Friday, April 4, 2014

The seasonality fail

I was just in Seattle for a week and spent much of my time tasting coffee at leading roaster-retailers in the area.

One of the most striking things I noticed (this being late winter/early spring) at (to be specific) Zoka,  Stumptown and Millstead, was that the only single origins promoted and brewed were Central American coffees. Given the time of year, this means these coffees were all approaching past-crop status: close to a year old. Adding insult to injury, much of the pre-bagged roasted coffee on offer was not only past crop but stale, with roast dates on some bags three weeks or more in the past

"Seasonal" offerings would have included October-November shipment Colombias from Huila, perhaps an outstanding Peru, and maybe dry-processed Ethiopians and Yemens or late-season Sumatras where acidity and freshness aren't the most important flavor elements.

As far as I know the only roaster in America who who can claim that old green coffees are still "seasonal" is George Howell's Terroir Coffee in Boston, since he freezes green beans in hermetically sealed bags to extend their shelf life.  The fact that there's zero correlation between actual seasonality and what's on offer in theoretically coffee mad Seattle just underlines the "all hat, no cattle" reality of much Third Wave coffee marketing.

In the interests of not making this into yet another purely critical post, I'll share a bit about ways to make good use of high-quality Central American coffees over their life cycle, since it would seem that this knowledge is not being passed on to newer roasters in any systematic way.

Using an excellent high-altitude regional Guatemalan coffee from Huehuetenango as an example, we'll figure March/April shipment and thus May/June arrival in the U.S. The coffee will be at its peak of aroma and flavor at that time and will be delicious at any number of roasts, from city+ through espresso, but peak flavor expression for drip or vacuum pot brewing will be in the city+ to full city range.

Assuming regular daily tasting of one's production roasts, some fading of acidity will likely be noticeable by September/October, which calls for a very slight darkening of the roast to optimize what remains (more body, fewer top notes). By November or so it will be time to stop offering the coffee as a single origin, which should be fine as new crop coffees from places like Papua New Guinea, Colombia and Peru can replace it. It'll still offer much pleasure and deep flavors of bittersweet chocolate and peppery spice when used in an espresso blend, whether that blend is in the Italian style (Vienna+ roast) or taken darker still in the deep-roast tradition of Peet's and Starbucks.

This progression of use over time: pure and unblended and lightly-roasted when at its peak, blended when past-crop woodiness sets in, and incinerated in dark roasts at the end of its life cycle, works well for pretty much all washed Central and South American coffees. The ideal of course is to plan one's buying so that new crop coffees from other regions can replace fading ones from another, but this also requires deep and ongoing efforts to educate one's employees and customers about the true nature of seasonality, which as I pointed out at the outset of this post isn't going to happen when those who tout seasonality and freshness are in fact offering the exact opposite.


  1. You're right about this, Kevin: it's puzzling to me how much we've talked about seasonality over the past few years but, still, un-seasonally optimal coffees are offered by many roasters. In a closely related note, I've puzzled before over how roasters seem to ignore Peru and Bolivia, which can be amazingly great coffee origins, and complement missing Central Americans during the winter. I personally spent a tremendous amount of energy building sources in Peru for exactly that reason: I wanted great, fresh coffee from November-April. Southern Colombia, Ecuador, and Bolivia offer similar benefits, it's very strange to me you don't see these origins very often.

    One of the nice things about blends is that you can bring unfamiliar origins (consumers still have a little trouble ordering Bolivian coffee sometimes) and use them to bring brightness and aromatics.

    I respect small roasters who limit their offerings to only a few coffees to optimize freshness. After reading your post, I did a little survey of coffee companies and- among the handful I checked out- Intelligentsia and Counter Culture stood out as having great Southern-hemisphere selections right now, with nary an aging central in sight. I was honestly surprised at some of the other coffees I saw out there- and more than that, the ABSENCE of the aforementioned Southern Hemisphere greats.

    It should be said that there have been advances in slowing aging over the past few years, Grainpro being the most significant and affordable. I'm not sure it buys the roaster 6 extra months, but certainly 3.

