In Season Coffee 215/12/2008
I thought that I would cut and paste this from Intelli’s web site, just in case you had not seen what Mr Geoff Watts has to say about in season coffee.
by Geoff Watts
Hello from Intelligentsia. I hope that you had a wonderful Thanksgiving and may I be one of the first to wish you happy holidays and/or season’s greetings. That second one seems to fit nicely, as I am going to discuss seasonality and how it relates to coffee.
Seasonality is a subject rarely mentioned in the coffee trade. It is virtually invisible to most consumers, yet it is so intrinsic to quality that leaving it out of the conversation is like planning a parade and forgetting to look at the weather forecast. Coffee drinkers have recently become familiar with the idea of freshness as it applies to roasted coffee, and those who take it to heart have benefited tremendously. It is not difficult to appreciate the difference in aromatic quality, vibrancy of flavor and sweetness that come as a result of brewing coffee that was roasted within days or weeks instead of months or years. There really just isn’t any comparison—a freshly roasted coffee shines in the cup and fills the room with beautiful fragrances, while the staled coffee tastes flat and yields, at best, a vaguely bitter, starchy kind of odor. Imagine a rose in bloom next to a fallen, wilted flower which is already well into decomposition. While they are the same in many ways, their differences are so compelling as to overwhelm whatever intrinsic traits they share. It is a matter of beauty and aesthetics—one seduces and intoxicates the senses while the other barely merits notice.
When we talk about seasonality with green coffee (raw, unroasted coffees), the principles of freshness are the same as with any agricultural product—there is always a period of peak vibrancy, when sweetness and flavor are at their maximum on the pleasure scale. Michigan blueberries are always best in July, August and September. A fresh ripe tomato plucked from the backyard garden will always defeat the one culled from the vine two months ago and trucked in from another part of the country. You see what I’m getting at here—natural things tend to have a period when they are in their prime, after which they start to lose qualities. Most agricultural products do not benefit from extended aging.
Coffee is no different. There is a period shortly after harvest when the beans are at their very best and bursting with life. As the calendar advances and months go by the coffee loses vitality as the inevitable effects of aging set in. Organic materials inside the beans (the carriers of flavor) volatize and disappear. The gorgeous fruit notes and aromas fade away slowly until at some point all that is left to taste is cellulose and roasting related smokiness. We call these coffees past-crop. They are faded, they taste woody and lifeless, and they offer only caffeine and little pleasure. They are no longer worth much and certainly have lost the right to be celebrated as Specialty. The average lifespan of a green coffee can vary depending on how ripe the coffee was at the point of picking, how well it was dried, and how it has been stored. In the worst cases, a coffee can start to lose luster after only a few months. In the best instances, it can hold up for ten months. In any case, the life expectancy is much closer to fresh baked bread than it is to a Twinkie.
Yet with all this searching for great coffees and experimenting with the best ways to roast and brew them, it is easy to forget about the fact that the green coffees themselves are actually losing quality with every passing month. Let me repeat: Coffee does not get better with age. There is a short period of resting immediately after harvest (and before processing/export) that can be of benefit to stabilize the moisture within the beans, but beyond that point, there is nowhere to go but down. This is a source of enormous frustration for the Roaster, who invariably struggles against time to try to sell coffees before they lose their vigor and fall over the edge of the cliff. Every single Roaster has and will continue to deal with this, and anyone who has spent time cupping at origin will lament that coffees that have such a lovely intensity and complexity of flavor, that possess endless nuance, just doesn’t usually endure beyond a couple of months and rarely survive the oceanic journey to the US.
