By Catherine Franks
In this week's blog we look at an important aspect to consider when buying coffee - seasonality. We want to know what this means to you the coffee drinker and what are the challenges to drinking coffees which are actually in season.
This is a big topic so we will break it down, starting in this post by looking at some of the challenges on the producers and importers end - at origin. Next week we will look at the challenges faced on the roasting side when aiming to source as seasonally as possible.
I spoke with our Head of Coffee Ludwika Kopczynska (who is in charge of selecting the green coffees we roast for you at Steampunk) to try to get to grips with what seasonality means with regard to coffee and thank her for input on this complicated topic. We appreciate we will only be scratching the surface here but we hope it gives an interesting insight to coffee drinkers who want to understand better how seasonality relates to the coffee they are drinking.
Ludwika told me:
Buying coffee is what really gets the blood pumping in your veins as a roaster. You start simply by getting sets of random samples and buying hopefully the best ones (or at least ones you liked most) and hope your customers agree with your choices. There are definitely quite a few mile stones on the journey of learning more and becoming better at it but one of the biggest one is embracing seasonality. Like with everything in life you have no idea of depths of it until you dive in.
Cupping coffees at Rwamatamu Washing Station, Rwanda.
What does Seasonality mean?
On the surface level, seasonality is about buying and launching coffees as close as possible to when they were harvested. It matters in a same way as it would with any other type of fresh produce. Think of an apple, one you had in season, freshly picked from the tree and now compare your memory of that experience to an apple that you stored in a fridge for weeks or months. If you had made sure the storage conditions were optimal, it wouldn't rot, it would still be good to eat, but it most definitely wouldn't be quite the same sensory experience you have with fresh apple from the tree... Coffee isn't all that different.
When it comes to coffee, however, there is the added issue of logistics which need to be factored in. When we can start roasting a coffee depends on when that coffee arrives in the UK and that date can vary tremendously year to year for the same origin and the length of transit can vary tremendously depending on the origin too.
I asked Ludwika why freshness matters and she told me put simply, the fresher a coffee, the better it tastes, the older a coffee gets the more it loses vibrancy and complexity. As it ages it can start to taste flat, missing a zing or depth of finish that it used to have. Once you get to 12-18 months post harvest coffees can even start to taste unpleasant with woody or cardboardy flavours appearing.
I asked if different coffees age at a different rate and Ludwika yes that there can be differences based on origin or processing. Interestingly, and conversely, Kenyan coffees actually have the reputation to open up and taste better after 6 months. Anaerobics, in her experience, could age faster than washed, and start to taste unpleasantly sour, even vinegary.
A crucial factor could be the way the coffee is stored at origin. If there are fewer resources for equipment (for example to monitor the moisture content in the stored coffee) and sub optimal storage conditions, a coffee’s longevity can be affected. It is the moisture content in the coffee which can cause the damage. If the coffee has the optimal water content, is kept airtight and cool it would probably keep well over the 12 months but if those conditions are not met the coffee may age much faster.
Coffee in storage in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.
Ludwika explained there is a huge difference between countries as to how quickly a coffee can be exported post harvest. One factor is infrastructure which affects how quickly you can get coffee to dry mill and how quickly they can process your coffee. Factors like how many ships can leave the country, how far that country is from us are all relevant too. All of these factors might affect the shipping date by around a month or so.
By far the biggest delays are caused by the political situation. Delays due to the paperwork needed/bureaucracy, how long the government takes to approve the shipment can cause much lengthier delays. The most extreme case we have seen is China. Coffees are being harvested right now (Jan/Feb) but they won’t land in the UK before end November or even early December - a 10 month delay!
So we can see that coffee seasonality is not quite like an apple as transit time is significant and varies by origin.
Why is it so hard to figure out when 'the season' is?
As a result of all of the different factors at play that we mentioned above, it is not easy to get a clear answer of what origin is in season when. If you look online it varies between importers and also fluctuates year to year.
Finance is a big factor in how quickly a coffee can be shipped - a lot depends on the money and the connections an importer has. When you look at the landing dates for each origin, you can see there is a spread of 2-3 months of coffees landing. For example not all Guatemalan coffees land at the same moment, they might start arriving in late July but keep arriving right through to November. So different importers can have varying landing dates for the same origin. In our follow up blog post we will look at bit more at this.
The Climate Crisis
Ludwika explained that climate change is also a big factor. This is a topic getting a lot of coverage in the coffee world but maybe this is not filtering out to the general public as one would hope. Many areas that have traditionally grown coffee are finding their harvests dwindling and new regions (which perhaps don't have a culture or knowledge or infrastructure to grow coffees) are coming on board. The variability of timings for harvests are problematic for producers as they need to prepare resources for when it does happen - pickers, equipment, processing. In agriculture there will always be a dependency on weather conditions but the massive shifts due to climate change are causing even more uncertainty and greater unpredictability from year to year. But obviously it also has a knock on effect on when coffees are able to be exported.
Ludwika said, “I learned when working in Burundi and Rwanda that every second year is a bigger harvest. With no agricultural background I had not realised this. Coffee trees will produce a higher harvest alternate years. But of course it can’t be relied on as there could be a late frost or other reason why the expected larger harvest doesn’t happen too.”
So I asked whether on the larger harvest years does that mean that it could take longer for the coffees to land here as there is more to process? She explained that actually it is not as straightforward as that. Potentially the coffee could land sooner as say the producer is going to ship two containers that year, the first container could get filled up quickly and sent off so that it actually lands earlier than usual. It really depends on everyone’s logistics. The key thing here to remember it that nobody is going to ship 3 sacks of coffee. They are only going to ship a full container. So on a year when the harvest is plentiful that container may actually get filled up much faster.
So what can we come to understand about seasonality from this? It is a multi faceted topic and certainly much more complex than enjoying an apple in the autumn. Global trade is way more complex a topic than can be covered in this short blog post but we hope that this will be an interesting insight into some of the factors at play in getting the coffee beans from a plant in the tropics into your morning cuppa and how seasonality is a part of that.
In our next post we will dive a bit deeper into the juggling act that goes on behind offering seasonal coffees at your local coffee roasters, we hope you will join us.