Seasonality of Coffee?

growing, harvesting, processing, cupping, purchasing

Seasonality of Coffee?

Postby Christopher Schooley on Wed May 09, 2007 2:17 pm

This is a little thing I printed up for our staff after an article ran in the Chicago Reader regarding "Seasonal Coffee". Many of these are points I made to the articles writer but that never found their way into the article. I feel that using this term is slightly misleading. I believe in promoting freshness, but can I no longer really push my kick ass Brazil now that it's Guat season? This isn't meant as an attack on anyone using the term, but rather a request to stop and ponder about the ramifications of the terms usage. Enter the ranting.

It should be common knowledge to all those in the Specialty Coffee profession that the fresher a coffee is, the better. By fresher we mean coffee that was just brewed or prepared, coffee that was roasted not more than 10-14 days ago at most, and extremely generally speaking, coffee that was harvested not more than 9-12 months ago.

The harvesting part of this equation is the most slippery. My personal and professional belief is that the word 'Seasonal� is misleading when pertaining to coffee. When a reputable dining establishment uses the term, they are in general referring to locally grown produce. There are no specialty coffee producing farms in the continental US. Also regarding the 'Seasonal� issue is that this locally grown produce has also been freshly harvested within a very short time of its use in a restaurant. The fact of the matter is that most coffee doesn't arrive for use by roasters in the US until around 3 months after it was harvested, and it's not the fresh cherries of the coffee that we receive but the heavily processed seeds within those cherries which after fermentation and the removal of fruit by wet or dry means were rested in parchment for 30 to 60 days.

Another problem with labeling a coffee as 'In Season� is that most quality coffee maintains its primary distinctive characteristics (Aroma, Body, Flavor, Acidity, etc.) for at least 6 months, much longer than any 'season� outside of major league baseball, and many can still be very flavorful cups of coffee a year after they have been harvested. This doesn't even touch on the fact that many coffee growing regions have swing crops, or second harvests, each year. What remains true is that most wet processed Central American coffee is more exciting in the cup in the late spring and through the summer, but you are more than likely to find a wonderful cup of Costa Rica on Christmas morning. Do you see what a slippery slope this is, and how brazenly reductive?

Left out of the whole scenario up to this point is the roaster's ability to bring out the best characteristics in a coffee. Come December or January the afore mentioned Costa Rica may have lost a little of its cherry-like acidity, but with the right roast its milk chocolate finish can still bring a smile of satisfaction to one's lips. Any roaster worth their weight in green should be able to maintain the sweetness in an excellent coffee as long as the papery and woody flavors of age have not set in. All of this being said, green coffee most certainly ages and most of it in 9-12 months and it IS important for a roaster to know when their coffee was harvested and to keep track of it's quality over time.
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Postby Sean Starke on Thu May 10, 2007 4:34 am

It can be misleading in the sense that the season is a bit more drawn out than, say a certain type of melon (or Wabbits!) but there certainly is a difference in the cup qualities from any given origin as one moves along in the harvest cycle, so it's not unreasonable to highlight say Guats from April to July, Perus from July to Nov, etc.
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Postby geoff watts on Thu May 10, 2007 6:07 am

I would agree that there is a need to define what seasonality is when applied to coffee, as it is most certainly a different sort than the seasonality of fresh blueberries or tomatoes. I also would concur with Chris that any educational efforts aimed at cultivating a more intelligent and well informed coffee consumer should be done in a considered way that leaves minimal room for misinterpretation..

That said, I do believe that seasonality in coffee is a very important concept that has been historically ignored in an industry that has always been heavily blend-dependent and only recently begun to try to shift emphasis towards single origin and specific farms. I'm convinced that this is the way forward--for the consumer, for the roaster/retailer, and most definitely for the farmer. Differentiation is the escape hatch from the unreliable futures/commodity market, and getting as specific about quality and origin as we can is one of our most powerful tools in the pursuit of a differentiated marketplace.

Anyone who cups at origin frequently has had the experience of fresh-off-the-patio coffees and come to learn how very different they can be. Invariably, there is change that occurs in coffee as it moves from origin to consuming country. As we increase in sophistication with packaging and shipment logistics we can begin to lessen these impacts (ie, plain jute as the standard material for packaging and storage of high value green coffees is at best unpreferred and may just be totally inappropriate). But for now this is the standard...99.9% of all 'specialty' coffee is shipped in jute via ocean freight or long overland hauls). When green coffee is exposed to changes in temperature, moisture, and oxygen it begins to change chemically. This process happens more slowly or more quickly depending on a whole host of factors, but just like we are all creeping at some pace towards an inevitable return to the earth every single coffee is, from the moment of harvest, on a journey of degradation and loss of quality.

