Seasonality has become a key aspect of speciality coffee and part of what distinguishes it from commodity coffee, of course this sits alongside the most important difference, which is that of flavour. Traceability and provenance are tied up with the seasonality factor, but one of the main reasons for focusing on coffee as a seasonal product was the way past crop tastes. The coffees would lose all of their positive acidity and often much of their wonderful character, on top of this they would develop baggy, musty and generally nasty flavour.
The time frame for this degradation was not set in stone, with some coffees dropping off of a flavour cliff very quickly, just a matter of months from arrival in the country, which depending on the country, processing and shipping would have been around a further 3 months form picking the cherries. Because of the almost two half's of coffee production throughout the year (latitude driven, with north of the equator harvesting throughout our summer months and south of the equator harvesting throughout our winter months) It was tempting to stick to each half for roughly six months of the year, effectively splitting the year into two coffee seasons for consumers of speciality coffee. Of course there are fly crops and countries that have less strict cropping seasons but this was a good general rule. There was the odd coffee from Ethiopia that tasted amazing for longer than it should and so forth, but the last couple of years have seen a change.
At this moment in time I am tasting Guatemalan coffees that taste, vibrant and fresh, coffees that were harvested nearly 12 months ago. And, Its not just that the coffees are from Guatemala. Theres a common theme. Grain pro.
Traditional Jute/Hessian sacks have been the carrier for green coffee for so long that they have become synonymous with the bean, a symbol of the exoticness of the ingredient. However, Jute packagings alluring prettiness hides massive failings as a packaging material for an agronomical product that suffers easily from tainting and degradation.
Grain pro is a type of packaging used to store green coffee from when its harvested through to sitting in a roastery waiting to be dropped into a hot spinning drum. It is increasingly becoming the packaging of choice in the speciality industry. Grain pro is effectively a plastic bag of sorts that is billed as creating a hermetically sealed environment. In practice it is rarely completely sealed, especially the non zip tie option, which ends up looking like a shopping bag tied into a knot at the top. There are also other options on the market, with Vac packed being the most notable. This differs in that it is completely sealed and all of the air is removed from the pack leaving you with a brick of coffee. Vac packing is a requirement for cup of excellence coffees'. Vacuum packing is however considerably more expensive than grain pro and currently is limited to smaller lots of more expensive coffees.
What's staggering though, is the leap in quality from Jute to grain pro as coffees are stored for longer periods of time. Of course it still has to be good coffee that was well processed in the first place, and yes there are still exceptions, with coffees that drop off relatively quickly even when well stored.
All in all though, this move to grain pro is a very good thing. It does not mean that speciality coffee will become less unique or less seasonal. Lots of coffee from interesting farms will still go within relatively short periods of time after harvest, speciality roasters will still be excited to get hold, taste and sell the freshest and best coffees
It is effectively a great piece of development within the coffee chain that reflects an emphasis on and a regard for flavour in coffee.Its a difference that can be tasted and seen at a consumer level. It means roasters and importers can make more of the coffees they buy. After all its no problem to explain to my customers that the time periods from harvest and the loss of flavour that makes the coffee speciality is not as short as it once was. We will still only be buying and serving the coffee based on how it tastes.