Many foods taste different depending on where they were grown. A strawberry grown in California will taste distinct from a strawberry in Florida — and this is logic we understand well in coffee. For example, coffees grown in Colombia will taste different from coffees grown in Ethiopia or Papua New Guinea.
However, we don’t often talk about how the same foods can taste different from year to year. A strawberry grown in 2021 might taste different the following year or in five years. Like strawberries and other fruits and vegetables, coffee is an agricultural product, meaning its flavor is highly affected by its growing conditions.
Some of this information is unsurprising — that’s why many roasters print things like their coffee’s elevation or soil conditions. But some of this is still new to many coffee drinkers, and if you’re paying close attention to your favorite coffees, you might notice subtle differences from one harvest to the next. Here are a few reasons why your coffee might change in flavor from one year to another.
Picking and processing
Colin Frew is the roasting and QC manager for Metric Coffee in Chicago and has seen many coffees change in flavor from year to year. “The company I work for buys most of their coffee from the same small farms each season,” he says, “so the last three years working here have given me an especially clear picture of these changes.”
Coffee must be picked at precisely the right time and stored carefully, and any deviations from the plan a farmer has for their coffee can throw off the flavor profile. Frew noticed that limitations because of COVID-19 affected one of the lots he works with. “During the 2020 harvest season in Central America, pandemic restrictions (while necessary) negatively impacted picking and processing. Migrant workers could not travel across international borders to come and work on the farms, making it impossible to get all the coffee cherries harvested at optimal ripeness.”
However, a hiccup in the plan can sometimes produce a pleasantly unexpected flavor. “We work with a farmer in Honduras named Remigio Castellanos. In 2019, Remigio’s coffee tasted sweet and citric, very similar to other coffees from his region,” Frew says. “In 2020, Remigio couldn’t consistently find trucks to come and pick up the harvested cherries off his remote farm. Sometimes the cherries would sit in the bags they were harvested in for an extra day or two waiting to be picked up.”
The delay ended up being advantageous. “When we tasted the sample of his coffee that year, we were shocked by how fruity it tasted. The extra time in the bags had caused some unintended fermentation to occur. In this case, it was greatly to the coffee’s benefit! That year we got quite a few comments from customers on how different Remigio’s coffee tasted compared to the previous year.”
The flavor of a coffee depends a lot on the nutrients it receives from the soil and sun, so temperature and climate can drastically affect how coffee tastes from one year to the next. “I feel like climate change has affected the quality of certain coffees. I have noticed more occurrences of certain defects,” says Kim Nguyen, QC lab manager and lead technician for Intelligentsia Coffee.
Many coffee-growing regions structure their harvests based on weather patterns, anticipating that it’ll be bright and sunny for a particular portion of the year while it might be rainy and wet during others. If it rains earlier than expected, that can mess with many things, like when pickers will come in to pull ripe cherries or how long a coffee can dry on a patio during processing. And in general, the less time a coffee spends before it is picked — ripening and absorbing nutrients — the less sweetness will develop in the bean.
Climate change has negatively impacted many growing regions, and at best, some farms see a mixed bag of possible outcomes. “When the rains came about a month and a half early last year in Costa Rica, the delicate blooming coffee flowers were damaged in large numbers,” says Frew. “When the flower is damaged, not as many cherries grow on the tree. As a result, many farmers saw huge decreases in the yields on their farms. In this instance, the flavor was positively impacted. With less of an abundance of fruit ripening, the coffee trees pushed more nutrients into the cherries that were there.”
Many farmers have been forced to adapt, but that’s not easy with coffee being an annual crop (in some countries, coffee is harvested twice a year, and some regions can be harvested all year, but generally, most farms harvest coffee once a year). What you learn in one year might not apply to the next — consistency becomes more of an issue. “Overall, the unpredictable weather patterns may make many high altitude farms (where the best coffee comes from) unsuitable to grow coffee,” Frew says.
Politics and organization structure
As a globally exported item, coffee is inherently political, and governmental ordinances and historical precedent determine many of the ways we buy coffee. An example of this is in Kenya, where “producers… are removed from the commercial market, their coffee passing through a Byzantine and colonial export system that centralizes sales through an auction system with exporters in the position of greatest power, sacrificing traceability and financial transparency along the way,” writes Christopher Feran, a coffee consultant and part of Phoenix Coffee Co in Cleveland, Ohio.
In a recent blog post, he attempted to answer a big question: why do Kenyan coffees taste differently than they did four or five years ago? Feran’s blog post is incredibly detailed and nuanced. Still, he points to changes like “their volume of exports had slowly decreased, and the premiums we’d paid toward improving the infrastructure at the factories, as far as we could tell, had not actually resulted in those improvements being made.”
Unfortunately, as Feran notes in the piece, that’s resulted in a loss of some of the vibrancy and sparkle that Kenyan coffees are known to have (he’s careful to note that there are still tons of excellent Kenyan coffees). Nguyen has noticed as well: “For the past few years,” Nguyen says, “I have noticed a decline in clarity in the cup of Kenyan coffees. I feel like there is not as much vibrancy, and the acidity and fruity flavors have become more muted over time.”
Advancements in research and access to resources
Many of the factors listed above center around one theme: a lack of predictability and control. If you don’t know when it will rain or what conditions your government will put in place to sell coffee, it’s hard to do anything consistently, let alone make improvements.
Advancements in technology and access to educational resources give farmers more tools to understand the unique conditions of their trees and soil. “I think we should continue to strive for learning more about coffee as an agricultural product and look more towards the sustainability side of coffee,” says Nguyen. “The more we can learn about terroir, varietals, and how to encourage sustainability of those plants, the better off we will be.” It might seem obvious, but even things like smartphones, access to the internet, and social media bring more information to the people who need it and more points of connection for farmers to swap stories and share data.
Also, more and more farmers are taking ownership over the factors they can control, like processing and fermentation. Folks like Lucia Solis are using fermentation to explore the potential of any given bean, and new processing methods are unlocking unexpected and exciting flavors. “(Fermentation) has opened my mind on what coffee can be,” says Nguyen, “and I can appreciate the risks producers and farmers take to push coffee in different directions.”
Coffee may be a staple in our morning routines, but it is never static. Coffee will continue to change over time, and we have to pay attention to the factors influencing the final cup. Some coffees may taste different in five years, so it’s up to us to understand why these flavors are changing, what factors are causing changes, and how we can support farmers as they tackle these factors head-on.