I’ve been thinking about this for a while, and even more so recently; are we witnessing the death of the espresso blend? As specialty coffee industry gets better and better at spotting interesting and complex single estate single origin coffees and presenting them to the espresso community, I wonder if we are moving into a new world where blends take the back seat.
This question has been brought to the fore by James Hoffmann winning the 2007 World Barista Championships (WBC) with single origin coffee. A couple of years prior to James’ victory, Troels Poulsen had used Daterra at the WBC. Daterra is virtually single origin, as its all grown on the same farm (as big a farm as it is) and taken from different sections of the estate to imitate a blend.
Personally I’ve always preferred the honesty of a single origin in espresso. You can taste and understand the bean in a far purer way. The arguments of single origin coffee being one dimensional and thin are also not lost on me, but I think this can be attributed to poor preparation, or trying to use set parameters on every coffee without experimentation and looking at each coffee holistically. In the wrong hands coffee from a single farm or a blend can be awful, and in my experience blends can be more forgiving. So are we using blends as a crutch for our sloppiness, our poor barista skills or poor equipment?
I also think that over the years blends have been presented to me which have existed solely for the purpose of saving money and/or hiding poor beans. This is not an acceptable way to use blends. I think it is one of the main reasons contributing to my dislike and distrust of blending. Had blends not been abused in this way, I may well have had a different view now. The point of blending is to improve on the sum of the component parts or to create something different, not to mask something that is not good enough not be in there. Consumers deserve better.
For far too long, in my opinion, roasters have guarded their blends just as Colonel Sanders covets his recipe, seeing it as the secret to their success. I think this is simply wrong. There should be no need for it to be a secret. Unlike Colonel Sanders’ recipe which is the coating on the meal, with coffee the blend itself is the main attraction. No-one would walk into KFC and expect to be served meat of an unknown type. In any case, blends are prone to change year on year, with crop rotations and quality swings affecting the component beans. Surely coffee is more akin to the choosing of fine wines than a finite recipe. All customers deserve to know what they are buying. I believe it is imperative for the commercial customer who runs a coffee shop or restaurant, if they have a blend, to know what is in it. The reputation of their business may depend on that blend. How can they inform and share with their customers if they don’t even know what they are selling to them?
I digress, back to my main point. For me, knowing and sharing the whole story and information about the personalities behind individual coffees can make that great cup a little better. With blends, I find you often lose the opportunity to engage the consumer with these stories. If you do manage to do so, it is frequently diluted by the fact there are so many other parts of the blend to consider as well. Now of course a good story without great coffee is like well presented food without the substance of taste, but incredibly tasty coffee well presented with information about how and where it is produced is a winning combination.
As a lover of single malt whiskies, it is nothing new to me that blends are not a way to experience the best of anything. The problem is sometimes whether good is even attainable. I have yet to taste a blended whisky that I would call good, and I think many blended coffees are of a similar standard.
Okay, I will make an admission now. I do, think there is a time for a blend in coffee, just not all the time as some would have you believe. I think it is important to indulge yourself, to try single origin espresso, enjoy it and not keep falling back to the blend as the default. Embrace a coffee for what it is, if it lacks a little body because of its complex acidity, enjoy and celebrate that fact. Don’t try to make every espresso consist of the same things. The times they are a changing and the choice is yours.