By Catherine Franks
This post is the second half of a discussion about seasonality and the challenges of getting that tiny bean grown in the tropics into your morning cuppa. Here we focus on the perspective from the roastery and look at some of the challenges that we face when trying to roast coffee that is as seasonal as possible.
Over the last 2 years at Steampunk we have worked hard to get beans into our roaster much faster after they have landed in the UK, I asked Ludwika Kopczynska, our Head of Coffee, about some of the challenges we have faced in doing that.
She told me: It takes years of experience to get to grips with, it took me three years to even begin to understand seasonality and how it relates to coffee. Even with the direct relationships I have with importers (and I have constantly asked them questions about seasonality) it’s hard to wrap your head around and understand.
As a roastery, one of our biggest challenges is logistics. You need to be ready to receive a coffee when it is just arriving and not fill up your offering with coffees that are ‘spot’ Spot is a term for coffees which have already landed and are in warehouses in the UK.
Fresh arrival, January 2024.
Ludwika explained that through building relationships with importers we now receive pre shipment samples from them. These are samples that are sent usually at the same time that the container of green coffee is leaving or ready to leave the country of origin. Limited samples from the lots are sent ahead by courier so they arrive in the UK significantly ahead of the container of coffee. She says, "That is when we have to hurry up and roast and cup the samples as we are busy doing this week when we are trying to contract not one but three new coffees. It is a bit of a race as other roasters are also cupping these samples and the best and most exciting coffees get snapped up quickly!"
Even once you have contracted a coffee from the importer, there is an additional layer of complication. You may have a coffee and a place free to launch that coffee within your offering but then you are really counting on it arriving when it is scheduled to. The problem with that is when there are delays in shipping due to weather or a political situation like what is happening in the Red Sea just now then your coffee is delayed and you might end up with an empty shelf.
She continues, “There is also a gamble which you are taking every time you choose and contract a coffee, which I’m only just starting to understand. Different importers have different capacity of getting containers out. So if I’m starting to cup samples of containers on their way but I have not yet received samples from other later containers I need to take the decision of whether to buy without knowing all the possible options.” That is where the knowledge our roasters have built up and also the information from the importer about that year’s harvest is so crucial. If this year’s harvest is expected to be particularly good (based on the samples the buyers cupped at harvest) you can gauge if that container’s samples meet your expectations or whether you would take a gamble that even better coffees might be arriving in the next one.
Steampunk are not big enough as a roastery that we would buy several coffees from the same origin the same season so if we jump on the first one we like and then a better one comes along we can’t buy it. Conversely we might wait, hoping for an even better coffee, but by the time we have tried later samples if we find they are not better then the original coffee we liked, it is bound to be long gone.
It was easier the way we did it in the past buying from offer lists of coffees that were already sitting in warehouses in the UK (the Spot coffees) as we could chose any of those coffees and get them straight away. The downside of this method of buying green coffee is that all the best coffees may well have been contracted already by roasters off of the pre shipment samples.
Ludwika adds, “There is one interesting point, that I did not really know about until I worked in Burundi and travelled to the dry mill. When the coffee comes in to the dry mill (from the washing stations) they will usually process the big lots first. This is because it is more efficient to get the big lots (which are mixes from lots of producers) through before processing all of the tiny distinct lots. The machinery needs to be cleaned between the lots so processing many small coffee lots is much slower than processing one big lot. So the small expensive lots that are maybe just a few bags each are done at the end. So the first containers may be just large lots of decent and very good coffees but maybe nothing spectacular and if you contract from them you may miss the opportunity to get a very special smaller lot later. On the other hand if you wait, those small lots might just be way out of budget or there might not be anything you love and you have missed the first good lots.”
She says, something she has only recently started contemplating last few months is what a risky game it all is. There is such a lot of great coffee out there and it is a shame if you dismiss it just because it isn’t ‘just landed’. For example if there is a huge quantity of coffees arriving from one particular origin this year because it its a big harvest year, there could well be loads of excellent coffees still around a few months later. In that case what are the ethics behind saying no I’m not interested in that coffee because it has been around for a while and I only want the fresh new thing just landing now. It is a thorny topic to consider and requires a careful balance. A coffee that we will be releasing next week (Feb 2024) is a good example, it is a wonderful small lot from Honduras and although it landed a few months ago we have decided that we really want to roast it for our customers for other reasons like we really respect the work the importer and the producer are doing and we love that coffee.
