May 24, 2021

Roasting essentials: Exploring seasonal coffee blends

A seasonal blend, as the name suggests, is a blended coffee that a roaster offers for a certain period of time, generally linked to coffee harvest seasons.

Seasonality is important in the coffee sector. Broadly speaking, coffees are only available from certain origin countries at different times throughout the year. And as freshness remains a key priority in specialty coffee – not to mention the growing consumer interest in different coffee origins – seasonal blends have understandably become more prominent.

To learn more about why this is and what consumers can expect from different seasonal blends, I spoke to two roasters based in the UK. Here’s what they told me.

You might also like our article on creating coffee blends.

Overview & a brief guide to coffee seasonality

Coffee is a fruit and is therefore seasonal. This means that its sensory properties will always be slightly different from harvest to harvest, depending on a number of different factors in the growing environment.

If roasters want to create a more consistent flavour profile for their customers, they can create a blend, profiling it to a specific taste or flavour to ensure reliability and consistency year-round.

However, by making these blends seasonal, they can also take quality and harvest timelines into account, making sure that the coffee is not just consistent, but also fresh.

Will Corby is the Head of Coffee at Pact Coffee, based in the UK. Pact is a roaster that typically delivers coffee to retail customers across the UK within 48 hours of roasting.

“We maintain seasonality because fresh coffee is best,” Will says. “We know that it will give consumers the ability to taste the unique characteristics of the coffee.”

Seasonality is not just about harvest timeframes, however. Harvesting, processing, and shipping coffee all take months at the best of times.

Firstly, producers should generally only pick cherries that are red and ripe. This often means hand-picking the cherries is necessary.

After that, the cherries have to be processed, which can take anywhere from days to weeks, as can drying and milling.

After that, the coffee must be shipped (assuming it is being sold internationally). This is also a long process. For instance, even though the Ethiopian coffee harvest generally runs from October to December, shipments might well not arrive with the roaster until the February or March of the following year.

And there’s no way to guarantee a timeframe, either. Global issues like the Covid-19 pandemic or political unrest at origin can further delay the movement of coffee shipments.

Determining and “maintaining” coffee seasonality is generally done by evaluating freshness. However, in his book Dear Coffee Buyer, Ryan Brown (a long-time coffee buyer and author) says this is not always the case.

Brown argues instead that “a coffee should be considered seasonal so long as the cup is vibrant, shows structured acidity, and is free of any signs of age (paper, bagginess, astringency, etc)”.

It’s also worth noting that some coffees age better than others. For example, Ethiopian Yirgacheffe coffees are known to age well. Ultimately, if roasters adopt a flexible understanding of seasonality and evaluate each coffee on a case-by-case basis, this can be more beneficial in the long term.

What are the benefits of offering seasonal blends?

As a roaster, offering a seasonal blend can show customers that you’re taking an active interest in sourcing fresher beans. You can also treat it as a “limited edition” product to promote consumer interest.

Will says: “Our mainline espresso product, ‘Fruit and Nut’, has notes of milk chocolate, raisins, and almonds, and is made up as a seasonal blend.

“The development of our blend became about working at origin to make sure we had consistency in taste and flavour profiles.”

Developing a seasonal blend might also make sense from a commercial point of view. By including seasonal yet lower-scoring coffees in your blend, you may be able to improve your margins while still delivering a reliable, high-quality flavour profile. 

However, seasonal blends are not only beneficial to roasters and consumers; producers can also reap the rewards. 

“Originally, when [we] made [Fruit and Nut], we used a Brazilian as the base,” Will tells me. “However, now, six months [out] of the year, we use a coffee from Colombia from a farm that we’ve worked with since 2015.

“For the [other] six months, we use a coffee from Rwanda [as the base]. This has more vibrant acidity, so we adjust our profile.”

These long-term annual commitments to purchasing coffees from farmers for seasonal blends generates greater stability for the producer. It provides them with a guaranteed income that can be used to improve their farm and invest in the quality of their crop. 

“We annually commit to purchasing these Brazilian, Colombian and Rwandan coffees for our blend,” Will explains. “The farmers know that every year they will be producing [a certain number] of bags for us for that specific blend.”

What do consumers expect from seasonal blends?

Roland Glew is the Sourcing and Production Manager at Hasbean Coffee Roasters in Stafford, UK. He says there are certain “traditional” expectations for seasonal blends.

“Most European and US consumers tend to associate summers with juicy acidity, lively and floral flavours,” he explains. “Dark winters, however, create an expectation of dried fruit, caramelised flavours, and a heavier body.

