I was fortunate enough recently to meet in person a dear friend I’ve known online for many years. She lives in New Mexico, and, upon our meeting, she presented me with a number of delightful gifts with a southwestern flair. One especially intriguing item was a bag of dark roast Piñon Coffee. This was something that, despite my love of coffee and a visit to Santa Fe myself not too long ago, I’d never heard of before. I was left to wonder: What is Piñon Coffee? And: Will I like it? Read on to find out!
You Say Piñon, I Say…
Being a bit of a foodie, I was familiar with the word pignoli. I was not familiar, however, with the equivalent Spanish word, piñon. Both mean pine nut.
But just as we learned that coffee beans are not really beans, neither are pine nuts really nuts. Both the coffee “bean” and the pine “nut” are the seeds of their respective plants, the coffee bush and the pine tree. Unlike coffee seeds, however, the pine nut has no exterior fruit. Instead, they are encased in the “cones” of the pine tree.
Anyone who has ever taken a close look at a pine cone probably won’t be surprised to learn that it is quite a feat to extract the “pine nut” seeds from their pine cone hosts. Because of the difficulty of harvesting, only twenty species around the world produce “pine nuts” that are large enough to be worth the effort required. When we cover the arduous process of harvesting pine nuts later on in this article, I know you’ll gain a whole new understanding, like I did, of why pine nuts, no matter their origin, are so darn expensive.
The New Mexican Pinyon Tree
Our focus here, of course, is on the pine nuts harvested in New Mexico and used to make Piñon Coffee. These nuts come from the American Pinyon Pine Tree (Pinus Edilus), the significance and history of which is so integral to “The Land of Enchantment” that the 2-needle pinyon is the official state tree of New Mexico.
That is not to say the tree itself is particularly majestic or stately. As we will learn in the next section, it was not their form but their life-sustaining function that earned these pines their New Mexico State Tree designation. Pinyon pines are a small tree whose short stature and bulbous growth pattern often makes is look more like a shrub than a tree. Most will only grow to about 20 feet high, although the oldest of the pines may reach the 35-foot mark. The bark of the pinyon tree is irregular, rough, and scaly, and the trunk diameter rarely exceeds about 31 inches.
Proper elevation is key for pinyon trees to grow and thrive. The trees are found at elevations varying from 6,000 – 8,500 feet but flourish best around 7,000 feet. This is where the snow tends to melt slowly enough to supply the pines with adequate moisture and humidity throughout the summer months. Without adequate water, pinyon trees cannot produce mature, seed(nut)-bearing cones.
Lack of sufficient moisture is the primary issue for pinyon trees growing below 7,000 feet. It is simply too hot and dry for the trees this low during the summer months. Above the 7,000 foot elevation range, however, it is the ravages of winter that take their toll. High winds, damaging ice, and the extended duration of freezing and re-freezing temperatures hinder the development of healthy trees and mature pine cones. At these higher elevations, with the gusty, drying winds and frigid temperatures, the pine cones literally become “freeze-dried” and cannot mature or produce edible seeds/nuts.
Besides the difficulty in harvesting that will be described in the next section, the slow maturation and erratic seed production of wild pinyon pines also contributes to the high consumer cost of pine nuts. Although the trees are long-lived, they are slow to grow and can take up to 10 years to reach maturity. Pine cones only develop after a tree is fully matured, and then each individual pine cone takes two years itself to mature. It’s no wonder, then, that good pine nut harvests occur, on average, only every four years. Truly abundant yields may happen only every five to seven years.
Piñon History and Nutrition
As mentioned earlier, it is the function of the pinyon pine tree, not its form, that causes it to be held in such high esteem. It is estimated that the seeds of the tree have been a vital food source for human beings in the Great Basin region for over 12,000 years. Native American Indians were so dependent on the pinyon tree seeds for winter survival that entire tribes would migrate based on availability of a good harvest.
Once the seeds were harvested, they would either be eaten whole (sometimes raw, sometimes roasted) or ground into a flour. Since pine nuts are highly perishable, most tribes would consume their supplies during the winter immediately following the harvest. The Pueblo people of New Mexico, however, discovered that they could store the pine seeds in underground pits for two to three years, thereby helping to stabilize their very survival.
The nutritional make-up of the pinyon pine seeds is what made them so vital and valuable a food source for ancient hunter-gatherers and early agricultural peoples. Although small in size, the pinyon seeds are exceptionally high in fats, calories, and protein. A 3.5 ounce serving of dried pine nuts clocks in at a whopping 673 calories, 68% fat, 14% protein, and contains an abundance of micro nutrients. While too many pine nuts would quickly lead to obesity in modern man, it was exactly the kind of food that ancient humans needed to survive cold, harsh winters when other food options were scarce.
And it surely didn’t hurt that pinyon pine tree nuts taste so good!
Piñon Harvesting and Preserving
One of the most interesting things to discover about the pinyon pine nut is that harvesting it is still as difficult for us today as it was for the early Indians. As noted in Wikipedia, the “harvesting techniques of the prehistoric Indians are still being used today to collect the pinyon seeds for personal use or for commercialization.” So although man has been able to launch rockets into space, he evidently has not been able to mechanize the process of extracting and shelling the seeds found inside the lowly pine cone.
I can only imagine the squirrels think this is the funniest thing ever!
Since we humans don’t have the teeth or beaks that animals (squirrels, chipmunks, etc.) and birds use to extract the tasty seeds from pine cones quickly and easily, we have to rely on a more labor-intensive method. The best harvesting process starts about 10 days before the pinyon pine cones begin to open, when they are still very green. This ensures that the cones are collected before any animals can get to the seeds.
Which means the squirrels definitely do not get the last laugh!
