Geoff Watts, Intelligentsia’s vice president and sourcing pro, breaks down the collaborative approach behind the Summer Solstice Blend—which will be repackaged today only as the Summer Eclipse Blend.
BY CHRIS RYAN
BARISTA MAGAZINE ONLINE
Photos courtesy of Intelligentsia Coffee
Intelligentsia Coffee Roasters—which began in Chicago and now has additional retail shops and/or training centers in Los Angeles, New York, Boston, San Francisco, and Atlanta—has been a pioneer not just in sourcing high-quality coffees from around the world, but in focusing on the seasonal aspect of coffee. Since the mid-2000s, the company has been releasing seasonal blends that use fresh coffees to conjure the spirit of that season.
Intelligentsia debuted its Summer Solstice Blend in 2006, and as Geoff Watts, the company’s vice president, puts it, “It has been reborn anew each summer since.” The 2017 iteration of the Summer Solstice Blend debuted earlier this summer, and it’s being offered today only—arguably the highlight of the summer, with an ultra-rare astrological event visible to much of the world—as the Summer Eclipse Blend.
This year’s blend is a mix of coffees from Ethiopia, Kenya, and Honduras that Intelligentsia’s website describes as delivering “a totality of flavors, from light, bright pineapple citrus to florals and pitch black berries.” While past blends have been put together by Intelligentsia’s quality-control and green-buying teams, this year’s Summer Solstice Blend drew on the talent of the company’s baristas at its stores around the country.
Intelligentsia’s roasting headquarters in Chicago sent samples of eight fresh-crop coffees from East Africa and Central America to all its coffee bars, asking baristas to create teams and develop the best-tasting blend. Geoff says that by involving the baristas in the process, Intelligentsia was able to tap into a wealth of creativity and culinary skill. “Our baristas work to dial in our coffees every single morning. They train to work with nuance as part of their job, to become acutely aware of the small details that separate an exquisite brew from a merely good one,” Geoff says. “And they work with all the individual single-origin coffees in our lineup so rigorously—and so regularly—that they get to know their characteristics really well. That combination of fluency in brewed coffee detail and familiarity with the coffees make them well suited to blend development.”
The winning blend for the 2017 Summer Solstice Blend came from a team of baristas at Intelligentsia’s Wicker Park Coffeebar in Chicago, which used four of the eight coffees—and delivered a blend built through experimentation. “I’m a big believer in the power of crowdsourcing, and the beauty that can emerge when people are given a platform to unleash their ideas,” Geoff says. “I think that’s what many of the best chefs have learned—they are able to do a lot more when they are willing to engage those around them in the creative process, and build a space for innovations to take form. Prolific experimentation is what brings the breakthroughs.”
While a “summer blend” may conjure a light, acidic coffee for many, it can evoke different tastes in different people. Geoff says a highlight of this yearly exercise is that it leads participants to think long and hard about seasonal flavors. “An interesting byproduct of the process is that it compels us to consider more carefully what kinds of tastes we associate with summer, and why,” Geoff says. “Not everyone has the same associations, and when we examine the overlaps and differences, we discover things about our own histories, unraveling a little corner of the mind. In the effort to try to ‘capture’ summer in the form of a coffee, and end up with something that succeeds in evoking a mental link with this time of year, we find that we can learn something about ourselves at the same time.”
Check out more about the Summer Solstice Blend and Intelligentsia’s approach to developing it here.