“However, this isn’t universal, and it can be good to play [against] expectations!”

Will agrees that it doesn’t have to be set in stone. “The eye-opening factor was working with consumers and [realising] that we don’t all have the same perspective on blends,” he says. “You have to [focus on] consistency and high quality.”

However, Will notes that it’s also important to create a seasonal blend that is dependable and reliable. 

“One of the core aspects of delivering a blend is about creating that wider ‘sweet spot’ for consumers,” he says. “You want to allow them to extract the coffee in a way they might expect from a coffee shop.”

This means that if you change the makeup on the blend for different seasonal coffees, it can be worth reflecting this with different descriptors for flavour profile or tasting notes on your packaging.

“When the [coffee] changes, we communicate the changes in roast [profile] and flavour notes, as well as the origins of the coffee,” Will says. “People enjoy seeing it every year and understand that they might get a slightly different experience, but it’s likely to be embraced, rather than shunned.”

Displaying the origin information of all the coffees in the blend on your packaging also gives your customers more transparency. It communicates that while a similar flavour profile is likely, your coffee is still fresh and seasonal, so there might be some changes.

For instance, sharper acidity may become more rounded or muted, while sweeter tastes may turn from stone fruits to dark chocolate. 

Providing tasting cards or detailed labels when you ship these blends can give consumers all the necessary information. It also gives you an opportunity to outline particular brew methods, ratios, or recipes that work best, so you can support your customers to get the best out of each cup.

Seasonal blends: Espresso or filter?

Will says that Pact Coffee generally only offers blends for espresso, and not for filter. “This is because of the harsher extraction method for espresso,” he says. “It means you often need to bring blends together. 

“Finding coffees that have balance at their cores is key to offering single origin espresso roasts, but it’s also rare.”

The shorter window for extraction with espresso means that striking a balance between acidity, sweetness, bitterness, and body is vital. This is especially key when you consider that the customer may well drink it as part of a milk-based beverage – the flavour needs to be versatile enough to work both with and without milk.

In contrast, a delicate single origin coffee with high levels of acidity might be great as a black filter coffee, but milk can ruin the more nuanced flavours. 

This is why blends are often more popular for espresso. Blending allows roasters to hone in on a sensory profile that might be more suited to espresso, or maybe isn’t available from the single origins they have in stock.

Roasting a complex and layered blend may also be more affordable and sustainable than seeking out a specific or rare micro lot that is not only limited in volume, but also less sustainable for the producer.

Roland says Hasbean offers house blends with a range of flavour profiles, and notes that roasters can use seasonal blends as an opportunity.

“Limited seasonal blends in particular give a roaster a rare opportunity to use unusual coffees or flavour combinations,” Roland says. “The roaster can let their imagination go wild without needing to maintain that all year round.”

Marketing your seasonal blend

Seasonal blends can be a successful product for your brand, but you need to make sure the flavours you use work well enough to keep people coming back. 

“The best blends have a clear concept, and the coffees and [profile] used are chosen to deliver on that,” Roland says. “Just remember that the clearer and more interesting the concept, the higher the expectations will be to deliver those flavours.”

To stand out from other blends on your market, you can get creative with blend names that might allude to the flavours and textures of the coffees. 

“Don’t have a generic ‘summer blend’,” Roland says. “Maybe create ‘mojito blend’, for example; what about ‘Wimbledon blend’ which tastes of strawberries, cream and champagne?” 

Will also recommends finding inspiration from seasonal food and beverage items that are popular in the consuming market, too. He uses Christmas as an example.

“The one time of year we always have a blended seasonal filter roast is Christmas,” he explains. “This helps achieve the characteristics of a mince pie or a Christmas pudding, using boozy natural coffees, some with nutty characteristics, and some bright, fresh, juicy coffees [too].”

However, in the warmer seasons, lighter flavours and different brewing methods are likely to be more popular. “In summer, it’s less likely that people will [add] milk or cream,” Will says. “[Consider that] people may be drinking their coffees cold and black, both as espresso and filter.”

When executed well, seasonal blends are a great opportunity. Not only do they showcase the skill of your roasting team, they also allow you to design a unique blend that balances freshness with consistency, dependability, and sustainability at origin.

So next time you visit your roaster, check if they have a limited edition blend in stock. Even if you’re more of a single origin fan, try something different; it might surprise you.

Enjoyed this? You might also like our guide on building an espresso blend.

Photo credits: Hasbean, Al Higgins, Pact Coffee

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