But it does mean that humans have to get busy, usually in September, manually knocking the pine cones out of the trees with long poles. The cones, which are covered in a thick, sticky resin, are gathered into piles, covered in loose brush, and ignited so that the resin is scorched off, making the cones much easier to handle. They are then placed in burlap sacks and left in the sun for drying. After about 20 days in the heat, the cones begin to open up, revealing the seeds inside.
At this point, the burlap bags are typically dashed against a hard, rough surface in order to smash apart the pine cones. The seeds must then be separated by hand from the shards of the pine cones. Since each cone contains 10-30 shelled seeds, this can be quite a time-consuming process.
Once the seeds are separated from the broken pieces of the cones, the real work of removing the shells begins. Since the shells are so thick in proportion to their overall size, the only effective means of removing them is one by one. The force that would be required to crack the shells otherwise would also end up destroying the delicate pine nut inside.
Once the shells have been opened and the tasty pine nuts removed, it is vital that they immediately be stored in the freezer. Pine nuts spoil and go rancid quickly. In fact, Hank Shaw of Honest-Food.net recommends that the pine nuts remain in the shell for long-term storage. And I highly recommend his article How to Harvest Pinon Pine Nuts for both his informative description of the harvesting process and the great pictures of the pinyon tree pine cones he has posted in the various stages of processing. (Special note: photos in this section are credited to buypinonnuts.com )
So What is Piñon Coffee?
The story is that, a little over 20 years ago, the New Mexico Piñon Coffee Company began roasting coffee out of the bed of a 1952 red Chevy pickup. They combined roasted arabica coffee beans with a few roasted piñon nuts and, from those humble beginnings, a New Mexican coffee tradition was born.
Today Piñon coffee is crafted by various coffee roasters across the state. And although the original Piñon Coffee used ground piñon nuts as an ingredient, it is now more common for a piñon flavoring to be used instead of the actual ground seeds. Since, as we’ve learned, the annual yield of piñons is unpredictable and the harvest is incredibly labor-intensive, we can easily understand how the limited supply and high cost of consistently using of ground piñons could be prohibitive. The founding New Mexico Piñon Coffee Company also lists allergen concerns as another reason they opted, in 2015, to begin producing their Piñon Coffee with only allergen-free Piñon flavoring.
The coffee I was given, however, was produced by Coffee Addict & Chile Addict of Albuquerque, NM and lists both High Altitude Arabica blend coffee and Piñon Nuts on the label. It’s the Real Deal! And enjoying it has been a wonderfully unique experience.
Of course the first thing I noticed when I opened my bag of Dark Piñon was the aroma. There was that usual amazing fresh-coffee smell, but it was highlighted by bright vanilla tones. Honestly, it smelled a bit like dessert in a coffee bag!
I’ve brewed my Dark Piñon coffee using a pour over coffee maker, and the first thing I noticed was that the post-brewing grounds were a lot denser and heavier than those of regular coffee. Even after my pour over was finished, the grounds in the brewer retained some of the water and remained very saturated.
Because of the oils in the piñon nuts, the ground piñon coffee is slightly stickier than traditional roast coffee alone. There are typically very small clumps visible when I scoop the piñon coffee into the filter before brewing. None of this affects the final cup of coffee, however. The brewed cup of piñon coffee has the same consistency as any other cup of brewed coffee.
I’ll admit that, at first taste, I was not sure I cared much for the Piñon Coffee I’d been given. Which made me feel pretty bad. I did not want to admit to my friend I didn’t like her gift!
But I realized I had been drinking a light-roasted Ethiopian coffee for the week prior to trying the Dark Piñon. So I didn’t give up on it. And, sure enough, within another couple of days, my taste buds had readjusted to the deeper “burnt undertones” of the dark-roasted arabica coffee. Every morning since, I have found myself eagerly looking forward to a hearty cup of Piñon Coffee.
Although the aroma of the Dark Piñon is heady with vanilla, the flavor imparted by the piñon nuts is more subtle. I would describe it as a hint of buttery-smooth vanilla on the tongue. And we’re talking natural vanilla here, not a sugary, artificial flavor that leaves an unpleasant aftertaste.
It’s good to note, too, that there is a Medium Piñon for those who don’t like dark roast coffee. There are also a large selection of flavor-infused Piñon Coffees available. From amaretto to southern pecan or Mexican spiced chocolate to pumpkin spice, there is a flavor of Piñon Coffee to please every coffee lover’s palate.
Calories and Nutrition
Since we noted earlier the high fat and calorie content of piñon nuts, I did start to wonder if, as far as calories are concerned, my morning cup of piñon coffee was far more like dessert than I realized. I was relieved to discover that the amount of piñon nuts ground into each bag of coffee is quite minimal. Thankfully it doesn’t take many piñon nuts to impart the wonderful aroma and flavor I was experiencing, and that means added calories per cup are kept to a minimum. The plus side, too, is that the ground piñon nuts do add a bit of healthy fat, protein, and micro nutrients to the final brewed cup of piñon coffee. To me, that’s a beneficial upgrade for the cost of a few extra calories.
A New Favorite
Now that I’ve had the good fortune to try a true New Mexican Dark Piñon coffee, I know it is something I will want to experience again. It has definitely become a favorite. I’m thankful Piñon Coffee can be ordered online from a variety of New Mexican sources so that I won’t have to wait for my next trip to NM or my friend’s next visit to me to enjoy another bag. But then again, I hope before long I’ll get to enjoy another vacation in “The Land of Enchantment” because I’m quite certain there’s no place I would enjoy a cup of Piñon Coffee more!
Have you ever tried Piñon Coffee? If so, what did you think of it? I’d love to hear about your experience, so please feel free to chime in via the comment section below.