Coffee is harvested at different times in different parts of the world. Producing regions that straddle the equator, such as Ecuador, can produce throughout much of the year.
Arabica coffee grows in a narrow region of the tropics known as the Coffee Belt, which stretches from Central America to sub-Saharan Africa to Asia.
There are a number of seasonality maps online, illustrating the various phases of coffee production, from harvesting to delivery.
According to Orinoco expert Steve Izzo, those maps are approximations, at best.
And that’s because occasionally, your favorite roast may not be available stateside when you have a hankering for a number of complex reasons.
Breaking Down the Process
Coffee is an ag crop, says Izzo. But it’s different than, say, broccoli or cabbage or fresh strawberries.
With a coffee crop, you throw away the cherry and keep the pit, or the seed. The green coffee bean is the pit of the coffee cherry.
These beans tend to store exceptionally well, making coffee unlike most other agricultural crops which can spoil soon after you pick them.
Coffee is not ready for export as soon as it’s harvested, however. First it needs to be sorted and dried, which can take a few weeks, depending on the method. The coffee then rests in a warehouse, in a protective layer of parchment (similar to the skin of a peanut), for 60 to 90 days before it is finally ready for export.
It’s a time-consuming and delicate process that must not be interrupted. Rushing things will ultimately affect the potential flavor of the coffee.
But the harvest season is only part of the equation, Izzo says.
Grinding to a Halt
To begin with, coffee is kind of hard to get. It grows at a high altitudes, reaching 3500 meters above sea level. It thrives in temperatures between 64-70 degrees Fahrenheit. Most of it is shipped by boat. So, you have to pick it in the mountains, process it, and bring it to port. All of which can pose various challenges.
Generally speaking, coffee that is picked mid-season – like Brazilians (roughly May through August) – should arrive at U.S. warehouses as early as October. And, notes Izzo, those are usually some of the best beans.
That being said, coffees hailing from different countries harvested at the exact same time might still arrive in the U.S. on varying schedules, due to a wide range of contributing factors.
- Available infrastructure. The size of the farm or cooperative plays a significant role, as does transit. In many coffee producing regions, mass transportation is simply not available. Pickup trucks and unpaved roads are the reality.
- Environmental factors. One random day of rain can make a huge impact, says Orinoco’s Vanessa McCallister, who witnessed weather’s hand at work while visiting farms in in February. “Any farmer who had placed their coffee out to dry, now has to start that entire process over again,” adds Izzo. “It creates a hiccup in the whole system.”
- There are some coffee blights, such as La Roya, or leaf rust, which is primarily a problem in central America. This fungus causes coffee leaves to drop off and kills the coffee tree. The Coffee Research Institute is currently working on a hybrid plant, he adds – splicing seedlings together in hopes of breeding a leaf rust resistant species; something that may fare better in an ever-changing environment.
- An invasive species known as the coffee berry bore will actually eat the coffee bean. These worms are best combated through pesticides, while blights are treated with certain herbicides.
It’s important to note, however, says McCallister, that the usage of pesticides to stave off intruders could prevent coffees from being certified organic.
The Bottom Line
There are so many different phases of coffee production, which take place in so many different parts of the world.
Every once in a while, you hit a crop that’s short or slightly delayed, says McCallister. There are one or two months where it’s not simply available to anyone.
“Consumers are looking at their chart and saying, ‘But this map says it’s ready in February,’” she says. “And it’s a little more involved than that.”
“Coffee doesn’t work that way unless you live in the region where it’s grown,” notes Izzo.
Any number of factors could delay coffee’s arrival into port: being stopped by customs, permit issues, brokers, and more. So much of coffee’s availability involves processing and logistics.
And sometimes, the where is more important than the when.
“The harvest may be ready,” says Izzo, “but it’s ready in Mexico.”
The apparent moral? Good things come to those who can wait, even just one to two months.
“The coffee is coming in, but the boat just simply isn’t here yet.”