Nearly every coffee you drink is a minimum three months “off the tree,” but most are far older than that. A typical growing season will last several months, and shipping will continue for several months after the harvest finishes. It is not unusual for a coffee that was picked in January to show up in the US in June or July and make it to a grocer’s shelf in August to begin its sale cycle. In countries that are especially remote or landlocked (Rwanda or Bolivia, for example), things can take even longer. I remember our first Rwanda purchase in 2003 and I shudder recalling the frustrations we dealt with. I was there in June just as the harvest was winding down and bought some coffees that reminded me of fruit nectar, with a juicy black cherry flavor and apricot flavor along with a cane sugar sweetness that wouldn’t quit. It was exciting. We bought the coffee and waited with giddy anticipation. Two months went by. Then four months. More waiting. In May of 2004 the coffee showed up, just as the new harvest was getting underway back in Rwanda. By then the coffee was a shadow of what it had once been, and we couldn’t even bring ourselves to launch it. There was nothing to celebrate. To understand the entire process, take a look at the image created by Jason Lips, one of Intelligentsia’s multi-talented Roasters.
That Rwanda was an extreme example, but it is indicative of one of the biggest challenges facing our industry today. It is hard to get coffees out of producing countries and into our Chemex pots and Clover brewers while they are still possessive of their most outstanding characteristics and virtue. And it is hard to maintain a constantly replenishing inventory that follows the harvests and never allows a coffee to get old. There are some clever new protocols being applied today that will have benefits. Vacuum packaging, the use of innovative materials that help protect coffees from oxidation and humidity change, and even some deep freezing techniques will significantly extend the useful life of a coffee if done well. Still, it is an uphill climb.
With Intelligentsia In-Season we are trying to achieve something that is simple in theory but that will have a profound effect on how coffee is considered and how it is sold. The premise is an easy one to grasp: Nearly every coffee producing country has one main harvest period annually* that lasts between 3-4 months on average. Since we want to sell only coffees that are in their true prime and at their very best in the cup, we will offer coffees when they are in their peak season as determined by harvest patterns. When you see the In-Season sticker on a coffee bag, it means that coffee is still fewer than 10 months removed from the termination of harvest and can be considered very fresh.
[**Some countries like Kenya and Colombia have small crops that fall outside of the traditional harvest season. There are also one or two countries with so much rain that the coffee plants flower perpetually and the coffee kind of leaks off the tree all year long. Even in those cases, however, there remains one key harvest during which the best quality is usually found.]
Fortunately, given the way coffee trees have populated the world over the last century, there is always a harvest happening somewhere on the planet during any given month of the year. In general, Northern Hemisphere coffee countries harvest between November and March each year and those in the Southern tend to harvest sometime during May-September. Depending on rainfall patterns, elevation, specific climate conditions and latitude the actual harvest periods can fluctuate slightly, but they are pretty reliable. For example, Costa Rica harvests its best coffees in December, January, and February each year. The Peruvian harvest usually kicks in during June and July. Northern Tanzania really gets going in August and September. Factor in the time it takes to process and ship a coffee to the US (between 6-8 weeks typically) and you can predict when a coffee should become available again by looking at the harvest dates.
So by purchasing coffees from all over the world in both hemispheres, we are able to follow natural harvest patterns and always keep a stock of coffees that are fresh and at their best. By combining this strategy with new shipment and storage materials, we will always have coffee that is vibrant and full of life, as it was meant to be. You can check our calendar and see when the harvests happen to get an idea of what to expect. Or just look for the In-Season sticker on the bags to let you know that what you are drinking is the right coffee for the time of year. It may take a while to get used to the thinking about coffee this way, but eventually it should become second nature. Best to avoid Costa Rican coffee in January, drink something from Colombia or Peru or Rwanda instead. But lay off that Rwandan coffee in May, since it’s time for the new Central American coffees and the Yirgacheffes and Kenyas. That’s the idea—we understand that coffee is seasonal just like most things, and we want to respect the natural cycles by showcasing individual coffees during the time of year when they are at their best. It does mean that we’ll be keeping inventories smaller and will not be offering any single origin coffees year-round, but that is as it should be. There will always be a great and dynamic lineup of fresh coffees available, and offerings will be grouped into seasons based on their harvest periods.