There are many opinions about what the shelf life of a green coffee actually is...some would say it is one year from harvest, others 6 months, and of course there even those who enjoy three year old coffees that have been aged on purpose. Surely it depends on the coffee--how dense it is, how uniformly it was dried, how carefully it was milled and stored--and what one is looking for in it. Coffees that earn their keep based primarily on body, sweetness, and bass-like notes can perhaps still deliver those traits fairly well 9-12 months off the tree. But coffees that campaign on a platform of delicate floral or fruit notes and seductive aromatics usually have a much more limited time frame within which to impress. Those are the first things to go when Chronos comes knocking, and are sitting on the beach getting a suntan long before any hint of woodiness or paper shows up.

Another thing to consider is the original quality level of the coffee. Like Jimmy says, the harder they come they harder they fall. A coffee that earns a 94 in May might be closer to 87 by December, whereas one that starts at 82 might only slide to 79 in the same time frame. It's like the supermodel/beauty queen syndrome--most of these models/actresses are in their teens and twenties. Forty is geriatric by those industry standards, whereas your average person can still be considered quite attractive and vital at that age.

In general, I do think it makes sense to point to season in coffee...I don't usually reach for a Costa or Nic in March/April--I would much prefer something from the Southern Hemisphere that was more recently harvested and has more vitality. That's not to say we need to pull the plug on all of our Guats once the calendar flips...they can still be tasty and delicious. But they are not what they once were, and I think it is important to acknowledge that. Every coffee has a specific harvest date, and by referring to that we can give consumers an idea about what coffees are the most 'fresh' during any particular part of the year.

my 3 cents

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Postby Christopher Schooley on Thu May 10, 2007 7:04 am

A very very deep and very long... thanks to Geoff for the his colorful insight. Word up on all of that. I do believe that the emphasis should be put on highlighting each coffee in it's prime. Anyone who has judged in a competition at origin and then tasted those same coffees on their home tables know how much happens in the cup over time sometimes before their overseas journey in the roughest of jute. The point being that this prime is different for different coffees. It's all a question of language. I feel that using the word Seasonal is reductive because it leaves out so many factors as to why a particular coffee is wonderful. It also does not account for the skill of the green buyer and roaster as far as what coffees they purchase, how much of said coffee they purchase, and how they decide to roast/represent them. I just feel like seasonal is too much of a blanket term to use when we are trying to get the consumer to CELEBRATE the wonder of each coffee in its own unique way. I am always highly suspect of language which lumps together the many and the few. This is exactly why I posted this here, because I wanted the input from some of the best minds in the industry as to what the proper terminology should be.
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Postby SL28ave on Thu May 10, 2007 8:26 am

I love the taste of relatively fresh-harvested coffee. The movement is naturally going in this direction. Seasonality is true currently in most progressive cases and is only reductive in some other cases that are either progressive or fairly stagnant, examples being freezing raw coffee or loving leather in a Sumatra.
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Postby Christopher Schooley on Thu May 10, 2007 8:50 am

See, that's just the problem Peter. What do you mean by "freshly harvested" coffee? Are you saying you prefer coffee that has not been rested in order to drop to the proper moisture levels needed for over the water shipment? Or even more literally, do you roast pre-fermented coffee? Language is important! By telling the consumer that this coffee is freshly harvested we are belittling how important processing and handling are to the finished product. I love super fresh coffee, and I consider myself to be fairly progressive considering how much Prog-Rock I have on my record shelves. Let us not create misleading vocab in the name of progress.
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Postby SL28ave on Thu May 10, 2007 8:53 am

Christopher Schooley wrote:See, that's just the problem Peter. What do you mean by "freshly harvested" coffee? Are you saying you prefer coffee that has not been rested in order to drop to the proper moisture levels needed for over the water shipment? Or even more literally, do you roast pre-fermented coffee? Language is important!


