Seasonality!?!

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Postby ChrisSchooley » Mon Mar 01, 2010 4:15 pm

Is green coffee seasonal? I don't believe it. This is one of my biggest pet peaves right now. I believe that coffee fruit is seasonal, but once it has been fermented, washed/dried, rested (at least 30 days), and hulled (let alone shipped) that it is something else entirely. Now let me get this straight, I FULLY BELIEVE THAT GREEN COFFEE HAS A TRANSIENT FRESHNESS, or window when it is at its best, but when it has been properly processed, handled, and stored, this window can be even up to a year in some cases. In full disclosure, I work for an outfit that vac-packs green coffee and ships and stores in Grain-Pro bags. This is in no way an effort to make this coffee last forever, but to protect it against the scourge of premature aging that runs rampant in this industry. Coffee still ages in a vac-pack, but it at least has a fighting chance.

Even a coffee that has just arrived in port (I feel like Arrival is a better "marketing" word for coffee as it at least tells a little of the story of coffee past harvesting as opposed to using "seasonal" which is an attempt to align our product with fruit and other produce), um, as I was saying, even a coffee that has just arrived in port and is transported across the country crossing through multiple different climactic extremes and then stored improperly it can start showing age in the cup in a relatively short amount of time.

A lot of people that I have this debate with always say "But, isn't it a good thing to help customers understand that coffee changes?". I honestly think that using Seasonality does NOT help consumers to understand how a coffee changes; instead it is a buzz word that confuses the customer and does not fully explain why a particular coffee is good or not good at the moment. And frankly what makes even more hoopla, is the fact that the season of any particular coffee ends whenever it is that whoever is selling it says that it's no longer in season.

Anyway, let's discuss this. Seasonality: harmless, or more harm than good?
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Postby dscherer » Tue Mar 09, 2010 3:38 pm

hi chris,

great discussion point! i do see some of the larger roasters labeling their coffee this way. if the only benefit is that coffee consumers start thinking about new crops of coffee, new regions, new farms etc and opens them up to exploring unfamiliar coffees, then i am happy and can continue to try to great new stuff. we all know a great crop one season may be a not-so-good one the next.

people don't like change but if through a "seasonal" label we can get people looking at new coffees, then i am happy.

also, chris, you are unique in that you do get top-quality coffee that is protected from the elements. coffee in jute bags does have a life-span...but that really isn't a seasonality issue as much as it is a storage one.

our labels give information on the farm, the milling process, varietal, and harvest season. we should add if it comes in grainpro or vaccuum sealed. maybe coffee storage is more important than when it was harvested....
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Postby ChrisSchooley » Tue Mar 09, 2010 5:21 pm

Great response, Darleen. I totally agree that packaging and storage are at the center of this argument. I don't feel that Grain-Pro and vac-packs add unnaturally to a lifespan of green coffee, but rather simply protects it better against premature aging.

I guess that one of my points as far as educating the consumer goes is that if I were a consumer who maybe understood seasonality in general as it pertained to other produce but not necessarily particulars about coffee and you sold me a coffee based on the fact that it was in season and then I was able to buy the same coffee 4-6 months later and you were still telling me and selling it to me as in season, then I would feel suckered. If we are indeed promoting the fact that a coffee is at its best at arrival (again, frequently 3-4 months after harvest) then we should sell it at a premium for the first two months after arrival, and then lower the price each 2 months after that, I mean if you're really going to sell a seasonal program. That way it would actually mean something.
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Website: http://www.coffeeshrub.com/.
Location: Fort Collins, CO.

Postby dscherer » Tue Mar 09, 2010 6:53 pm

right. and then that may push the consumer to want the "freshest" coffee, and anyone's who's cupped at origin knows that coffee just off the patio with only a few days of rest is nowhere near its potential and even the best coffee tastes nasty.

to be honest, when i first saw that "in season" sticker on the intelligentsia bag, i thought to myself, "they are so smart. what a great way to deal with inventory, cash flow and availability of great coffee on a large scale."

i think it's marketing more than anything else.

...and like you said, coffee is a seed. not a fruit.
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Postby timd » Tue Mar 09, 2010 10:31 pm

Information is great. Harvest periods, soil types, latitude, altitude and every other detail you can provide might just appeal to a potential customer. If you have it you can differentiate yourself with details.

How we define "seasonal" in coffee is debatable and frankly arbitrary up to a point. 120 days off harvest, so on day 121 the coffee ceases to be "in season?" Seasonality in tomatoes is easily defined, when your local farmer gets a hard frost the season ends with the fruit picked as the sun sets. Peach season ends when the last fruit comes out of the orchard and down to market. The seasons are defined by location. Granted you can get a peach in December, but if you live in the northern hemisphere it sure as heck isn't from your backyard.

Coffee is a drupe and unlike the peach, we pitch the flesh and favor the seed. The care taken during the harvesting and processing of our drupe dictates the absolute potential length of time a coffee will stand for storage. What we do after a coffee is processed can only delay or bring about the inevitable deterioration.

