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Originally published November 8, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified November 8, 2007 at 7:20 AM

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Ho, ho, Howard Schultz, it's Christmas Blend time

tarbucks decked its walls Wednesday night for the holidays and stocked its shelves with bags of Christmas Blend, a coffee it has sold for...

Seattle Times business reporter

Starbucks decked its walls Wednesday night for the holidays and stocked its shelves with bags of Christmas Blend, a coffee it has sold for 23 years.

Some customers anticipate it the way connoisseurs of French wine await each fall's Beaujolais Nouveau.

"I buy it every year for myself and my mom," Joy Hayes of Federal Way said about her decadelong tradition. She also picks up a couple of bags for co-workers.

Last year, Starbucks sold 1.5 million pounds of Christmas Blend, which often outsells its whole-bean coffees available year-round and in grocery stores.

Christmas Blend is sold only at Starbucks' 14,000-plus stores worldwide. It also comes packaged as "Holiday Blend."

Company officials do not disclose Christmas Blend's revenues.

A 1-pound bag costs $12.95, half-pound bags are $6.79 and decaf is $13.45 a pound. Stores sell it as brewed coffee during the holidays, too.

Christmas Blend's unique flavor comes mostly from Indonesian coffee beans aged for three to five years in the heat and humidity of Singapore. The recipe changes to accommodate the different flavors of each year's coffee crops, but basically it is a mix of Latin American and Indonesian coffees, spiced with the special aged beans.

Late each summer, when Starbucks' top coffee experts arrive at the proper blend, they carry a cup to the office of Chairman Howard Schultz.

He invariably has one of two reactions: "There's not enough aged coffee in it," or "Are you sure there's enough aged coffee in it?"

"It's the most obvious indication of how deep his passion is for what goes on in [the tasting] room," said Dave Olsen, a pioneer of espresso in Seattle and one of Schultz's first hires. Olsen is now Starbucks' head of culture and leadership development.

It's well known among Starbucks' old hands that Schultz, like many Starbucks customers, has a thing for the smooth, rich spiciness of aged Indonesian coffee. Because the beans are rare, the company uses them only in Christmas Blend and Anniversary Blend, another limited-time coffee available each fall.

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Unlike Frappuccino and the company's breakneck growth, Christmas Blend predates Schultz's 1987 acquisition of Starbucks. The blend debuted three years earlier, around the time Schultz persuaded Starbucks' founders to sell lattes alongside whole-bean coffee.

It used to go on sale the day after Thanksgiving, but enough customers badgered employees to sneak them a bag early that the company moved the release date to early November.

The romance and lore of Christmas Blend permeates Starbucks' Seattle headquarters and many of its stores.

When the coffee comes out, officials say, employees and customers debate how the new blend measures up to previous years.

Even Starbucks' best palates can't be sure, Olsen said. "Tasting it in the carpeted hallway here is different from your memory of it last New Year's morning in your pj's."

Leslie Wolford, a green-coffee specialist who used to hand-roast coffee for Starbucks, said roasting-plant workers always debated the question when the final recipe arrived each year.

Another piece of lore involves managers' nail-biting efforts to keep the beans on their shelves.

"If you ran out of Christmas Blend before Christmas, you had egg on your face," remembers Andrew Linnemann, who started at Starbucks 14 years ago as a barista and now oversees green-coffee quality at four roasting plants and is responsible for delivering the final recipe for Christmas Blend.

To avoid embarrassment, one story goes, a district manager loaded the trunk of her Oldsmobile with Christmas Blend for last-minute store deliveries.

For a couple of years, longtime plant employee Dave Seymour delivered thousands of pounds of Christmas Blend to stores in Portland that were running short. "I felt like Santa," he said.

As Starbucks grew, it stopped roasting by hand, found more reliable delivery systems and began using flavor-lock packaging. That took some of the angst and some romance out of the Christmas Blend rush.

"We had to tackle this massive mountain every single year," Olsen said of the old days.

That has been replaced by other forms of excitement, such as introducing customers in new neighborhoods to Starbucks' holiday tradition and the debut this year of a holiday espresso blend called Regalo.

At the end of the season, customers who love Christmas Blend have different ways of dealing with its departure. Some stockpile it. Others find a blend that's close.

"Yukon is a great substitute," Olsen said. Also a mix of coffees from Latin America and Indonesia, it doesn't include aged beans and costs about $2.50 less per pound than Christmas Blend.

Melissa Allison: 206-464-3312 or mallison@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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