Yes, coffee beans, like tomatoes or cherries, have seasons
When you think about seasonal coffee, the thing that might spring to mind is a Pumpkin Spice Latte, or a Peppermint Mocha. But did you know that coffee, the beans themselves, actually have seasons? It makes sense considering that coffee beans are the seeds of a fruit, and all fruits have seasons. Thus coffee beans from different regions, like strawberries or tomatoes, are at their peak during certain times of the year.
James McLaughlin, the President and CEO of Intelligentsia Coffee, likens their focus on seasonal coffee beans to the farm-to-table movement. "Intelligentsia really approaches coffee as a culinary product and a culinary experience," McLaughlin told Extra Crispy. At a farm-to-table restaurant, he said, "you’re putting yourself into the chef’s hands and letting them bring you stuff when its at its peak of tastiness. In coffee, we’ve taken that same approach."
Basically, coffee comes into season twice a year. In the Northern Hemisphere, in coffee-growing countries like Mexico, Kenya, and Ethiopia, coffee harvests are in the early part of the year, starting in January. In the Southern Hemisphere, coffee harvests are in the later part of the year, beginning in September or October. The quality of the coffee beans begins to degrade more the further away they are from harvesting.
"Through 23 years working with coffee, what we have found is that one of the most important attributes of extraordinary coffee is the number of days after it's been picked on the farm," McLaughlin said. "The common wisdom is that the number of days off of roast is really important, and I would agree. But another factor is the number of days the coffee bean has been sitting after it was picked—we need to start talking about coffee like it's a seasonal product."
Why bother drinking coffee that's in season rather than whatever you can find? It's the difference between a supermarket tomato you buy in January and one you get at at the farmer's market in July. Sure, they're both tomatoes, and in a pinch they'll both work, but one is a tomato at its very best. "You know in May that when you get a Mexican coffee that the coffee is going to be the best example of itself and the flavor profiles it exhibits," McLaughlin said. "It has clarity of flavor that allows you to perceive the tasting notes. Even if you're not an expert, you'll be able to taste the difference from a coffee that's been picked four months ago, and one that's a year old."
Right now, in November, we're in a transitional season—at the last part of the Northern Hemisphere season and at the beginning of the Southern hemisphere's one. So track down a cup of coffee that's been picked recently, brew it however you want, and enjoy it. It's always worth trying something at the peak of its powers.