“Whenever I think of the past, it brings up so many memories.” -Steven Wright
You remember. We know you remember because we remember too, the day the coffee arrived. Which coffee? Well, all of them, of course. There are almost as many ways, it seems, to receive green coffee as there are roasters who receive it; but whether it was on a dock or in a doorway, off a truck or out of a trunk, you felt the need to put your eyes on it, to greet it and make it feel welcome. The arrival of new green coffee is always a moment, even for the most experienced among us. We can, each of us, admit to some level of excitement, buried in our belly or written all over our face, whenever new green coffee arrives, can we not?
Even when it is a coffee you’ve roasted before, coffee from the same country, same region, same farm, same variety and same altitude, it’s never really the same exactly. Coffee is an agricultural product, after all, and just as the same person cannot cross the same river twice because both the person and the river have changed, you never really get to roast the same coffee twice.
From day to day, roast to roast, the aging of green coffee is as imperceptible as it is inevitable, as with the graying of someone’s hair that you see every day. You understand it is happening, but it is only when you see an old photograph that the change is easily perceived. As a professional coffee roaster, you have a “photo album” of all your coffees because you are cupping production roasts continually (right?), taking flavor snapshots over time.
Because nobody likes to run out of their core coffees, the single origins that customers expect you to always have available and the components of signature blends, you buy with an eye to never running out. Even if your brand is built around seasonality and your wholesale customers are educated to manage expectations, the end-users, coffee drinkers, are both fickle and creatures of habit. One does not just mess with their day-to-day coffee. The invisible job title on every green coffee buyer’s business card is “Inventory Analyst,” or “Crystal Ball Gazer,” if you like. So, because there are coffees we don’t want to run out of and because business can go up and down and sideways and slantways and longways and backways and square ways and front ways and any other ways you can think of … past crop happens.
The day may arrive, perhaps every year around this time, when you’re cupping a coffee that’s been on hand for some time and the experience is shaded with a little nostalgia. You’re remembering when the coffee was new, when you first met. The coffee, you must admit, is not as young as it used to be. At these times, the analogy of loved ones growing older can be instructive. If we are any sort of adequate human, we don’t think less of people for growing older, but we do recognize that they might not be able to do everything they used to do, or they might need to do what they do differently.
This is the first question to ask of past crop on hand: can the coffee keep doing what it’s been doing, only differently? The answer to this question, at least initially, depends on your experience (or willingness to experiment) as a roaster and/or the tolerance for small flavor variances in coffee among your customers. Changes in roast profile can tease back some of the fruit and sweetness, for example, that might fade as green coffee ages, and reduce a flattening finish. In any case, it is likely you will detect changes long before all but the most hypervigilant palates among your customers. Nevertheless, at some point and some years specific to you, your approach to coffee, and the coffee itself, you might be forced to admit that an aging coffee can no longer do the job it was purchased to do. There is no fountain of youth, for people or coffee. Some age faster than others, but eventually you’ll need to work with past crop that is looking for a new job in your line up.
More important than what you do with these coffees is how you think about them. It’s no use comparing them to their younger selves. People can often withstand such comparisons by gaining in wisdom and character. Wisdom is not a flavor, however, and with a few notable exceptions, age is not an improvement. Even coffees that are intentionally aged as an improvement are not appreciated by every palate. It is helpful to think of past crop that can no longer do the job you initially hired it to do is to think of it as new again.
In fact, don’t ask, “What can we do with this past crop?” Ask instead, “What will be this coffee’s second act?”
Approached in this manner, you may discover that a coffee’s second act is just as valuable as its first. Lead actors are great, but everyone loves a well-executed ensemble piece. More than likely, a coffee’s second act will be to become part of a blend and like an ensemble on stage or in a movie, the sum is greater than the parts. There are no movie stars in an ensemble, there are roles. Second act coffees can anchor a blend or provide emphasis or accents to other components, whether they be part of a long-established blend or something seasonal designed to take advantage of the opportunity this “new” green coffee provides.
Reframing on hand past crop as second act coffee comes with a bonus feature. It opens the potential for not simply waiting for second acts to happen, but actively purchasing past crop coffee. First, when you click Past Crop on our website, the flavor attributes you find have not vanished. They may have diminished, but the profiles remain valid. Second, note that coffees age differently and some coffees are listed as past crop simply because they are past crop, but the flavor profile remains prominent, perhaps not compared to it’s younger self, but certainly compared to other “first act” coffees with similar attributes. Depending on the breadth of your market, there are any number of past crop coffees that can perform as strong single origins. Our traders understand these coffees and enjoy finding solutions among second act lots, where there are often significant savings.
And remember, if you’ve come to attach too many negative connotations to the phrase “past crop,” you can call your trader and just say instead that you’re looking for a coffee that’s in its second act.