Sorry, I edited what I wrote from "freshly harvested" to "relatively fresh-harvested" just before you posted... will write more a bit later.
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Postby Sean Starke on Thu May 10, 2007 8:56 am

geoff I agree with the spirit of what you say but I must quibble and say that you've got your calendar somewhat askew. March/April is when the centrals are at their peak, as the harvest generally runs from Nov to (with the Strictlies really not starting before Jan) March, while the Perus and Brazils in the southern hemisphere are harvested starting in May and running 'til July/early August.

This is why most large roasters shift from the centrals to the perus july forward, and especially oct forward, as the centrals just flatten out near the end, cup-wise.
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Postby Peter G on Thu May 10, 2007 9:17 am

Sean, I believe Geoff was talking about landed coffee. In March, most great centrals are still at origin and that which is in warehouse is getting tired.

If you harvest in Jan, reposo runs until march, you mill in march, coffee lands in April/May.

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Postby geoff watts on Thu May 10, 2007 9:31 am

Hi Sean,

Well, I understand your reasoning but still stand by my Calendar. Once again it depends on the type of coffee one is talking about, so perhaps I should have qualified my reference to harvest times--I'm speaking only about very high caliber, high altitude coffees in Central America. Most of the coffee I purchase in Guatemala, El Sal, CR, Hondo, Nica, etc is plucked off the tree in January and February. Some of the farms are still harvesting into March...

Follow the standard timetable and you've got a minimum of a months time to roast and cup all of the individual lots, peel and sort the coffee, get it on a boat. Assuming all of these processes are smooth and efficient, the coffee hits the water April 15 and is offloaded into a warehouse by the end of the month. By the time we get it into our own warehouse, experiment and fine-tune the roast profile, then unleash the coffee on the public we are well into May. This is in the event that we don't keep the coffee warehoused in parchment at origin to homogenize the moisture/stabilze the coffee. That might add an additional month.

There are of course some new crop Costas and such that are in the US and available for sale in March--and some can be quite good--so I see where you are coming from. I hereby modify my statement so that it is specific to the highest altitude coffees from a given country, which are usually being picked two or three months after the initiation of the harvest.

In this scenario the time at which a consumer could look to purchase a 1900 meter Salvador in the US would really be starting in May. Perhaps you could say that this coffee is in its prime from May-September, still good through Nov/Dec, and ready to start thinking about retirement by the end of the year. Then the Bolivias, Perus, Colombias (Cauca area) that are all harvested May-August can step in around October and take over, staying in prime condition all the way up until the following April/May when the Centrals start coming back.

In any case, I still would argue that March is too early for the best Centrals--if we are talking to consumers of specialty coffee (who are the most important audience) we should speak in terms most relevant to them. A coffee harvested in Feb is generally not available for purchase as a roasted coffee in the US until late April at the very, very earliest.

But I thank you for bringing this up--another example of why we need to be very specific and use lots of detail when we make statements. We sometimes live in our own worlds a bit, and although I don't purchase Central American coffees that were harvested in November I can recognize that many people do and that must be considered when speaking about seasonality.

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Postby Christopher Schooley on Thu May 10, 2007 9:58 am

Bingo-Bango-Bongo kids. For the record I also prefer coffee that is closest to it's arrival and the best coffees that I've ever had were new crop coffees at origin. And no offense here, but I don't think "relatively" clarifies anything.
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Postby Sean Starke on Thu May 10, 2007 10:01 am

Fair enough, and I stand corrected as well, as my frame of reference tends more towards the commercial end of the scale. :)
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Postby trish on Thu May 10, 2007 10:02 am

geoff watts wrote: It's like the supermodel/beauty queen syndrome--most of these models/actresses are in their teens and twenties. Forty is geriatric by those industry standards, whereas your average person can still be considered quite attractive and vital at that age.


my advice to those girls: wear your sports bra as much as possible- you'll thank me later.

GW, what kind of sports bra can be as effective for coffee? Like the shrink wrap or freezing options? I know you have done a little work in this area. Is it really worth it?
My experience is that some folks just want their favorites...even if I tell them it has faded a bit...best to try something vibrant and in-season...no dice. It can be the best time to enter the discussion about how coffee grows. Consumers who are new to quality coffee can be blown away when you tell them about seasons and harvest and all.
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Postby SL28ave on Thu May 10, 2007 10:04 am

Christopher Schooley wrote:And no offense here, but I don't think "relatively" clarifies anything.


