To blend or not to blend - a single origin story
With all this advance in (specialty) coffee, it’s no surprise that single-origin coffees are on the rise lately. Come to any specialty coffee place and you’ll see much more than your espressos and lattes. Singles are on the rise. Accessible and full of flavor. But, but … what about the blends? Are those a thing of the past? Actually, with single-origin coffees getting better and better, blends are getting better as well. But ... which are better?
Ah, the everlasting which-is-better debate! So, which is better actually? The simple answer is, there is no better, as blends and single origins both have their pros and cons. So the real question is: Which is better for YOU? Let’s look at what makes a blend and what makes a single origin. And then let’s taste these coffees and decide …
The name says it all: a mixture of different coffees. But why would someone even mix different coffees? Wouldn’t that just blur the flavors? Well, that is exactly the point, at least in the “modern” vision of blending coffees, where the flavor is king (and not the price, which was the reason for blending coffees in the past).
A coffee blend is a way of balancing flavors that various coffees have. By blending different beans we’re creating a unique flavor profile that can create a magnificent symphony of flavors from different beans with their flavors and features. All it takes to create a grand symphony of flavor is the conductor - usually the roaster that creates the blend. If he knows his beans, a blend can be deep and complex. If his bean pairings are off, a blend will just taste simple and basic.
But there is more to blends than flavor itself. When a roaster is roasting coffee in higher volumes, the aim is (along with great flavor) consistency. The mathematical formula of consistency is quite simple – instead of offering 5 batches of 500 kg single-origin coffees that on their own have a very specific flavor profile, a roaster can combine those and offer 2500 kg of a consistent coffee blend. And let’s be honest, most coffee shops, especially those serving espresso-based drinks, will gladly take the blend instead of 5 different singles, as blends take the edge off extremer flavors of single-origin coffees. Not everybody likes a vibrant acidity of a washed Guatemalan coffee, so a roaster will pair that coffee with a mellower set of beans and create balance in the force (coffee that is). Plus coffee shops appreciate blends as they are more predictable and consistent while brewing espresso-based drinks. Add to that that blends tend to be roasted a bit darker, thus equalizing the flavors a bit more, the result is a balanced cup that is suited to the most.
Does a single make sense?
After reading all those nice things about blends … who would want to drink single-origin coffee? Well, ask your local (specialty) coffee shop and you’ll learn that singles are a big thing in coffee right now! The whole specialty coffee hype (we’re using this word in a good way) is dependent (mostly) on single-origin coffees.
So what is a single-origin coffee? In the most straight-forward technical sense a single-origin coffee is a batch of coffee that comes from a certain region. A region can be anything from a country, a region, a collective of farms, a single farm, or even a single field where coffee grows. Size of the “region” aside, single-origin coffee is one varietal grown in similar growing conditions thus producing a similar flavor and other characteristics in a coffee. This exclusivity adds uniqueness and an exotic sense to a coffee. Oh, and, when compared to blends, a whole new experience in coffee flavor!
A single-origin coffee usually has very distinctive flavor notes. That is why (specialty) coffee shops mostly serve them using brewing methods that highlight these flavors and pour-over variations will highlight the flavors the best. That doesn’t mean a single origin can not work as an espresso, quite on the contrary! But a single origin espresso will usually be quite different from one that was prepared using a more common blend.
Adding to the excitement of coffee lovers, usually no two single-origin coffees will taste the same, so they make a wonderful tasting experience when comparing two or more coffees. Think Ethiopia on Monday, Honduras on Tuesday, Papua New Guinea on Wednesday, Kenya on Thursday, Guatemala on Friday. And there’s still the weekend for some exotic explorations like Chinese or Indian coffees. Single-origin coffees will awaken the coffee explorer in you!
But with a wide range of possibilities comes a downside (of course), as singles tend to be less well-rounded than blends. There might be a Guatemala with radical apple acidity or an Ethiopia with harsh blueberry notes. We sometimes like to call single-origin coffees the “untamed animal” of coffee, while blends are the “domesticated coffee animal”, as harsh flavors are tamed down with mellower coffees.
There is one problem with the untamed nature of single origins - consistency. If the coffee is flawed in any way, the coffee drinker will notice that immediately, as the beans are solo players in the coffee concert. On the other hand, coffee blends are a group of players in the same concert and one bad player can hide in the noise of others. In coffee terms – two, three, or four beans can easily cover up a bean from a bad batch, increasing consistency and predictability of coffee.
So, which is better for you?
It’s not for us to decide for you, as we all have specific demands of what a cup of coffee should taste like. But maybe this will help you decide:
- If you like a consistent and well-rounded coffee to enjoy day after day and you don’t like surprises in a cup, a nice blend will do the trick.
- If you’re after experimenting with your cup and like to compare different coffees, go for a single origin.
- If you’re a home espresso brewer, start with a balanced blend to master the craft of espresso. Then move to a single origin espresso roast.
- Making filter coffee at home? A single origin will get your flavor experiment going.
- If your preferred flavor notes include nuts, chocolate, caramel, go for a blend.
- If you’re chasing vibrant fruity or floral notes, cane sugar flavors, or anyone vivid flavor in a coffee, go for a single origin.
- Here’s a crazy idea – why not try both?