It’s the middle of summer and farmers markets are a riot of colorful berries, stone fruit, and tomatoes.
Don’t let them fool you.
Seasonal food is in quiet retreat. Over the past few years, the most popular ingredients have been decidedly winter items like beets, kale, and cauliflower, ubiquitous on restaurant menus and in markets no matter what time of year it is. The rise of vertical farming also means more and more heirloom tomatoes are ready to slice in the middle of winter.
In fact, the biggest culinary signifier of fall no longer comes from the produce department. It is provided by Starbucks and it is, of course, the Pumpkin Spice Latte. The much-loved/much-maligned drink, flavored with cinnamon and ginger, is enough of a seasonal message that when the release date got moved up to early September, it provoked an outcry.
Now, coffee companies are taking the promise of that a step further, not with flavorings or mere marketing like “Christmas” blends but with seasonal beans. While most coffee drinkers see the roasting date as the all-important determiner of a coffee’s freshness, an increasingly pervasive school of thought has the harvest date meriting more attention.
You can find brews made with seasonally harvested beans at regional establishments such as Chicago’s Colectivo Coffee; Qualia Coffee in Washington, D.C.; Dogwood Coffee Co. in Minneapolis; Ruby Coffee Roasters in Wisconsin; Philadelphia’s Reanimator Coffee Roasters; and the Birmingham, Ala.-based Relevator Coffee.
Counter Culture Coffee, the North Carolina-based roasters who have established a national presence with their well-sourced single estate coffees, is especially focused on brews that change with the seasons.
Now Intelligentsia Coffee, the 23-year-old Chicago-based darling of the third-wave coffee movement, is making a bigger deal about it as well.
The company created a special sticker to affix to bags of beans that were harvested at a certain time. The stickers highlighted a few seasonal offerings among its single origin beans. “It was inspired by the sticker on fresh fruit. We wanted to subtly recall customers’ memories of that label,” said James McLaughlin, president and chief executive officer.
“What we noticed in our lab is that the number of days ‘off harvest’ is more important than the number of days ‘off roast,’ ” he said. “You have a nine-month window to get it packed up and shipped. After that, there’s a degradation of quality. You pick up notes of age.”
This year, Intelligentsia has around 20 “In Season” coffees sourced from the northern hemisphere. The harvest for beans grown north of the equator (e.g. Mexico and Ethiopia) is roughly from late December through March, making them ideal for consuming up through summer and early fall. Come winter, they’ll switch to promoting around 26 coffees from the southern hemisphere (e.g. Peru, Papau New Guinea), which are harvested from July to September.
McLaughlin says they’ve seen a 10 percent increase in In Season coffee sales from the first half of 2017 to the first half of 2018 but won’t release exact sales figures.
At a tasting at Intelligentsia’s New York location in the High Line Hotel, near their converted Citro?n coffee truck, I sampled a handful of recently released In Season offerings.
The Los Inmortales coffee from El Salvador ($19/12 oounces) had a rich, direct honeyed peach flavor. Printed on the candy-red package were harvest dates, between November 2017 and January 2018, and a roast date of July 2. If that delay makes the beans seem less than fresh, consider that they must be dried, processed and sorted, before being exported, all of which takes several months; in-season coffee is a bit of a looser term than we traditionally think of fruits and vegetables.