Winter is probably best time to drink coffee. Its warmth provides an extra measure of comfort and supplies the energy required to climb out from under the covers on a cold, dark morning. Yet winter arrivals are frequently overlooked in favor of their flashier summer counterparts—it’s admittedly hard to argue with a zesty Kenya Nyeri or a floral Ethiopia Yirgacheffe or a juicy Costa Rica Tarrazu. Of course, come December and January, these coffees might not even be available, all snapped up long before they begin to fade.
Roasters are getting a lot better these days about managing their inventory during the lean months, but the fact remains that, at least in the US, a dependency on fresh crop Central American coffees landing early and often in the spring can put a strain on winter coffers. Dwindling availability of tasty Costa Rican, Guatemalan, and Honduran coffees during the winter can leave blends sapped of supply and single origin menus looking a little threadbare.
But why be beholden to flagging inventory from the Northern Hemisphere when there’s a half a world of coffees recently harvested and landing in droves at port today?
The trick needn’t be buying enough FTO Mexico to put you through to March, but instead knowing what to recommend in its absence—coffees that (if we’re being perfectly frank) at this time of year taste at their peak of freshness and will add luster to an offering list and life to a year-long blend.
South American Superheroes
When it comes to cold-weather coffees, Colombia commands an out-sized presence. Southern departments like Cauca, Narino, and Huila unleash the main harvest of their coveted supply starting in the early fall. These coffees can be as sweet as a Sidama, as electric as a Kenya (they share similar longitude, after all), and as supple as a Costa Rica.
The great diversity within the Andean mountain ranges throughout Colombia can create wildly different flavors within relatively short distances. It’s not unheard of to source a bulked blending option from a cooperative and have a single-farmer microlot from the next town down the road.
A good Colombian coffee can anchor a blend with a sturdy viscosity and chocolatey sweetness. A great one can be the cornerstone of a menu—drip or press, batch brew or pour over, even peppered into your espresso blend (or offered as a single-origin). These are versatile and varied coffees that can turn your winter menu into a wonderland.
You probably already knew that Peru is the world’s leading supplier of organic coffee. You might not know that it’s also one of the world’s most geographically diverse coffee origins, a country whose Pacific coastline is longer than that of the continental United States. This makes it a prime candidate for a wide variety of applications.
An obvious substitute for soft, smooth blenders and easy-going chuggers like a Mexico Oaxaca or a central Honduran coffee, Peruvian cooperative coffees from both the North and Central growing regions slide easily into new blends. These tend to be reasonably priced and frequently carry both Fairtrade and Organic certification, and are just as warming as a hot cocoa on a snowy morning.
However, we’ve been working to secure some unique, high quality coffees from Peru. In the north, near Jaen, Cenfrocafe and Norandino regularly produce top lots of blended regional cooperative coffees that can compete toe-to-toe with a Nicaragua Segovia or Mexico Chiapas. And Finca Tasta in Central Peru is producing remarkable microlots using honey process or separating single varieties.
South America’s powerhouse producer is frequently able to store and ship coffees throughout the year, but the peak of harvest ends in September and October-December landed Brazils are representative of the country’s coffee at its best.
Brazilian coffee from Mogiana—typically earthy and nutty—or Cerrado de Minas with its dried raisin and raw cacao notes can be the backbone of an excellent traditional espresso blend and can lend body to a balanced drip blend as well.
Increasingly we see exceptionally clean coffees from Sul de Minas. Whether from estates like Rainha or Sertãozinho or cooperative coffees like those from Cocarive’s Mantiqueira de Minas selections, the gently rolling hills near São Lourenço and Poços de Caldas are yielding some of the brightest and sweetest coffees in the country.
Meanwhile, far to the north and east, unique washed coffees from Espírito Santo and dry processed coffees from smallholder and biodynamic estates in Bahia’s Chapada Diamantina are landing with comparable elegance and juiciness to a natural processed Guji from Ethiopia. These hand-picked gems are some of Brazil’s best-kept secrets, and pair well with a crackling fireplace and cozy afghan blanket.
East African Essentials
Some of my personal favorite coffees hail from these two small but densely populated neighbors in the heart of Africa’s Great Lakes region.
Rwandas can sub into a single origin menu easily in place of flagging Guatemalas and Costa Ricas. Bright, yet soft and silky, these coffees also make exceptional espressos and contribute a lot of verve to blends in minority percentages as well. Stalwart fair trade and newly certified organic producer Dukundekawa has long been a favorite with a classic and clean profile, while newer offerings from Kivu Lake region in the west offer wilder flavors.
