In defense of the holiday coffee blend (and the argument for taking it into the new year)

Why wouldn't I want to greet January with an approachable, gingerbread and vanilla-flavored coffee in hand?

By Ashlie D. Stevens

Food Editor

Published December 26, 2022 8:00AM (EST)

Cozy home picture of blue ceramic cup with coffee on window sill, Christmas decorations, warm knitted sweaters and pine tree green branches (Getty Images/Anna Blazhuk)
Cozy home picture of blue ceramic cup with coffee on window sill, Christmas decorations, warm knitted sweaters and pine tree green branches (Getty Images/Anna Blazhuk)

This was the year that I fell hard for seasonal coffee. I don't necessarily mean seasonal coffee drinks like pumpkin spice lattes and peppermint mochas — though I've definitely had more than one La Colombe peppermint mocha draft latte since Thanksgiving. 

No, I'm talking about the criminally underrated holiday coffee blend. 

As the name would suggest, holiday coffee blends are a special type of coffee that are made specifically for the winter holiday season. Where many all-year coffees boast lighter fruity and floral notes, holiday blends lean deep into flavor profiles rich with cinnamon, ginger, dried stone fruit, sweet molasses and vanilla

I'm big into seasonality when it comes to much of what I eat and drink. I have warm-weather and cold-weather bourbons on my home bar, and we all know that an Aperol spritz hits differently in June than it does in January. But for the longest time, my coffee didn't really change from season to season. 

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In fact, for most of the year, I do still tend to drink the bulk of my coffee one particular way: cold-brewed and black. I think it's partially a holdover from my local newsroom days when the barista at the neighborhood coffee shop would see me walk in and ask, "Going to be a long news day?" Even if I just nodded, she would wordlessly begin to make another cold brew and send me on my way with two. 

But something about the pandemic and how time began to feel — to paraphrase Nietschze by way of "True Detective" protagonist Rustin Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) — more and more like an endless flat circle, I started seeking out small ways to mark seasonality. I bought my first sets of holiday decorations, lit candles that smelled of their respective seasons and decided it was time to change up my coffee game, too. 

One of the most iconic holiday blends is Starbucks Christmas Blend, which was introduced in 1984, long before the introduction of the Peppermint Mocha or red holiday cups. And while, as Heidi Piper wrote for the company in 2020, the Starbucks "holiday coffee family has grown to include new varieties like Starbucks Holiday Blend and Christmas Blend Espresso Roast," the original Christmas blend is still on offer, featuring "sweet, velvety notes of spiced chocolate and spruce tips." 

Holiday blend by the Christmas tree (Ashlie Stevens )Like Starbucks, national coffee chain Dunkin' Donuts has dipped into the holiday blend category, debuting a new holiday blend in 2021. 

Per the company, it is a "bright medium roast blend made using quality Colombian and Ethiopian coffee beans. It makes a special cup of coffee inspired by classic holiday desserts from different cultures around the world like gingerbread, fruitcake, and warm molasses pie with its flavor notes of sweet molasses and dried fruit that's made to spark your spirit." 

Over the last decade or so, there's also been an influx of roasteries releasing Hanukkah blends, including Roasting Rabbi's Hanukkah Blend. The blue packaging is decorated with dreidels and the quip: "Enough to last 8 days!*Ok, not an actual guarantee. Oye! Now call your mother." 

Relatedly, one of the hallmarks of a holiday blend, according to some coffee pros, is that it is approachable to everyone whom you're hosting for the holidays. As Claire Wampler, barista at Joe Coffee, told Food52 in 2015, "it's often a sweet, approachable coffee that [your] mom or dad or grandma, who drink zesty coffees, will drink." 

Another key component of the holiday blend is, of course, its festive packaging. Classic brown coffee bags are traded in for sparkles, stars, winter greenery and pops of red, green, silver and gold. One of my personal favorite examples is from Chicago roaster Dark Matter. Their Old Dank Nic Holidank blend (I know, I know — the name is a whole thing) is stashed in a bag that features a watercolor-style illustration of a very…toasty-looking Santa smoking a pipe and decorating a wispy, green Christmas tree. 

But don't let the packaging dissuade you from taking holiday blends into the new year. The forecast is calling for more snow on my side of the country — I believe the weatherman called it a "nightmare before and after Christmas" when I tuned in this morning — so why wouldn't I want to curl up under an electric blanket with a sweet, approachable coffee that tastes of gingerbread and toasted vanilla until the snow melts sometime in March? 

By Ashlie D. Stevens

Ashlie D. Stevens is Salon's food editor. She is also an award-winning radio producer, editor and features writer — with a special emphasis on food, culture and subculture. Her writing has appeared in and on The Atlantic, National Geographic’s “The Plate,” Eater, VICE, Slate, Salon, The Bitter Southerner and Chicago Magazine, while her audio work has appeared on NPR’s All Things Considered and Here & Now, as well as APM’s Marketplace. She is based in Chicago.

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Coffee Commentary Dunkin' Donuts Holiday Holiday Blend Starbucks