The Source: Sourcing Seasonality

In this entry, Little City GM Ian Myers provides an introduction to our new section called "The Source," and explains some of the basics of sourcing seasonal coffee.

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Hopefully you have experienced the enhanced flavor of coffee that is freshly roasted, ground, and brewed. It’s life-changing, or at least it was for me. But what about freshness in terms of seasonal coffee? And I am not talking about Pumpkin Spice or White Christmas seasonal, but rather “fresh crop coffee” that was freshly harvested.

What does “seasonal” coffee even mean? The coffee shrub, like many other trees, has harvest periods throughout the year, when its fruits are ripe for the picking. Depending on rainfall and weather patterns, the coffee plant can have one or several harvests throughout the year. Those harvest times vary by country, and even by the specific region within a country.  As Joel talks about in The Roast [LINK], the coffee bean is actually a seed, and the minute that coffee seed is harvested, it is removed from its protecting mother plant and subject to degradation. In other words, the clock is ticking. What happens as the bean ages? The first sign that a coffee bean is past its prime is that the flavor attributes fade—the coffee loses its brightness, sharpness, and intensity. After that stage, the coffee starts to taste “past crop,” gaining papery, woody, flavors and even astringency.

As the General Manager of Little City, I wear many hats. But, along with head roaster Eric Wolf and all of our team, one of the ones I am most proud of is how we keep our blends fresh by constantly sourcing fresh crop seasonal coffees. Along with our seasonal microlots, we are always planning ahead for coffees that will go into Congress Ave, Republic, Grackle, Messenger, Violet Crown and other blends. Our blends are crafted in the sense that they are not the same coffees year round, nor are they “where microlots go to die.” (A common industry practice is to use blends as a place to get rid of older coffees that might have once been good, but have since faded and now taste faded or woody.) We are constantly planning our blends and changing out the components with fresh crop so they don’t fade, or, worse yet, develop those “past crop” woody flavors.

  The Little City team cupping Costa Rica samples from Ian’s sourcing trip, to determine which freshly harvested (seasonal) coffee will replace the Peruvian coffee in some of our blends.

The Little City team cupping Costa Rica samples from Ian’s sourcing trip, to determine which freshly harvested (seasonal) coffee will replace the Peruvian coffee in some of our blends.

You may have seen calendars showing the harvest, ship, and arrival periods from each country. God, I wish it were that easy. The only way to understand the ever-changing harvest seasons and ensure freshness is through relationships with producers and exporters, and visiting them as often as possible to have an ear to the ground about the intricacies of each harvest.

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Counter clockwise: Ian cupping coffee in Costa Rica, Eric in the fields of the Huila Department in Colombia, and Joel enjoying a non-coffee beverage in Myanmar.

 

Of course, even “perfect” planning doesn’t ensure flawless execution. For example, we’ve sometimes struggled getting coffees into the U.S. from countries like Myanmar, or even neighboring Mexico. The steps between harvest, processing, sampling, contracting, milling, bagging, exporting, and importing take real time and attention. Best case is three months after harvest, and we’ve found that working with exceptional producers and carefully vetting supply chains help to hit that target. I traveled to Costa Rica last month and last week our team made a decision about the new Costa Rica blend component. You can follow those coffees at #lccostarica.

But I am so proud of our results. It’s time consuming and expensive to constantly be sourcing new coffees for the blends, not to mention the time spent working on the roast curves to ensure they don’t alter the blend profile. But it’s worth it. I am very proud of the work we do and the quality of our blends. They are not afterthoughts. Our motto is Everyone Deserves a Great Cup of Coffee. And with all of our blends, that rings true year round.