That brings us to our next question:
Is seasonality everything?
Based on what Ludwika was just saying about the downside of only choosing based on seasonality, I asked her if that really should that be the main or the only consideration when we are choosing which coffees to roast.
Ludwika says, “So seasonality is good and it can really benefit producers if I am doing it the right way and I’m not losing the value of their coffee. By that I mean if we can roast it straight away when it is at its peak we are acting as a showcase for how great that coffee can be. But if we mess up and say we can’t start roasting that coffee yet because we still have loads of other older coffees we are still roasting, then we are not doing them justice as we are roasting them once they are past their best. It is becoming less tasty and losing its value. We want to roast seasonal as we want to showcase those coffees at their best.”
But seasonality is not everything, there are other factors to think about when we make purchasing decisions, such as building relationships. We don’t only consider what coffee tastes best with no other context. We may really admire a particular importer and how they operate and the work they do in a particular country or region and we want to buy from them. So we consider the relationship and what stands behind that coffee. Although we do cup all of our samples blind for quality, when we take the final buying decision we weigh up these other more subtle factors too.
The best experience for us was when Ludwika was in Burundi and chose special tiny day lots for us to roast from the washing station, that was the most direct relationship we have had with a coffee producer/producers. She followed those tiny lots (only 4 sacks of coffee) from the washing station to the dry mill and then followed them through the milling process too. That way when we roasted those coffees, Masenga Hill (washed) and Kinama (natural), we were able to share with coffee drinkers the story of those coffees having been picked all from one hill on the same day and Ludwika's story of the people and work behind those coffees from the washing station. See our blog posts from June 2022 for more detail.
As can be seen with the coffees that we now buy from Migoti Coffee in Burundi every year, relationships that we build with the producers are very important to us. We know that our customers also love it when we return to a producer we bought from in previous years. It is fascinating following their story over time and see how the coffee changes and watch developments from the producers. See Rachel Beebe's recent blog post about this “A Second Sip of Bukonzo Dream”.
So the value of continuing relationships with previous producers and bringing back coffees we have had before needs to be balanced against the novelty and excitement of exploring new origins and developing new relationships with producers and importers.
A balanced offering
Another consideration is that we are also trying to get a broad range of coffees in our offering - different origins, different processes, different flavour profiles. Ludwika explains, “You might look at the shelf and think that the coffees there are just a random selection but they aren’t.
Our coffee shelves, December 2023.
The first consideration we start with in curating what is on the shelf is to have a range of processes maybe half washed, half natural. This is important to give customers a choice in flavour profiles that they like. Just as much as some people love a clean washed coffee, others want a fruity juicy option. It is important that we roast coffees which suit a range of flavour preferences.
The next thing we would like to have in our offering is a balance between more challenging ‘wow’ factor coffees but also coffees that are more easy drinking and would work as someone's 'daily' coffee. So we don’t want to have, for example, three anaerobic coffees on offer at the same time, even if they happened to be the most stand out ones we try when we cup samples.
Considering all of these different factors is incredibly important and all of that has to be done even before considering seasonality. Then on top of all of that we aren't even guaranteed the coffees we choose are going to arrive in time. It is definitely a challenge.
Sharing is caring
So in a nutshell we are trying to showcase a coffee at its best, we want to work with producers/importers we have relationships with, and we want to explore new and exciting regions and flavours. Underlying all of this we want to please our customers and suit a variety of different tastes.
Ludwika says, “Sometimes it makes you feel a bit like James Bond, when you understand all the complexities behind it and all of the moving parts involved. It is only when I describe what I do in detail, that people can see how complex it all is. But honestly that is what makes me really excited about coming in to work.”
As well as continuously learning ourselves we wish to share as much information as possible with our customers. We feel it is our responsibility to make people as interested and fascinated by coffees as us. That way when they taste a coffee like the one we are currently roasting from Timor-Leste they realise the context and can appreciate the tremendous effort that the growers and importers have put in to get it here, rather than just basing their appreciation on the taste of the coffee in the abstract.
Coffee is fascinating because the more you learn the more you realise there is to know, it is a never ending education. But there is one thing we are sure of, we can really only truly appreciate a coffee when we know its backstory.
If you would like to read more about some of the different origins we have roasted in the past and plan to explore in the future, check out our blog post "Exploring Origins". And if you want to know (or buy) what we are currently roasting, see below.