Blends vs. Single Origins

I have discussed many basic coffee concepts on this blog but one of the most common confusions I see from consumers is the difference between a blend and a single origin coffee. I have people who say "give me your Guatemalan blend." Which is fine, I know what they are looking for, but the Guatemalan coffees I offer are not blends, at least not in the traditional sense.

Don't feel bad if you are this person. Up until about 10-15 years ago, it was hard to find a coffee that was not a blend. And the concept of single origin coffees is still new enough in the coffee world that we are still attempting to define it well. So here's my attempt...

What is a blend?

Blending coffee from multiple origins is nearly as old as the coffee trade itself. Many people have heard of or tried a Mocha-Java blend. This is in fact, the original coffee blend and has been around since the 1700s, when Yemen (port city was Mocha) and the island of Java were the two main coffee producing regions.

Blending, at its best is used to enhance the flavors of the individual coffees and to lend greater complexity and/or balance to the finished product. Blends have always been a major part of espresso, because there historically was not one origin that could create the proper balance for espresso. That, of course, is changing due to better espresso equipment, and increased knowledge in the cultivation, roasting, and brewing of coffee beans for espresso.

Roasters have also traditionally used blending to keep a consistent flavor profile throughout the harvest year, as different origins have different harvest times. They have also sadly used blends to hide coffees that were sub-par.

There are many traditional blends and they all have loose definitions but can very greatly from roaster to roaster. Here are some of the most common ones:

Breakfast Blend: This is generally a light roasted coffee with mild flavors. Breakfast blends often focus on mild Central American coffees. My Belle's Blend would fit in the Breakfast Blend category.

Espresso Blend: This blend category can include almost anything, but it generally refers to a coffee that has been blended and roasted specifically for espresso. Some blends are so particular that they don't taste good on any brewing method other than espresso. It is rare to see a very light roasted espresso blend. They tend to be medium to medium-dark in third-wave roasters and dark with the Peet's and Starbuck's crowd. These coffees tend to have lower acid coffees and a heavier body for crema production (the foam that floats on top of an espresso shot). Brazilian coffees are a traditional choice since they are generally low acid and produce excellent crema. My Handlebar Espresso Blend features a dry processed Brazilian coffee as its base. I use 5 different coffees in my blend. I do this so that I can keep a relatively consistent flavor with my constantly changing coffee lineup. And so that I can create the balanced flavor profile that I am looking for. I have already changed my espresso blend 4 times this year. It is fun to see the subtle changes that each new version of my espresso blend brings.

House Blend: This is another category that can vary greatly from roaster to roaster but the idea is that the house blend captures the image of the roaster or coffeeshop. Our house blend is Marty's Blend. It features a caramel sweetness and a nice bittersweet base. My goal was to create a classic flavor that would appeal to both the conservative and adventuresome coffee drinker. I also wanted it to be an introduction to my style as a roaster.

French Roast: Not technically a blend but most roasters use a blend for this coffee. This is your stereotypical dark roast that is extremely bold and smokey with minimal origin flavor. I don't roast anything this dark (the closest I go is my Mexico: Chiapas Jacinto) but it is a distinct roasting style that anyone who has been around Starbucks long enough has tasted.

There are plenty of other blends out there, but this is the basics.

What is a single origin?

Single-origin coffee in its most general sense refers to coffee that comes from one country. For most of coffee history there has not been good region- or farm-specific traceability so this was the best you could get. If you bought a Kenya AA, you got a coffee from somewhere in Kenya that was graded to a certain bean size.  Colombia Supremo is another good example of an old school single-origin classification.

The term single origin is starting to change as we get deeper into traceability in each coffee producing country. And so we have had to create other terms to differentiate from country-wide coffee lots. ("Lot" is a coffee term that refers to a set of raw green coffee that is sold. It can mean anything from a single bag [150 lbs], to multiple shipping containers [thousands of pounds]. It can also refer to coffee harvested from a specific part of a coffee farm, or coffee that was harvested on a particular day.) We now have micro-lots, which refers to smaller lots with more traceability and generally a better flavor profile that demands a higher price. The more we separate out coffee, the better chance we have of isolating a stellar lot that can be sold on its own.

Still with me? It gets more complicated. There is blending in single origins, as in coffees from multiple varietals or multiple farms will be blended at the farm to create a lot. But coffees that are blended at origin tend to not be called blends, to reduce confusion. We instead just call these single-origin coffee lots and list the farm, region, cooperative, or country that they come from. Here is a list of the different types of single origins with examples from my offerings.

Regional lots: This is the least traceability and tends to represent lower quality coffees. This is not always true as is the case with my Ethiopia: Yirgacheffe. This is a lot from the Yirgacheffe region that represents the work of many small farmers. This region has so many small producers, it is very difficult to get farm-specific lots (coupled with the fact that the government controls the exchange of coffee on the global market). Luckily, the Yirgacheffe region produces stunning coffee throughout and so my lot is one of the best coffees that I offer, and a personal favorite. My Rwanda: Intore is also a regional lot that represents farms from around the country.

Cooperative-specific lots: In many coffee-growing countries, farmers have banded together in regional cooperatives that give them more selling power in the large global market and allow them to share the costs of common equipment such as hulling, washing, and sorting equipment. Many cooperatives own a coffee mill that processes the coffee for the farmers and take it from fresh picked to ready to be bagged for international shipping. The majority of my coffees come from this type of set-up. Some good examples include Papua New Guinea: Mile High, Honduras: Sierra de Agalta, and Mexico: Chiapas Jacinto.

Single farm lots: Larger farms, and farmers that are able to get their coffee milled separately through their coop are able to offer farm specific lots. These coffees represent the voice of one farmer and the terroir of one specific plot of land. This also makes the crop more volatile from year to year. One year, the weather may be perfect for coffee cultivation, the next year may produce a less than ideal crop. But generally, these represent some of the finest coffees available on the market. There is a reason that these coffees were kept as farm-specific lots. There is often something special that could not have been achieved from a regional lot. My Guatemala: Finca La Pastoria is a single farm lot.

Varietal specific lots: This is the final level of microlots. You could only go further by processing coffee that was picked from a single tree. Since one coffee tree produces about 1 lb of coffee, that would not be a viable option. This refers to a single cultivar of coffee tree. It can also refer to a specific section of a single coffee farm or a specific harvest date. Some of the best roasters in the country will sample every day of the harvest on a particular farm and pick out the best harvest dates to offer as a microlot. I have one coffee that I offer in this category. My Brazil: Maurilio Braz Borges comes from a 100% Yellow Catuai natural processed lot on the Borges family farm.

So that is coffee origins in a nutshell. A brief note: traceability, while good for the farmer and good for our marketing copy, does not guarantee superior coffee and we seek out the best coffees we can get while paying a fair price to farmers. We will continue to offer coffees with a wide range of traceability, but we will continue to work on bringing in farm-specific lots as it allows us to connect more with the people who do the hardest work on our fabulous product.

Questions comments? Be sure to share with us.

Bryan HibbardComment