It does to some tiny extent, but the point of my post was merely to point out that I simply made an edit unbeknownst to you. The attempted clarifications will come later.
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Postby Steve on Thu May 10, 2007 10:36 am

trish wrote:My experience is that some folks just want their favorites...even if I tell them it has faded a bit...best to try something vibrant and in-season...no dice. It can be the best time to enter the discussion about how coffee grows. Consumers who are new to quality coffee can be blown away when you tell them about seasons and harvest and all.


For me the ageing of coffee over its life (I think its 12 months in general, but I'm a simple kind of guy that likes things to be round) adds a dimension of personality. The development of the coffee and its personality means it's complex and organic and exactly the way it should be. Every time I cup that favourite Brazil its slightly different its no longer the puppy dog bouncing up and down my leg but its become a little more refined and has grown up. Then I cup it later and its an affectionate old favourite that's pleased to see me (sorry if this is getting a little strange).

I guess this is what scares me about freezing coffee, over sorting defect free etc. Take too much away and it becomes corporate polished and no personality not the kind of person I want to hang around. It's a dog that's been over trained for crufts that's got pig tails and if called fu fu trixabel.

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Postby deCadmus on Thu May 10, 2007 10:57 am

Steve wrote:
trish wrote:My experience is that some folks just want their favorites...even if I tell them it has faded a bit...best to try something vibrant and in-season...no dice. It can be the best time to enter the discussion about how coffee grows. Consumers who are new to quality coffee can be blown away when you tell them about seasons and harvest and all.


For me the ageing of coffee over its life (I think its 12 months in general, but I'm a simple kind of guy that likes things to be round) adds a dimension of personality. The development of the coffee and its personality means it's complex and organic and exactly the way it should be. Every time I cup that favourite Brazil its slightly different its no longer the puppy dog bouncing up and down my leg but its become a little more refined and has grown up. Then I cup it later and its an affectionate old favourite that's pleased to see me (sorry if this is getting a little strange).


A little strange, maybe, but also a little natural and organic, too. ;)

And I'm with you. I like the new and sometimes intriguing dimensions and nuances that a given bean takes on over time, provided, of course, that I can thoroughly enjoy that coffee from it's puppy weeks on. I'm less than happy when I'm expecting a pup but end up with an old dog that's not gonna learn any new tricks. Which seems to be happening more and more: you pay dearly at an auction to get the pick of the litter, and by the time it's landed, it's long in tooth.

Is it just me, or is it getting increasingly difficult to land coffees in a timely fashion across the board? Are we seeing an impact of "Homeland Security" and/or more strident Customs efforts? Does it suggest that we can be expecting to need to do more expensive wraps / packaging on the origin side? Expedited shipping? Still more?
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Postby Steve on Thu May 10, 2007 11:18 am

deCadmus wrote:[I'm less than happy when I'm expecting a pup but end up with an old dog that's not gonna learn any new tricks. Which seems to be happening more and more: you pay dearly at an auction to get the pick of the litter, and by the time it's landed, it's long in tooth.


Great point that I missed and I also agree, bit worried this dog thing catching :)
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Postby Sean Starke on Thu May 10, 2007 3:49 pm

I don't think Homeland security has any impact on delayed landing times. Rather there's been so much consolidation in the shipping industry that there are fewer vessels plying each trade lane. You'll often find that supposedly independent SS Co.s will book space on eachother's vessels instead of having their own ships. In other words, for example on a shipment from Brazil you may book the freight with say Hamburg/Sud and indeed get a B/L from them, but the vessel will in fact be a CSAV ship. We've gone from several sailings per week to maybe one, and coffee is a lower-rated freight than some other cargos so our containers get bumped from the ship. It gets very frustrating at times, I can assure you.
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Re: Seasonality of Coffee?

Postby malachi on Thu May 10, 2007 4:18 pm

Christopher Schooley wrote:When a reputable dining establishment uses the term, they are in general referring to locally grown produce.


I'm an ex chef.
That is not the definition of "seasonal" used in any restaurant I've worked in (or had any knowledge of).
Seasonal is used to simply state that you are serving food that is "in season". With the ease of shipping - obviously it's always "strawberry season" somewhere - and this may be where you are confusing "local" with seasonal.
Restaurants promoting "local" ingredients are taking it a step past "seasonal". Rather than drawing from the greater regional area (ie serving Dungeness Crab in season in Las Vegas), they're serving ingredients from a discrete local area (often described as "less than an hour drive").

