The modern grocery store has more or less conditioned us to believe that everything is available at all times of the year. However, the idea of seasonality has recently had a renaissance during the most recent ‘food’ movements. This is due in large part to the re-birth of the idea of purchasing that which is local and in season. When we think of eating what is available locally, it becomes incredibly apparent that consumption will be based on a seasonal schedule. In theory, coffee is no different — but it is not exactly the same either.
For one, we don’t consume the actual fruit of the cherry. We purchase the pit of the fruit. This has led many to practice purchasing habits which centre around the idea of buying coffee or stock that lasts the whole year — or at least until the next harvest of the same coffee. To some degree, this is OK. The pit of the fruit has a longer or more intact shelf life than say the flesh of a given fruit. So instead of having just days of appropriate ripeness, it could be months for coffee beans.
However, alongside the broader food movements, specialty coffee has decided that this is not quite good enough. With our increased ability to source and be ‘on the ground’ during harvest in producing countries combined with our developing palates and the technology which helps inform our taste, much attention is now given to getting the best out of the coffee. This translates to shorter usage times and using coffee according to what could be considered a seasonal schedule. However, coffee and particularly the processing it must undergo differentiates itself from other agricultural products and thus a bit of context might be worthwhile.
For most, it is common knowledge that to get the best final product, the producer must pick in season and pick only ripe cherries. However, this is just the starting point of the process. From here, the coffee is often transported to a warehouse and then eventually to a mill where it undergoes some type of processing. After processing, the coffee is then dried to the appropriate moisture percentage, but this can be highly dependent on the weather. Realistically you could assign two or three weeks to the drying process. In the case of a natural coffee, it is has been my experience that the best results are achieved when the coffee is dried slowly and on raised beds for at least 21 days or even for up to a month.
Then, depending on the producer or client’s timetable for the coffee, the beans might sit in parchment form for several weeks. This step is traditionally called ‘reposado’ or rest and the idea is that the coffee bean has time to reach a proper equilibrium or stabilization after processing. From here, the coffee is milled and then transported to a port to embark on its sea voyage. In the case of Australia, coffee shipments can regularly travel on the ocean for over a month and often up to 45 days.
Why do I tell you all this?
I’m taking you through this whole process with an approximate time frame because after picking, it can easily take more than two months (and possibly even three or four) for the coffee to reach Australian shores. So how does this reconcile with our understanding of seasonality? And if it does, for how long is the coffee ‘in season’?
At Five Senses, we embrace the idea of seasonality. In fact, we have been purchasing in this manner for a number of years. However, over the past few years we have honed our approach to follow a few defined ideals.
Firstly, we make every effort to utilize opposing or complementary harvests. For example, conscious that our customers and blends need a body-driven coffee, we purchase beans from both Brazil and India. Brazilian harvests begin sometime in June and last until September. We usually receive our first shipment of Brazilian coffee in Australia at the start of the year. Depending on our usage, we aim to purchase enough to last us for 6 to 8 months. In the middle of using our Brazilian coffee, we begin to line up our Indian coffee offering. Since India harvests their coffee at the beginning of the calendar year, we time our Indian harvest to follow after our Brazilian offering and land in Australia in around June or July.
Secondly, we have discovered that certain coffees age better than others. As professionals we are constantly monitoring the quality of our green coffee. After cupping at origin, our first record of a given coffee dates back to the pre-ship samples — samples that must be approved prior to the shipment entering the port. While this is only a sample, it is our first impression of our actual shipment and we therefore record the coffee sample’s moisture percentage and density along with cupping scores and notes from our green coffee team. Then, when the coffee lands in Australia, we do it all over again to ensure that the quality of the landed shipment matches that of the sample. We do this to set a precedent or benchmark for that coffee as it enters our production line-up. Week after week, we take note of how the given coffee is performing and also keep an eye on its moisture levels. It is inevitable that coffee will show age; however, not all coffees age equally. For example, our Ethiopian Yirgacheffe seems to age gracefully, thus we look to purchase this coffee for a projected time frame of eight to nine months. This is different to some of our other coffees which we purchase for a six to seven month time frame (e.g. some of our Central American offerings).
Lastly, in this new vein of purchasing seasonally, we don’t want to dismiss the work that we have done in the past. Instead, we want to intentionally incorporate seasonality into our line-up while achieving as consistent a product as possible. An example of this would be our blends. We manage the flavour profiles of our blends all year around. We promote them and sell them based on these flavour profiles, but we never promise our customers that they will have the same coffees in that blend year around. Instead, it is our responsibility as coffee professionals to purchase for and produce blends which conform to that flavour profile, while still being mindful of which coffees taste exceptional and are appropriately timed in season.
In closing, being attentive of Mother Nature’s accepted seasonal patterns is a beautiful thing and a natural inclination for the specialty coffee industry. However, it is not as straightforward a decision to implement as it may be for other agricultural products, and not everyone in the coffee industry will employ the exact same parameters around their usage as they wrestle with seasonality and the many other pieces of their business. At Five Senses, we look to use all our coffee between six and nine months after processing and drying and if that needs to be further teased out, I would say that we’re not actually chasing ‘seasonality’ as such. It is perhaps more helpfully defined as seasonal mindfulness — and we’re ever mindful of both the seasons and the resulting quality in the cup.
For a downloadable pdf of the Five Senses Harvest Timetable, click on this link.