Seasonal Food Is in Retreat, Unless You’re Talking About Coffee

(Bloomberg) -- It’s the middle of summer, and farmers markets are a riot of colorful berries, stone fruit, and tomatoes.

Don’t let them fool you.

Seasonal food is in quiet retreat. Over the past few years, the most popular ingredients have been decidedly winter items such as beets, kale, and cauliflower, ubiquitous on restaurant menus and in markets no matter what time of year it is. (Don’t forget, escargot is the hot ingredient this summer.) The rise of vertical farming also means more and more heirloom tomatoes are ready to slice in the middle of winter.

In fact, the biggest culinary signifier of fall no longer comes from the produce department. It’s provided by Starbucks Corp., and it is, of course, the Pumpkin Spice Latte. The much-loved/much-maligned drink, flavored with cinnamon and ginger, is enough of a seasonal message that when the release date was moved up to early September, it provoked an outcry.

Now coffee companies are taking the promise of that a step further, not with flavorings or mere marketing—“winter” or “Christmas” blends are nothing new—but with seasonal beans. While most coffee drinkers see the roasting date as the all-important determiner of a coffee’s freshness, there’s an increasingly pervasive school of thought that believes the harvest date merits more attention.

Seasonal Food Is in Retreat, Unless You’re Talking About Coffee

You can find brews made with seasonally harvested beans at regional establishments such as Chicago’s Colectivo Coffee; Qualia Coffee in Washington, D.C.; Dogwood Coffee Co. in Minneapolis; Ruby Coffee Roasters in Wisconsin; Philadelphia’s Reanimator Coffee Roasters; and Relevator Coffee, based in Birmingham, Ala.

Counter Culture Coffee, the North Carolina-based roasters who’ve established a national presence with their well-sourced single estate coffees, is especially focused on brews that change with the seasons. (For those obsessed with tracking harvests, their website has a very cool calendar and map.)

Now, Intelligentsia Coffee Inc., the 23-year-old Chicago-based darling of the third-wave coffee movement, is making a bigger deal about it as well.

In 2008 the company created a special sticker to affix to bags of beans harvested at a certain time. The stickers highlighted a few seasonal offerings among its single-origin beans. “It was inspired by the sticker on fresh fruit. We wanted to subtly recall customers’ memories of that label,” says James McLaughlin, president and chief executive officer.

“What we noticed in our lab is that the number of days ‘off harvest’ is more important than the number of days ‘off roast,’” he says. “You have a 9-month window to get it packed up and shipped. After that, there’s a degradation of quality. You pick up notes of age.”

Seasonal Food Is in Retreat, Unless You’re Talking About Coffee

This year, Intelligentsia has about 20 “In Season” coffees sourced from the Northern Hemisphere. The harvest for beans grown north of the equator (e.g., Mexico and Ethiopia) is roughly from late December through March, making them ideal for consuming through summer and early fall. Come winter, Intelligentsia will switch to promoting about 26 coffees from the Southern Hemisphere (e.g., Peru and Papua New Guinea), which are harvested from July to September.

McLaughlin says the company has seen a 10 percent increase in in-season coffee sales from the first half of 2017 to the first half of 2018, but he won’t release exact sales figures.

At a tasting at Intelligentsia’s New York location in the High Line Hotel, near its converted Citroën coffee truck, I sampled a handful of recently released in-season offerings.

The Los Inmortales coffee from El Salvador ($19/12 oz.) had a rich, direct, honeyed-peach flavor. Printed on the candy-red package were harvest dates, from November 2017 to January 2018, and a roast date of July 2. If that delay makes the beans seem less than fresh, consider that they must be dried, processed, and sorted before being exported, all of which takes several months; in-season coffee is a bit of a looser term than we traditionally think of for fruits and vegetables.

Seasonal Food Is in Retreat, Unless You’re Talking About Coffee

Another coffee I tried, the just-released Ethiopian Tikur Anbessa ($24/12 oz.), harvested in late January 2018, had a much tangier passion fruit taste that was equally direct. The third, Geisha Village ($19/12 oz., but it’s already sold out), also from Ethiopia, had the flavor of chocolate and spices; it evoked an (unseasonal) cup of mulled cider.

In general, the in-season coffees had a pronounced sweetness that I don’t find in Stumptown’s Rwanda Huye Mountain coffee, my usual morning drink.

Intelligentsia, which was acquired by Peet’s Coffee & Tea Inc. in 2015, is in the midst of expanding. It has 10 coffee bar locations around the U.S., with openings in Boston and Los Angeles this year. It’s increasing its retail presence as well. “The number of grocery stores that carry Intelligentsia coffees will increase from 554 in 2017 to over 2,000,” McLaughlin says.

He names the company’s most popular seasonal coffees as La Perla de Oaxaca from Mexico, La Tortuga from Honduras, and Flecha Roja from Costa Rica. The company is in the process of redesigning the in-season stickers to make them more prominent and to expand the program on its website, which isn’t as robust as the one on the Counter Culture site.

“We’ve seen customers form attachments to the names and coffees, often asking our baristas when their favorite seasonals will return,” McLaughlin says.

Seasonal Food Is in Retreat, Unless You’re Talking About Coffee

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.