Editor’s Note: A version of this article first ran in Daily Coffee News on November 7, 2018. It is reprinted here with permission.
The language of seasonality has long been used in conversations about coffee, yet it has not always been an accurate reflection of the mechanisms of the trade. This is pretty evident when you talk to a roaster looking to order Guatemalan coffee during December, or an importer mentioning that Colombia “harvests year round” — which is sort-of true, but imprecise.
Rather than try to reinvent the wheel, so to speak, and create yet another ugly harvest calendar that does inadequate justice to the nuances of seasonal fluctuations and regional distinctions, let’s begin with a broader view. Instead of trying to identify the nuances of an individual country’s harvest timeline, the map below reveals the season during which the origin’s usual peak of harvest takes place most years. It’s a rough sketch, but provides us with a starting point:
Coffee’s flowers must bloom, albeit briefly, before the fruits set and begin to mature. Blossoming is triggered by rain after a hot and dry spell, and cherry growth often takes six months or more. Tropical weather tendencies — with plenty of irregularities — still differ predictably by hemisphere, so the rains in Brazil in September and October result in harvests starting in May and June, whereas late spring and summer rains in Mexico will produce mature fruit before the end of the calendar year.
For the most part, this holds true worldwide: harvests of specialty-quality Arabica occur during the hemispheric winter. Thus, based on nothing other than geography, a roaster can know — within a margin of error — when cherries are being picked.
When I used to travel more, I’d usually try to time my visits to coincide with the peak of harvest — a fairly common convention for buyers visiting their producers. It affords the opportunity to cup early harvest, take photos at nearly every step of the process, and still have a say in how the later-picking lots may turn out. Even the smallest micro-region may harvest for extended time periods depending on factors like weather, plant variety, and available labor. Thus, if the yield is large enough, early harvests may be ready to ship as much as four or five months before the final pass for the season.
And yet, even coffees harvested simultaneously in different parts of the globe may arrive in our warehouse at different times. This can be due to processing methods, logistics, seasonal variations, trade route configurations, customs holds, political interferences, or other factors Given this reality, even the best laid plans can’t guarantee a coffee’s arrival time. This summer, one of Royal’s shipments was delayed by a hurricane, another by lack of the appropriate phytosanitary certificate from origin, and Ethiopia’s entire crop arrived by an average of over a month late compared to last year’s arrivals.
Again, consider the map below in broad strokes, as it displays the customary season corresponding to a coffee’s peak arrival time in the United States — specifically, at our warehouse here in Oakland. (The map is interactive, tap or click on the tabs near the top to switch back & forth)
Arrival times, beyond being contingent on harvests, are also typically subject to approval of samples. Coffees in most places in the world will not move to a new destination without a confirmed purchase. Thus, even though a coffee from Costa Rica might be finished and ready to ship in April, a sample approval, contract agreement, and shipping schedule might not be arranged until June for an August arrival.
All this to say, for most given purchases at Royal Coffee, the date of debarkation at the Port of Oakland is likely more related to when we approve a sample than when it was actually harvested. A relationship between harvest period and sampling may be implied, but nothing should be assumed as a given.
Additionally, we should talk about just a few of the innumerable exceptions. Secondary harvest cycles, known as “fly crop” or mitaca, are irregular summer harvest periods usually marked by lower volumes and quality. For whatever reason, Kenya has become a known quantity for fly crop, perhaps because a budget-conscious roaster can get a cheap lot during an off cycle.
Many representatives of Colombia’s grower federation, the FNC, will repeat the claim that in Colombia, the harvest is year-round. The unique positioning of the country on the Earth’s equator in combination with the Andean mountain range, as it splits into three major spines, produces highly variable rainfall throughout the country. Multiple regions experience mitaca, and indeed bulked Colombian coffee without regional traceability is generally available year-round — though the same can often be said about other origins, as well.
In general, Colombia’s most coveted traceable specialty coffees from Cauca, Huila, and Nariño tend to harvest between April and July, arriving stateside between October and January — comparable to neighboring Ecuador and Peru, for example. However, older traditional growing regions in the north like Santander, Antioquia, and Magdalena, tend to act a little more like early Northern Hemisphere harvests, picking during our fall and winter and arriving stateside during the spring and summer. But even within individual departments, regions may vary wildly enough to have completely different harvests. Examine the map below (intellectual property of FNC) where you can observe stark variation in relatively small distances due to topography, tradewinds, rain cycles, and various other environmental factors.
If you want to get even more technical, the months of January, February, July, and August are not represented on the map above, though I’m sure you could find someone somewhere in Colombia picking a coffee cherry during those times.
Beyond the predictable delays —for example, Ethiopian and Tanzanian coffees tend take vastly longer between contract approvals and port delivery than Colombias and Brazils— there are unpredictable ones.
Royal Coffee logistics specialist Jodi Louws dug through the Royal archives and helped me analyze thousands upon thousands of shipping and arrival data points related to shifting seasons in coffee shipments.
Below is about three years worth of data — from January 2016 thru October 2018 — displaying monthly coffee arrivals, by volume, from Colombia. The vertical bars are the three-year summary, and the horizontal lines are the yearly totals. You’ll notice relatively clear peaks in March and again in August through December.
Looking at the same time period for Ethiopian coffee arrivals, you can see the seasonal arrivals tend to peak in early summer, with a fairly wide margin of error, but the bulk of our 2018 coffees have been late compared to the previous two years.
There are probably at least four contributing factors to the later-than-usual arrivals from Ethiopia.
One is political: The country’s had a tumultuous couple of years, with numerous popular uprisings, particularly in the South, near where many of the coffee washing stations we work with operate. Their leadership has entirely turned over. Ethiopia now has both the continent’s youngest political leader as prime minister and the only female head of state as ceremonial president.
Add to this a major overhaul in the way the ECX operates, including increased transparency. A major amendment passed in the summer of 2017 that reshaped the ECX in likely its most dramatic form. One of the most important changes for specialty buyers is likely the export recognition for farmers or groups that can produce 20 or more quintals of coffee (Ethiopian quintals are 100-kilogram units, so this is equal to about 4,400 pounds). Independent non-ECX members and cooperatives may now engage in trade directly. As these newly formed independent groups emerged, delays may have resulted as they learned how to engage with the direct export market.
The third, and likely the most significant reason, is a frost that affected the trees in 2017. Per Royal Coffee CEO Max Nicholas-Fulmer, “The main reason was climatic, pushing back our deliveries by about six weeks. It’s already looking like next seasons deliveries will be much earlier.”
Lastly, possibly related to weather, Royal delayed approval of early samples. Our decision to wait for later, higher-quality samples to cross our cupping table compounded an already late harvest and complex logistical hurdle.
So, innumerable factors can affect harvest, shipment, and arrival dates. It’s not really rocket science, but it is nice to have some hard data and visual aids to help disambiguate the process. And, of course, if you liked the charts, there’s plenty more where that came from. Here are a few more of the “usual suspects” with data organized monthly by volume. Enjoy.