Burundi coffees, particularly those from the north close to the Rwandan border, sparkle with juicy ripe fruit acidity and are absolute slayers on the cupping table. These kinds of zesty coffees can seamlessly take the place of a Kenyan coffee and often can be found at comparably conservative pricing. We’re very excited to be bringing in some natural and honey processed Burundis from Kayanza, as well as fully washed options.
If you’re interested in these coffees, but hesitant to pull the trigger, I’d encourage you to flip over to this article from last year. There’s so much to be gained by investing in these coffees, it’d be a shame to leave them on the table.
Tanzanian coffees are hardly unified in flavor profile. Estate coffees from Kilimanjaro and Arusha can easily be compared to similar coffees from Antigua, Guatemala—sweet and almondy with a crisp apple-like acidity. Further north, Rainforest Alliance certified coffees from the slopes of the Ngorongoro caldera, especially from the Vohora family’s Edelweiss estate, have a soft, plummy acidity and gentle herb-like qualities that make for a thoroughly unique offering, well suited for espresso and drip alike.
Elsewhere, particularly in the northwest and the far south, smallholder coffees, when produced with care and consistency, can rival the jammy fruits of a honey process Honduras or the clean mouthfeel and elegance of an El Salvador estate.
Often thought of as a Kenya substitute, traditionally, Tanzania rarely achieves the bright acidity or high density of its northern neighbor, so my preference is usually to use coffees from this country as a proxy for Central American options, and leave my Kenya substitutions to Rwanda and Burundi. Of course, the Tanzanian peaberry selections we carry are in a class of their own.
While we typically don’t import a large quantity, Malawi presents an intriguing Southern Hemisphere alternative for Panama. The African country’s unique mix of Catimor and Gesha varieties typically presents a cup flush with plum, fig, peanut, and citrus. It’s a wild ride, and worth a try if you’re in the market for an interesting stopgap option from the southern reaches of Africa’s coffee growing belt.
Sure, you’ve tried the Monsooned Malabar and Mysore Nuggets, but did you know that Royal’s history with the Arabidecool Estate goes back a generation, or that coffee grown in the Baba Budangari hills nearby descends from the very first plant pilfered from Yemen in the 17th century?
India’s history with coffee is sometimes overlooked in modern specialty circles, but the country remains relevant in innovations in variety development and agronomy research. Coffees from the western coastal growing regions offer dense chocolate cake notes and make excellent espresso options.
On the eastern half of the puzzle piece island north of Australia, Papua New Guinea is having an exceptional season. Coffees from estates and smallholders alike, at their best, can match a Kenyan coffee’s acidity and citrus notes, with the added attraction of sweet herbal flavors. Royal has long worked with farms like Kimel and Korgua, as well as smallholder groups from the Nebilyer valley, and we always celebrate a little when the floodgates open and coffees from this island-nation begin to pour in. Take advantage of these offerings sooner rather than later, as their demand frequently outpaces supply, especially in banner years like this one.
Once the world’s most coffee-dependent nation, the eastern half of the island of Timor is also the location where robusta spontaneously crossed with arabica to create a hybrid, now used worldwide as a hearty, high-yielding, disease-resistant option. Coffees from East Timor, much like Papua New Guinea, are having an exceptional run this season, with high quality and good quantities available. Royal’s Timor-Leste offerings are also certified organic and/or Fairtrade, making them excellent swap-ins for coffees from places like Honduras, where a substantial mouthfeel is matched by bold chocolate flavors, soft nuttiness and earthiness, and a mild citrus acidity.
Let’s be honest: coffees from Indonesia are each as unique as the individual island on which they’re grown. No other coffee can compete with the mossy, dusky notes of a wet-hulled Sumatra Mandheling or the herbal, earthy fragrance of a Sulawesi. Yet, even here one can find convenient wintertime substitutions for summer staples.
Coffees from Java, more frequently fully washed than neighboring islands, can have clean citrus notes layered on a backdrop of chocolate and rosemary-like flavors. An easy choice to replace single origin coffees like a Pacamara, Javanese coffees can also sub in for American island coffees like Jamaica or Hawaii, without the high price tag.
In addition to inexpensive blender lots from places like Bali and Flores, we frequently pick up a number of high-end small lots from favored producers, which make especially unique single origin offerings at this time of year. In particular, recently landed Red Cherry selections and the revered Toarco Jaya estate are favorites, and worth a look if your lineup is looking a little slim.
Unsure of when coffees are available?
Look no further than this recent article on harvest timelines, or call your friendly trader!