one prominent roaster explains:

      We've dedicated ourselves to transforming our experience of coffee from a generic commodity to a really special beverage, and treat it more like fresh produce than some faceless staple. . . This understanding of coffee as produce has wonderful implications: it lets us think of coffee as a fresh, artisan-crafted food, with all the delicious experience that brings. However, many in the coffee industry are unaware that, like all produce, coffee is a distinctly seasonal crop.

There is some truth behind the seasonality of coffee but the error here is the simple fact that coffee is not produce, it is the seed of a cherry. It is, in fact, one of the few products in the world in which the fruit is discarded and the seed is saved (although recently I was introduced to a beverage product derived from the fruit that touts its antioxidant characteristics). Moreover, it is an equatorial crop. The harvest season occurs over a number of months, requiring repeated pickings as fruit ripens. The harvest times themselves vary according to each country's relation to the equator. Some countries situated directly on the equator experience more than one harvest season, essentially delivering fruit year round. After picking the cherry and removing the fruit, the beans are often stored in the protective parchment until final milling. This resting period, or reposa, is important for mild flavor. Producers are not racing against the clock to get the coffee out before it goes bad. Rather, they are challenged to give the coffee enough time to bring out its best characteristics.

Experienced roasters have long known that there are ideal times within the harvest season to source coffee, but once the beans are milled, bagged, and stored appropriately, that coffee is good for a long period, long enough to cover to the next crop.

I can forgive a new roaster for falling for this fallacy, but when a market leader, who should know better, participates in these shenanigans it bodes ill for the Specialty Coffee Trade as a whole. This knowing deception seems more an attempt to create an artificial sense of scarcity rather than truly educating consumers. But I believe that this sophism has other adverse consequences beyond simply duping customers - it inhibits the opportunity for long-term relationships between farmers and would-be consumers. Most, if not all, of our best selling coffees come from producers we have been sourcing from for more than a decade. In many ways, we have grown together through our long-term relationship. It is through these relationships that we have been able to create some really special coffees. The simplest benefit comes from selecting our lots at the peak of the harvest. Producers are more likely to do something special for a roaster that comes back year after year and they often develop a good sense of what we are looking for in a coffee. So when the best cherries are arriving at the mill they can be set aside for specific customers. Its simply something one does for a relationship that is built on trust and respect.

This trust and respect extends to our customers who have come to rely on us for their favorite coffees. Sure, there are those who like to explore different varieties, and we occasionally will bring on a coffee on a limited basis to see if it builds a following, but to spin this as seasonal smacks as fallacious in my opinion. Co-opting buzzwords from other industries is no way to build respect in our own industry. Someone once said that the Specialty Coffee Industry has a self-esteem problem, that we are constantly trying to borrow from other, seemingly more respected industry segments, like taste-terms from wine. Likewise, promoting seasonal availability in coffee is a me-too gambit.

Later in that same trip I had the opportunity to visit a local green coffee warehouse. While looking over all the pallets of coffee I couldn't help but notice those same few coffees that I had seen around town. Our guide to the warehouse explained that in addition to storing coffee for other roasters they were also bringing in a few coffees to sell to a handful of small roasters in town. That way these roasters could simply come by and buy a few bags at a time as needed.

Then it dawned on me: Seasonal is whatever happens to be in this warehouse.


StudiusMaximus said...

Well said Mark!

Lisa McIntyre said...
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Lisa McIntyre said...

Thanks for sharing your expertise, Mark!

Zane Hovell said...

Very well said. Whatever is present that can be brewed inside the coffee machines will be the "coffee of the day", so to speak.

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Emo said...

This is interesting. As a new roaster, I have been buying into the concept of seasonality. Im not sure I am convinced yet, although I'd like to believe you. Can you always expect consistency of quality from a particular farm or paricular area year after year, despite the concern of weather or changes in farming practices? Does the fact that it is a seed make it impossible for seasonal or farming practices to significantly play a role? Are you saying there are changes, but the changes are 9 times out of 10 used as a cop-out and you really cant taste the difference in the cup? Thanks!

Mark Overly said...

Emo: There can be changes year to year, sometimes in a cycle of 5 years or so, in particular farms depending on the managing practices. Climate variables also play a role, sometimes disastrously. In these cases it is up to the buyer whether to accept this crop. Yearly variations are slight and it is really about your commitment to a source that dictates buying decisions. Sometimes, though, if the quality is not there and you have to reject the coffee it requires patient explaining to customers why you chose not to bring a coffee in that they have formed a relationship with. In my experience, this happens rarely, but the climate is changing and we have had to make that decision. In such cases, it is better to reject a coffee than sacrifice quality.

Where I differ with many is the idea that a coffee only has a season to the customer. It is not difficult to forecast out your needs for a year and contract enough to the next crop. I was reminded of this just the other day as I was cupping a production roast of a Yirgacheffe and an arrival sample for new crop. That production sample was outstanding - a great delivery (the arrival sample was approved as well!).