Grain Pro and Mylar are great, however they can't prevent a rapid deterioration of a poorly processed coffee. A solid job from harvest to export can be preserved by alternate packaging, but people shouldn't consider anything in grain pro automatically gets a 16 month lifespan.

The downside of marketing is less than flattering imitation. The biggest risk of this term catching fire is the potential for it to become cliche and ultimately meaningless.

There are upsides to this style of purchasing green and selling roasted. It limits overbooking because as Chris mentions a coffee can be "out of season" the day you run out of it at the roasting plant. If your customers are trained to deal with a seasonal approach it can work out in your favor in the ways Darlene mentioned. If your customers expect Costa Rica in Jan/Feb. then you might end up SOL using this sourcing approach.
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Postby cmas » Wed Mar 10, 2010 1:12 pm

Some very great points here.

My question is this: what do you tell the retail customer who wants to buy one particular coffee year round?
Obviously we do not want to risk losing a sale, but at the same time not every customer wants a twenty minute explanation of why they should buy coffee "a" now instead of coffee "b".
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Postby ChrisSchooley » Wed Mar 10, 2010 1:33 pm

I would say to find out what they like about that coffee and use that information to steer them towards something similar in one way or another. Despite my feelings on using the term "seasonal" when talking about coffee, I do think that it is one of the basic tenets of craft coffee that a coffee is most likely not available year-round, and next year it will be slightly or greatly different.
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Roasting Since (Year): 2001
Website: http://www.coffeeshrub.com/.
Location: Fort Collins, CO.

Postby timd » Wed Mar 10, 2010 4:59 pm

The transition from year round supply to a more seasonal approach can be kind of rocky if your customers have come to expect a year round option.

In our early years we worked hard to keep everything available all the time. At first is meant compromising quality when seeking late season replacements, later it meant overbooking coffees which created a whole new quality issue as the coffees overlapped new arrivals. Both were not good options in hindsight. Finding the happy medium led us to the decision that we will ultimately run out of most origins before a new crop arrives.

This is where marketing with detail can help a roaster foster an understanding with a customer. If you are providing a high level of detail with your offerings it is fairly easy for people to grasp that Finca So-and-so only produces X number of bags of coffee, and that is where we buy all of our El Salvador coffee. When it is gone, it is gone.

If roasters market a coffee with nothing more than a generic country of origin, well no one believes that El Salvador is 100% out of coffee and it is understandable why they think it should be available year round.
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Postby cmas » Thu Mar 11, 2010 7:12 am

Sorry it was not my intention to hijack this post into a retail conversation but I think it def applies. Just wanted to see what an ideal scenario would be from you guys/gals.

Personally I think the marketing power of seasonality is awesome and the power to say that we have the best tasting coffees today is incredible. Although it would be terribly difficult to do in my world of 12 retail shops and twenty years of customers becoming accustomed to coffees being there year round.
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Postby timc » Fri Apr 23, 2010 7:28 pm

Day 12 of the longest week of the year for coffee people. The week leading up to SCAA the Symposium and Expo and the catch up work the next week.
Might babble a little here.

Some coffees do not even settle for 2 months after arrival.
2 examples
Guatemala Antiguas that really demonstrate this micro region. Other ripping good guats as well. They are incredibly well dried and have intense acidity. The structure and knitting together of the flavors takes 4-8 weeks after arrival some times.

Top Kenyas settle in the first month or two after arrival.

Many years ago I brought in 4 containers of FTO Harrar from a particular CO-OP. They arrived second half June and first half July. The coffee was rejected by 6 of the best cuppers in the biz on arrival. One of these coffees then blew the minds of folks at the RG retreat in mid August. many of the aforementioned cuppers called back in October short this coffee and wanted to see samples. I said, "You cupped this 2 months ago and panned it. But if you are willing to take a shot I will send you samples and think you might be surprised." Upon re-cupping these coffees were popular with different folks who had rejected them depending on the buyer and lot.

These lots showed great qualities in jute until March of the following year.
Inexperienced coffee people tend to turn everything black and white and this issue is not that simple.
As usual a buyer needs to pay attention to the coffee and be careful not to buy too much.

What is most difficult about this is that you have either 5 or 15 days to reject a coffee or put the shipper on notice after arrival in whse and availability for sampling, depending on which contract you use.

This process and the rules that govern it have history. There is a protocol and method for dealing with the differing expectations of seller and buyer.

Perhaps the more important point is that scarcity and running out is a good thing sometimes.

One other thought. Great coffees which are not treated with the respect they deserve by putting the resources into making sure they move quickly are rarely as great when they arrive. Packaging can alleviate some of this. We have been discounting the division of labor for the origin coordinators of coffee and the importers of coffee for years. Personally I think this is a mistake and have seen many great coffees die in containers. This is a true shame.

Also: Keeping coffee has an opportunity cost. Inventory that is increasing in cost by 1.5%/mo and or being delayed in shipment and costing someone that much to have in their inventory is a problem.

Growers that are paying 18-22% interest on the loans they incurred to produce the coffee they have not been paid for are losing the profits.

Packaging and seasonality both can increase the value of a coffee. The former by protecting it and the latter by maximizing it.
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