When Rob Bathe and Jeff Mooney brainstormed about what will make up Folly Coffee's holiday blend, winter was probably the farthest thing from the minds of local coffee drinkers.
Temperatures were in the 80s and the Minnesota State Fair was weeks away.
But for specialty roasters like Folly, Peace, Almanac and others, midsummer is when coffee decisions are made on what will be offered in area cafes and stores during the holiday season.
For Folly, it was a three-pronged calculation: What flavor profile did they want? What beans delivered it? And could they acquire them in time to nail down the roast for the holidays?
It's an artisan game of risk and alchemy, patience and persistence.
"It comes together really quickly, but with shipping delays it has to be planned out," Mooney said. "It's a lot of communicating with importers and you have to have backups.
"Our goal is to make coffee approachable. The holiday is a great way to introduce people to the fruity notes."
The seasonal shift
Peace Coffee, considered the largest specialty roaster in the Twin Cities, also has one of the oldest seasonal coffee programs. It started in 2009 with its Pollinator Blend, a bright and citrusy coffee for spring. Since then, Yeti (espresso), Breakaway (summer) and Nocturnal (fall) blends have been added to the rotating lineup. Yeti graduated to a year-round coffee to satisfy demand for cold brew.
But its season program is anchored by Snowshoe Blend, which stretches beyond the holiday season into March because of customer demand.
"It's a coffee that helped us launch our seasonal offering program," said Melanee Meegan, director of marketing at Peace. "It is far and away the customer favorite.
"Snowshoe's flavor profile tends to be a blend with a lot of body, a balanced acidity and rich, chocolatey sweetness to it. The development of our seasonal coffees generally follows a basic flavor profile that is attuned to the season they are available. That's why Snowshoe, available during some of the coldest months of winter, is often a heartier coffee that has some warm spice notes and a lot of body."
Bathe and Mooney, the founder-roaster duo at Folly, had the same game plan for their returning La La La holiday roast.
However, La La La is a 180-degree turn from its Darkest Day roast released for Halloween, and highlights the quick flavor pivots it executes for seasons. The St. Louis Park roaster expanded its small-batch program with a barrel-aged whiskey coffee for St. Patrick's Day and a pricier Kona coffee for Independence Day. Both stuck to the company's single-origin philosophy and gave Mooney room to experiment with sourcing and roasting specs.
Darkest Day was a Frankenstein-like blend — a "Franken-roast" — that was available only in October.
"It's the opposite of pumpkin spice," Bathe said. "It's a face-ripping dark roast. We wanted it to be radically different."
The composition of Folly's La La La is also a blend and mixes a light roast from El Salvador (60%) for delicate notes with a dark roast from Guatemala (40%) for its chocolatey base. The ratio is more balanced than last year's holiday roast, when an exceptionally fruity coffee from Honduras, one that Bathe called a "citrus bomb," pushed the scale to 70-30.
But with coffee's agricultural nature, one year's banner harvest is often not duplicated to the same degree.
"I just have to accept I won't get the same coffee year to year," said Mooney, Folly's head roaster. "There are curveballs, but I like it. It's a new challenge every time. There's a different kind of nervousness that comes with each one.
"We're going after a mix of darkness and fruit," he said. "If you go too dark you lose the delicate notes. There's still acidity coming through. Blends that are dark-roasted don't always highlight fruit."
The logistical step
For roasters, settling on a sourcing region and flavor profile is the fun part and often the first step. Making sure the coffee arrives at the roastery on time and as expected is the stressful second step.
Specialty roasters often make decisions on what to buy based on samples from importers. However, it can take months for bulk quantities of green coffee to arrive from where it's grown and processed to the United States. A supply-chain disruption could mean coffee doesn't arrive in time, or it gets exposed to higher amounts of humidity and moisture during transport, which can diminish how it tastes when roasted.
Without reliable partners who can navigate the import side of the operation, a late shipment or lackluster lot can jeopardize a release. For large roasters like Peace, logistics are critical.
"We had to be flexible with this year's recipe, as we've encountered delays with our supply chain," Meegan said. "Coffee is taking longer to arrive at our roastery than we've ever experienced."
For Russell Crawford, owner and head roaster of Almanac Coffee in Duluth, having a smooth supply chain was key. It enabled Almanac to spotlight a Nicaraguan single-origin for its holiday release, a first for the roastery.
"This process is fairly similar to how we source all of our limited release lots," he said. "Our primary season coffees are pretty locked in, so this holiday release is essentially the winter version of a limited release.
"This coffee represents notes of snickerdoodle, vanilla wafer cookies, bold chocolate and raisin. It should pair well with all the Minnesota winter and holiday vibes."
Holiday coffees available now
Bootstrap: Winter Break Blend combines coffee from Guatemala, Brazil and Ethiopia with notes of dried fruit and deeper chocolate fudge. 12-ounce bag, $16; 432 S. Wabasha St., St. Paul, bootstrapcoffeeroasters.com.
Caribou: Reindeer Blend, this year's release, is a dark roast and features an aged Sumatra for a spicy flair along with a cherry presence. 16-ounce bag, $14; several Twin Cities locations, cariboucoffee.com
Dunn Brothers: Holiday Beyond Blend, rich and earthy with a district port wine finish, highlights the blend of Papua New Guinea and Ethiopian coffees. A portion of proceeds goes toward the global humanitarian organization Alight. 16-ounce bag, $20; several Twin Cities locations, dunnbrothers.com.
Five Watt: Stocking Stuffer Holiday Blend boasts bright cranberry and pomegranate notes from its Ethiopian side of the roast, which also includes coffees from Papua New Guinea and Guatemala. 12-ounce bag, $15; three Minneapolis locations and Keg and Case Market in St. Paul, fivewattcoffee.com.
Folly: La La La, the third-year offering, is a mixture of beans from Honduras and El Salvador. It features balanced fruity notes with a full-bodied dark-chocolate base. 12-ounce bag, $20; 4290 Park Glen Road, St. Louis Park, follycoffee.com.
Peace: Snowshoe Blend is more of a seasonal release and a pillar of the roaster's seasonal program (it will be around until March). A steady medium roast with consistent flavors of molasses and dried cherry. 12-ounce bag, $13; widely available in stores and at peacecoffee.com.