Single-Origin Coffees versus Blends

So much attention these days seems to be given to single-origin coffees – served as shots of espresso, dripped in brewers, or brewed in siphons.

Coffees termed "single-origin" are pure, unblended coffees from one particular region (Sumatra, Kenya, etc.). People laud the "purity" of the single-origin coffee experience – being able to fully appreciate the terroir of each coffee, roasted just dark enough to develop the full potential of these coffees’ flavor, body, acidity, and aroma, without the incursion or influence of any tastes introduced by the roasting process itself.

As Yogi Berra famously said, "It’s déjà vu all over again!"

When I first started in the specialty coffee business in the late 1970’s, people were in love with single-origin coffees fresh from the roaster. Blends were available, too, of course, and some sold quite well. But the majority of interest from the extremely small consumer base that existed in those early years seemed to be was focused on "varietals" (as unblended coffees were incorrectly called in those days – the more accurate and au courant description "single-origin" being coined in the late ‘80’s).

This infatuation with unblended coffees in the ‘70’s was understandable, given the paucity of coffee knowledge of that time period. Early adopters of specialty coffee in the 1970’s were a product of the years between the 1920’s and the 1950’s, when the only types of coffee available were blends such as Folgers or Maxwell House, certainly not any single-origin coffees! During their formative years, America’s heavily marketed coffee blends were sold pre-ground in vacuum-sealed tin cans on supermarket shelves. In fact, as hard as it is to imagine this today, many consumers I originally sold freshly roasted coffee single-origin coffees to in the 1970’s actually had no idea that coffee existed in the whole bean form, or indeed that it had even been roasted. They assumed that it was packaged in the form that it was grown in – brown and granular!

In my opinion, the single-origin coffee experience today is vastly better today than it was in my early years of passionate involvement with specialty coffee. Today, the selection of exemplary single-origin coffees for roasters has been exponentially expanded with the development of green coffee firms focusing exclusively on upper-end coffees – a segment of the market that basically didn’t even exist in the 1970’s. The Internet has made information and knowledge flow easily in both directions between growers and roasters – it is so much easier for a roaster to sell an expensive single-origin coffee today because they can more readily tell the consumer the "back story" behind the coffees in the bin. Finally, programs such as the Cup of Excellence® and the Coffee Quality Institute® have created an intense awareness at origin on the linkage between single-origins’ quality and the price they can command in the marketplace. The result of these revolutionary changes since the 1970’s for single-origin coffee aficionados is nothing short of spectacular.

Coffee Bean International - with its history extending back to a single storefront also selling freshly roasted coffees in the early ‘70’s - today offers its customers a beautiful assortment of single-origin coffees, sourced from the primary coffee-producing countries around the world. All of our unique single-origin coffees are hand-roasted by us in Portland to the lightest roast level practical – high enough to where the maximum amount of flavor and aroma has been created without tasting grassy or green, and low enough to avoid having the taste of the roast become apparent in the cup. Our trademarked name for this light single-origin roast is "Peak Roast®", a self-describing term if I’ve ever heard one.

Interestingly, Coffee Bean International also offers an alternative roast level on a small subset of these same high-quality single-origin green coffees. This slightly, subtly darker roast level, trademarked by us as our "Velvet Roast®" level, deepens the character of these select single-origin coffees, adding complexity, body and interest in the cup, in my opinion, without adding any appreciable awareness of a darker roast.

As you can see, we here at Coffee Bean International are obviously WAY into single-origin coffees - and have been for years, opting for this varied approach rather than that of many other specialty roasters that only offer one light roast level for their unblended coffees.

Blends – somewhat out of favor in a few zealots’ minds today - are a mixture of two or more single-origin coffees, sometimes all taken to the same roast level, sometimes each taken to different roast levels. Blends can also be created by mixing sub-blends together, sometimes with an added single-origin or two for something specific such as body or aroma. There is no limit to the profiles you can create, if you understand your coffees and have a gift for working with food.

The dissatisfaction with blends (and presumably the roasters that create them) by single-origin fanatics has a little déjà vu in it for me today, for it reminds me of my own prejudices and attitudes when I was young and learning (and earning) my way upward in coffee. In those years all that mattered to me were single-origins, with their moodiness and their divergent personalities. I loved imagining the journeys they had taken to get to me, and loved imagining the people and cultures that they represented. Coffee blends, in my mind, were nowhere near as interesting, with their refinement and balance, predictability and practicality. It took me years to realize that - in the same way the music of a string quartet compares to that of a lone violinist - designing great blends, of bringing together all of the divergent flavors and tones and characteristics of the best single-origins into one dynamic and cohesive cup actually represents one of the biggest challenges - and greatest satisfactions - a roaster can encounter.

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