Is Your Coffee in Season?

GROWING UP IN MANITOBA TAUGHT ME TO APPRECIATE SEASONAL fruits and vegetables. Unlike Vancouver Island, Manitoba has a brief growing season. All of my favourites—blueberries, tomatoes, carrots—came on fast and seemed to leave even faster.

Some of my fondest memories are of visiting local farms with my Baba during the summer. With our spoils, she would make me fresh blueberries and cream for breakfast and summer vegetable soup for lunch. As the years passed, my appreciation for eating seasonally grew. It’s also one of the things I love about coffee. There’s nothing like brewing your first Kenyan of the season!

Coffee is a Fruit

I love apples and I’ve learned to truly appreciate them in the fall when they’ve just been picked—crunchy and sweet with just the right amount of tartness. Though one can still buy apples from January to July at the local grocery store, you can bet those apples have been sitting for six months in a refrigerated room, causing their flavours to fade and turning their crunchiness to mushiness. Coffee is no different, and if you want to experience it at its best, you have to treat it like any other produce, consuming it at its peak of freshness.

We often forget that the beans we roast, grind and brew are actually seeds of a fruit. From white blossoms on a tree to deep red cherries roughly nine months later, the fruit is picked and processed. And like all fruit, there is a season in which it’s best enjoyed. Luckily, there are roughly 27 coffee-producing countries, each with its own growing and harvesting season. That means that if we play our cards right, we can be drinking fresh, seasonal coffee all year around.

Two Kinds of Freshness

In coffee, we usually define freshness by the number of days after the roast     (consuming within two weeks is optimal). But just as important is the time between the harvest and the roast.

After a given amount of time, unroasted coffee will start to lose its lustre. The longer it sits, the more moisture it loses, which leads to flavours of woodiness and bitterness. In some cases, coffee will take on the taste of straw, like the smell of the jute bags in which it has been shipped and stored.

Some of the world’s most cutting-edge roasters have attempted to prolong the life of unroasted coffee by various means. Vacuum sealing and GrainPro plastic packaging have made a positive impact and are now the norm. Some roasters have even installed large and expensive freezer units, but this isn’t a financially feasible choice for smaller companies.

The truth of the matter is, Father Time catches up with us all, so if you want to experience coffee at its best, drink it seasonally.

The Challenge of Drinking Seasonal Coffees

The majority of coffee-producing countries harvest between December and March, which means that for the following couple of months, while those harvesting countries are processing and prepping their coffees for shipping, we consumers experience a lack of variety. At Hey Happy or Bows & Arrows, for example, it’s entirely possible to find only Brazilian and Colombian coffees on their menus throughout February. Even though Brazilian coffees have a reputation for having less character and exoticness than bigger coffees from Kenya or floral brights from Ethiopia, we’d rather experience the natural freshness and subtle details of coffees at their peak, rather than the woodiness and bitterness of age.

Unfortunately, as new coffees arrive in North America, old ones get sold at discounts to roasters who hide them in blends or pass them off as premium. And in some cases, roasters simply don’t have enough knowledge or experience to know when their coffees have declined. A number of roasters have added a harvest date to their bag labels, which is great. Any seasonal roaster should be able to answer the following questions: When was this coffee harvested? What coffees are in season? Is this a current crop coffee? Don’t be afraid to ask!

The Good News

Now that you know your favourite coffee won’t taste its best forever, get out and explore new origins. Find out what’s in season and experience those coffees as they were intended. In today’s specialty coffee world, there are thousands of farms, each of which can produce its own unique coffee. Soil, elevation, variety and the farmer’s craftsmanship all play a role in the coffee’s flavour.

Think of coffee like the fruit it is. Imagine biting into a fresh, crunchy apple fresh from the harvest or a sweet, juicy Saanich Peninsula strawberry at the peak of the season. And now imagine experiencing that same mouthwatering satisfaction in your daily cup of coffee.

Rob Kettner is the owner of Hey Happy Coffee in Victoria BC

Chart created by Jesse Campbell

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