Christopher Schooley wrote:Another problem with labeling a coffee as 'In Season� is that most quality coffee maintains its primary distinctive characteristics (Aroma, Body, Flavor, Acidity, etc.) for at least 6 months


Obviously, this is a controversial statement and many will disagree with you.
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Postby Christopher Schooley on Thu May 10, 2007 8:08 pm

Chris, while I'm aware that "seasonal" and "locally grown" mean two seperate things, by your statement I imagine that you would agree that they are frequently used in tandem and thus is why I said "generally refers to" rather than "is defined as". I'm only an ex-phlebotomist. That really is just one part of my whole argument. I see you've found no problem with the other part of that particular argument that "seasonal" goods are served fairly close to fresh and not after fermentation and reposo. I'm also not sure why my other quoted statement is obviously controversial. Are you suggesting that quality coffee loses it's defining characteristics much sooner than in 6 months? A well processed and handled Central most difinitely should perform well in the cup in Sept. and Oct. The statement reads "at least 6 months", as in some of them last even longer. I have to say that you nit-picked some awfully random quotes from my original post without really saying anything pertaining to the overall issue, which is helping your customers to understand and appreciate the complexities of the whole of the process.
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other options

Postby Isaac Gonzalez on Thu May 10, 2007 11:42 pm

how about "new crop" instead of "seasonal"; you can put it on the bag for as long as you like :(

print "date of harvest"
print "arrival date" (the day it landed in the port of your country)
print "processed for" which would be the difference of the "date of harvest" and the "arrival date" (include details regarding methods of processing) :oops:
print altitude
print total rainfall during crop cycle
print average and standard deviation of temperature, humidity and barometric pressure during crop cycle
print "date I wished I received"
print "additional amount I have to pay person to keep track of this"

print all these things on your bag just like you would print the "roasted on" date. :shock: (for blends is tricky but not calculus)

the customer may have to wait a year to compare the flavor of the crop unless you have frozen samples or past crop coffees from the same farm(s). That would be interesting: to cup the same coffees from the same farms under different growing or processing conditions.

Do some farms or co-ops process their coffee differently so that one nerd would be able to taste and compare multiple processing techniques under the same growing conditions and location? Or do the processors know what process is best for the particular fruit they have received?
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Postby Jaime van Schyndel on Fri May 11, 2007 9:45 am

Steve wrote:I guess this is what scares me about freezing coffee, over sorting defect free etc. Take too much away and it becomes corporate polished and no personality not the kind of person I want to hang around.


Humor me a bit... So you would pay more for a coffee that had more defects? You would pay more for a Panama Esmerelda that had 15% under ripe than one that had 5% under ripe? More molds or bug bites would add dollars and cents to the price you would be willing to pay?

I know there are those who espouse the 'charm' of defects but as long as they are willing to pay more for those coffees over coffees with less defects, that's fine.

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Postby trish on Fri May 11, 2007 10:06 am

Jaime van Schyndel wrote:
Steve wrote:I guess this is what scares me about freezing coffee, over sorting defect free etc. Take too much away and it becomes corporate polished and no personality not the kind of person I want to hang around.


Humor me a bit... So you would pay more for a coffee that had more defects? You would pay more for a Panama Esmerelda that had 15% under ripe than one that had 5% under ripe? More molds or bug bites would add dollars and cents to the price you would be willing to pay?

I know there are those who espouse the 'charm' of defects but as long as they are willing to pay more for those coffees over coffees with less defects, that's fine.



Defects are not where you are finding the character in a coffee.
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Postby Steve on Fri May 11, 2007 12:24 pm

I guess less defects more over polishing is my point. I didn't explain myself well in the quote selected, which is not uncommon, but what I mean is if we freeze something in a moment in time you freeze the personality of the coffee. Often I revisit a cup as it ages (and by ageing I mean a few months down the line not an old brown esmerelda) and it has developed into a wonderful cup that was once to lively, now perfectly balanced. So how do we know it is ready to freeze, when is that perfect moment in time?

Coffee is what it is, and develops into what it is, too much meddling and its integrity is changed, and I'm not sure thats always going to be for the better.
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Postby sutono on Fri May 11, 2007 7:37 pm

geoff watts wrote:99.9% of all 'specialty' coffee is shipped in jute


And .1% is shipped right below the forklift hole in the jute. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Sdjt6Bl5qdY
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