October 26, 2022
Amongst environmentalists and home cooks alike, there has been an effort to promote shopping seasonally at the grocery store. Not only does it allow you to harness the maximum flavor and nutritional value from your fruits and vegetables, but often, some produce is only available during specific times of the year. Coffee beans can feel very distant from this discussion, but they are seeds of a fruit, after all.
All agricultural products, regardless of where they come from, have their peak season at some point in the calendar year, meaning certain coffee bean variations are available during select months or can taste different depending on when they’re harvested and certain environmental factors. This is how the trend of roasting small-batch coffee was born.
The Number Of Harvests May Vary
Located between 25º north and 30º south of the equator sits a region known as the Coffee Belt
. The countries within this portion of the globe have warm enough climates to successfully grow coffee crops, along with various microclimates that produce nuanced bean variations due to factors like elevation and precipitation. In today’s Third Wave coffee movement, a cup of coffee is something we can enjoy year-round, but the supply chain is far more seasonal.
In most of the coffee-producing world, the harvest comes once a year with exact timings depending on which hemisphere it takes place in.
Coffee grown in the northern half of the Coffee Belt typically reaches its peak flavor in early summer to fall, whereas crops grown in the southern half reach their peak flavor in early winter to spring. During these time frames, the coffee cherries are harvested and processed before being shipped off to roasters worldwide as green coffee
It should also be noted that there are some exceptions to this annual harvest rule. For example, countries like Colombia
, Indonesia, and Kenya are on the equator, which provides them the ideal conditions to harvest coffee year-round.
Both A Challenge And An Advantage For Roasters
Once the coffee season begins in a certain region, producers will send out early crop samples to roasters for toasting, which allows them to gather a sense of what the full crop will taste like once the cherries are fully mature and are ready for processing. This is how coffee roasters plan their roasts throughout the year — by sampling coffee from regions in their peak harvest and deciding which ones they’re interested in ordering from.
However, the process from harvest to shipment is lengthy, often taking multiple weeks for the green coffee to arrive at the roasting facility. A lot can change in a batch’s flavor from when the crop reaches peak freshness, gets harvested, shipped, and potentially exposed to environmental factors like moisture during transit. Roasters typically have to place a certain level of faith in their trusted producers and hope they fully understand their crop’s volatility over time.
A Rotating Menu Is Often A Good Sign
Like all produce, coffee tastes best when fresh and in season. Premium coffee roasters will frequently change their selection of roasts since they order only what’s in season from multiple coffee-producing regions.
On the other hand, large-scale coffee distributors tend to combine beans that vary in quality and roast them together in huge batches. This ultimately leads to a less flavorful (and sometimes bitter) cup that’s missing all of the delicious taste notes that come with perfectly ripened coffee.
Premium roasters like Lardera always roast coffee in small batches to better control temperatures and guarantee consistency and quality throughout the roast.
Coffee beans that are old and harvested past their peak season will begin to take on woody, almost straw-like taste notes that lack the fruit’s natural sweetness. On the other hand, coffee harvested too early or before its peak season will have a vegetal quality to its flavor that is missing coffee’s robust body. Unripened will also have a pronounced sharpness and acidity that most find unpleasant.
A Surprise With Every Harvest
Besides guaranteeing a flavorful experience, shopping seasonally for coffee is always full of (tasty) surprises.
Harvests will vary from year to year, with different levels of precipitation, changes in soil quality, and varying temperatures. These factors will influence the levels of natural sugars in the coffee cherries and the types of taste notes you pick up in your cup.
Roasters can play with these varying factors when they formulate their blends in-house and use their taste buds to highlight the unique flavors they receive with each incoming batch. There is certainly some comfort in consistency, but allowing yourself to be pleasantly surprised with each coffee season can also be exciting.
So when in doubt, shop seasonally in the coffee aisle and buy small. You’ll taste the difference the following morning.