  2. Thanks for your excellent comments Peter. I'm a bit perplexed too as to why the coffees you mention aren't more widely seen. Peru as you know better than I is a challenging place to source from, Eduador and Bolivia are a bit esoteric, but finding great coffees from southern Colombia is relatively easy. I honestly wonder if sourcing in the Americas altogether for some smaller roasters isn't driven by where there are Cup of Excedllence events, where they can easily travel, and so on, but that's obviously unfair as a blanket characterization.

    And yeah, blends are important, maybe even essential, in getting the taste of these coffees out there. The foundational "Latin American" style house blend at every place I've worked had great Centrals in the summer and fall, but was chock full of Colombians, Perus and even Papua New Guinea AA's during the winter months to keep it fresh and vibrant. Plus without at least one dark-ish espresso blend or French Roast how do you make good use of fading coffees?

    How wonderful that Intelligentsia and Counter Culture are really doing it with seasonality! I'm not surprised, especially in the case of your old alma mater, which I've noticed is usually a cut above other coffees I see in terms of dialed-in, not-too-light roasts and exceptional sourcing. A coffee industry insider friend who must remain nameless lives in Portland, Oregon and reports that the place that serves Counter Culture there has become their go-to choice.

    I'm glad you brought up the Grain Pro bags. Wider use of them and careful shipment of coffees from East Africa in particular are one of the most important and entirely positive contributions to the trade of Third Wave folks, admittedly in collaboration with quality fanatics from the Second Wave such as George Howell. The days of seeing pre-shipment samples of Yirgacheffe's and Sidamos and then mentally subtracting 30% of the aroma and flavor to account for the inevitable loss during the sea voyage as I used to have to do are pretty much gone. This is a wonderful change.

  3. AFAIK, 49th Parallel vacu-seals their more high end green, taking lessons from Howell.

    I'm sure other quality driven roasters do it as well. But they need to be more vocal about it, if they do this.

  4. 49th Parallel is clearly serious about what they do, but I don't see anything about their green coffee storage practices on their web site. To their credit, they're only featuring real seasonal coffees at the moment.

  5. Hey old friend. Great article. I have recently become GM of the Trident Cafe here in Boulder. Although I sold my roasting companies many years ago and have not been a green bean buyer for some time I can't agree with you more. I am surprised at a retail level how many wholesale roasters are pawning off the past crops at a absorbent price tag. Please stop in and say hello next time you are in town. Noah Westby

  6. Hi Noah -

    How nice to hear from you! I'm glad you're at Trident, and will definitely stop in this summer (we're visiting friends and family in Boulder in June).

  7. Hi Kevin,

    We use to vacuum pack all green coffee when it arrived. This is before buying vacuum packed coffee from Origin or Grain Pro.

    We decided as a company to also start vacuum packing and nitrogen flushing all our roasted coffee to not only serve fresh green coffee because of seasonality but also take that extra step to insure that our coffee if found on a shelf 2-3 weeks after roast is still very fresh.

    Thanks for the comments!
    49th Parallel Roasters

  8. Hi Vince,

    Thanks for taking the time to write. Someone else wrote me about the great care you take with your green coffee, and I'm delighted to hear that extends to the roasted and packaged product as well. It's obvious in looking at the listing of coffees on your website that you truly "walk the talk" when it comes to seasonality. I hope to come up this summer and taste your coffees for myself! Thanks for setting such a high standard up there.

  9. Please let me know when you're in town. Would love to have you visit our roastery.

  10. Will do. Thanks for your kindness.

  11. Hi Kevin - I'm Carlo's youngest son from Mr. Espresso and have been enjoying your blog. Please stop by our booth at the SCAA and say hello , will be happy to serve you an espresso. Booth 2037 -

    Luigi Di Ruocco

    1. Hi Luigi -

      Thanks for the kind invitation. Unfortunately having just been in Seattle SCAA isn't on my agenda this year, but if it were I'd certainly take you up on your offer. I have a great deal of respect for what you guys do with espresso coffee! Thanks again for the invite!