October 20, 2015

4 Steps to Serving Seasonal Drinks in 3rd Wave Style


It’s that time of year again, when a certain coffee chain rolls out a particular drink for a limited time only. Devotees have waited for nearly a year just for a taste of their favorite fall drink. Posters and billboards advertise its arrival. Customers can’t get enough.

In fact, ask an average person what they associate with fall, and I bet you that pumpkin spice latte will be on that list.

So how do YOU create a seasonal menu that leaves people begging for more? Read on for our four tips for craze-inducing specials.

Keep Your Coffee Current

From a seasonal standpoint, the filter coffee might just be the most overlooked part of the menu. Since it’s always there, it’s easy to forget that it is seasonal too. Certain origins like Colombia harvest most of the year with only a few months off. Others, like Yemen, only harvest three months out of the year. Let your customers know why a particular coffee isn’t available all year round, and when it’ll be back in season.

Lee este artículo en español 4 Maneras de Crear Bebidas de Temporada Con Café Especial

coffee beans

 Let’s not forget coffee is seasonal and changes from year to year. Credit: Eric Squires

Yet choosing a seasonal coffee isn’t just about availability; it’s also about flavor. Look for offerings that have flavors connected to the season you’re in. Citrusy coffees are great in the summer. Coffees with dark flavors (not necessarily dark roasted), such as baking spices or chocolate, are wonderful in the winter. Basically, if it has notes that sound like something you’d want to eat in that particular season, it’s probably a good option.

SEE ALSO: 6 Tips for Blow-You-Away Specialty Coffee Cocktails

Irish coffee

This smoky take on an Irish coffee begs to be on an Autumn drink menu. Credit Eric Squires

Keep Your Seasonings Seasonal

One of my favorite things about third wave coffee is how we’ve moved beyond dumping tons of flavored syrups into our drinks. When we want to make drink specials, we borrow from culinary and bar techniques. We come up with new, creative ideas, and we present coffees in never-before-seen ways. The result? Some seriously fantastic drinks.

Farmers’ markets

 Farmers’ markets are a great way to find out what produce is in season. Credit: Pixabay

But one way we can improve these drinks is to aim them toward seasonality. Drinks created with seasonal ingredients are just so much better. Why?

  1. They’re cheaper. Ingredients are more abundant in season, so they don’t have to be shipped halfway around the world causing an increase in the price.
  2. They’re local. When something’s in season in your area you can buy it locally, saving money, reducing emissions during transportation, and promoting the local economy.
  3. They’re just more natural. Despite what the supermarket would have you believe, not everything is available all year long. And as humans, I believe we have a natural tendency to desire the foods that are in season.
  4. They’re delicious. Foods in season taste better and are fresher.

Not sure what’s in season? Consult your local farmer’s market or use the internet (Eat The Seasons is a great resource for North Americans and Brits).

Match Coffees to Drink Specials

Picking the right coffee or blend to use in a drink special can be a daunting task. The possibilities are endless. But don’t worry, because there are two winning approaches to this.

  • Pick a Complementary Coffee

Consult the tasting notes for your coffee and use it as inspiration for flavors to highlight. If you have a nice floral Ethiopian Yirgacheffe, you might try using hibiscus, jasmine or even wildflower honey. In contrast, a more wild Sumatra might evoke pipe tobacco or cedar. Try smoking or barrel-aging it for a complementary effect.

Real spices

Real spices make great ingredients in drink specials. Credit: Eric Squires

If you find a tasting note that you can use in a drink, pull it out and make it the centerpiece. Make a syrup using that particular fruit note you found. Garnish with the herbal notes you tasted. Take several of the notes and use them as the ingredients to construct a drink special. Highlight what is already in the coffee and use that to your advantage. 


Fruit notes are common in coffee and can be used as ingredients in your drink specials. Credit: Pixabay

Alternatively, you can use the coffee to contrast the ingredients you add to your drink. Similar to how milk and espresso play off each other in a cappuccino, it can work on a micro level with the flavors in the coffee and the added ingredients. The culinary world, with its wide range of time-tested flavor combinations, is a great place to look for inspiration.

  • Coffee as an Ingredient

Sometimes, for a drink special, we want to use coffee as a more basic ingredient—as just one part of a more complex drink. And although coffee might not be the star of the drink, it’s still an important component. In this situation, it’s often best to use a blend, perhaps an espresso or a cold brew.  


Coffee is a wonderful base ingredient. Treat it like a canvas and paint it with flavors. Credit: Eric Squires

When you’re not trying to pull out a specific flavor from your coffee, it’s a great opportunity to borrow from the cocktail world. When using your coffee like you would a base spirit, you can substitute it in for nearly any dark spirit (such as whiskey or rum) and sometimes even lighter spirits (like gin). The sky’s the limit, and the recipes are practically ready made, but keep in mind that sometimes a little adjustment is necessary to get things just right.

Looking for a little coffee cocktail inspiration? Check out these tips for creating your own or head here for the perfect espresso and tonic based on the classic G&T.

Track Performance

As specialty coffee enthusiasts, creating seasonal drinks is an act of love and inspiration. Yet it doesn’t matter if you’ve made the most amazing drink in the world, if no one wants to drink it.

It’s important to track how each drink on your seasonal menu performs. When you know how popular your drinks are, you can then tweak your menu and make even more drinks that your customers love. Sometimes the drinks that your customers love will surprise you, but if you follow their lead, they’ll keep coming back for more.

Seasonal drinks are not just a gimmick. They’re a great way to bring interest to a menu that may not change a lot otherwise, to create innovative and incredibly delicious drinks, and to help consumers find yet another thing about coffee to love. So get creative and think seasonally.

Feature Photo Credit: Robbie Lynch

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