It's around this time of year—when red cups return with a vengeance and Frank Sinatra holiday tunes phase out the calming guitar acoustics at coffee shops—that gold, red, and green-wrapped coffee beans return to the shelves. The "Holiday Blends" stand apart from their fellow brown-bagged companions, dressed up with ornaments and snow flakes, but (as we're of the belief that it's what's on the inside is what counts) are they actually different? What makes a holiday blend a holiday blend?
To find out once and for all, I went straight to the source(s): Timothy Hill, the coffee buyer at Counter Culture Coffee and Claire Wampler, a barista at Joe Coffee. Both Counter Culture and Joe carry their own cheery holiday blends.
They told me that there are two main types of holiday coffees: Those designed for the season (these can range from Gingerbread Spice to black coffee that feels more winter-appropriate), and those that have about as much in common with the holidays as the Grinch (that is to say they're just bad beans dressed up in a Santa costume). Here are all the reasons why roasters and sellers put out holiday blends—and what's really in them:
Why do it:
It's a great way to introduce potential buyers to the company: Because a lot of holiday coffees are given as gifts, it can be the first time that the recipient of the beans is trying that brand, so the company wants to put their best foot forward and use the best beans. Timothy says, "If someone's giving [Counter Culture's holiday coffee] as a gift, someone new has received our coffee. And if it's a good first impression, then that's a really good introduction to the company."
People love the holidays: Claire says that she notices a marked up-tick in sales of apple cider, chai, and hot chocolate during the holidays, and that "people will buy [Joe's holiday blend] as gifts to take home to relatives' houses."
It's an opportunity to do something new: Timothy says that many high-end coffee shops will only carry Counter Culture's single-origin beans, but they'll convince them into selling blends by serving the holiday coffees—it's accepted as something outside of the roasters' regular repetoire.
What's in it:
It's a chance to make a coffee that's more suitable for winter: Timothy says, "dark beers aren't very popular in the summer and you tend to see a lot of pale and lighter beers—and a little bit of that is true in coffee." He explains that in the winter, people gravitate towards "something a little bit sweeter but nuanced and chocolately." And a holiday blend, in many coffee sellers' eyes, is the perfect place to house that flavor.
It's approachable—something your entire family can drink: Claire says that holiday blends are something that even non-coffee drinkers can enjoy over pumpkin pie. She says, "It's often a sweet, approachable coffee that [your] mom or dad or grandma, who drink zesty coffees, will drink." Timothy agrees. He says that when he was considering what to put in Counter Coffee's blend, he considered, "What can we do that's simple, approachable, and goes with the flavor profile of winter?"
It's a way to get rid of old beans: While many coffee sellers do put thought into their blends, the same is true of the opposite, for some. Timothy says, "What some companies do is whatever is not selling gets put into holiday packaging—they just need to move more of it."
The bottom line? When you see a holiday coffee on the shelf, ask the person selling it, "What's new about these beans," "What's their flavor profile," and "Have you sold them before?" before committing to a bag. You may find that there is no difference—or you may find a bag to look forward to every year.
Do you like to purchase holiday blends of coffees? What are some of your favorites? Tell us in the comments below!
Top photo by Tiffany Mitchell; photo of coffee bowl by Mark Weinberg; all others by Bobbi Lin