Saturday, September 8, 2012

Single Origins and Blends

There is a lot of focus lately, within the craft roasting community, on an individual coffee's origins. A given bean is explored in all aspects relating to its varietal and its provenance, sometimes even down to the individual lot on which it was farmed.

The benefits of this are as obvious as they are gainful. The world of coffee learns as much as there is to know about each and every permutation of coffee that there is. For each varietal, we learn what a given climate and soil combination does to its characteristics and flavor profile; for each place of origin, we learn what bean varietal grows into the best coffee, what grows most prodigiously, what each bean does to the soil, and so on. The result is a global portfolio of the best coffees that mother earth has to offer.

Furthermore, when sipping a coffee brewed from a single origin, one experiences the true essence of that locale. Just as one can get a mouthful of everything that constitutes a terroir and all that it has to offer from just one sip of wine, a sip of coffee can transport one to any corner of the globe and give one a real feel for the place, its land, its climate, its scent – its entirety.

Equally beneficial, but unfortunately not equally appreciated nowadays, is the coffee blend. If blending were not possible, then stripping down the identity of each individual bean to investigate the layers would indeed be the consummate endeavor of the coffee professional. But blending is possible, and in seemingly infinite ways at that. Therefore, we can conclude that mastery of coffee requires the twin disciplines of investigation and application – one must be familiar with all aspects of every varietal and origin, and also be able to deploy that intimacy in creating the ideal blend. There is an art to go with the science.

The upsides of the blend ought to be as obvious as those of the single-origin. The best blends are those that fuse disparate elements from the varietals into a coherent, vibrant personality; a brew that can play all of the instruments in the orchestra and still sound like one synchronized, harmonious symphony; a coffee that can embody the principle of e pluribus unum. The augmentation of the canon of masterpieces is itself a vital element in the world of coffee, just as vital as the mastery of the individual beans.

May the perfection of the single variety continue apace, and may the craft of blending do the same.


  1. What a great piece! I love the metaphor of a good blend being like the orchestra with the instruments playing together and harmonizing with one another!

    I personally started roasting single origins first so that I could better understand the components that might make up potential blends. To borrow from your metaphor... my thought was that until I understood the individual instruments, how could I compose for an orchestra?

    I'm surprised that this topic doesn't come up more often. What do you think that there has been a trend away from the blends in favor of the single origin roasts? Certainly both have their place but I wonder what has driven people to seek out single origin coffees in mass #'s.

  2. I am sure that there are many factors, but the one that sticks out in my mind is the direct trade movement. Roasters are spending time on location, touring farms much as wine importers tour vineyards.

    The difference is, the wine importers are not making the wine - it has already been blended and fermented by the time that they sample it and do business (or decline to). Coffee roasters are cupping individual crops with the ultimate purpose being to find the best coffees to bring back for preparing themselves.

    Because the roasters focus so much on the single crops when sourcing their coffee, those same singles come to dominate the entire process. The individual beans are what they come to appreciate aesthetically, what they envision presenting to the public, and what they are familiar enough with to be comfortable making financial projections about. The farmers, knowing more about coffee beans than brewed coffee, talk to the roasters about the features of each individual varietal, not about how to complement flavor profiles. And so on.

    Obviously there is plenty of room for blends to be a part of this process, and indeed they are; there is hardly a paucity of blended coffee haunting the marketplace. But it does just so happen that origins are enjoying the most popularity at the moment.