Death of the Blend?

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.

Latest Comments

  1. Espressomattic says:

    Very interesting and thought provoking Steve.

    As you know I like blends, but being a home roaster I like to experiment withthem to see how the different components of each bean flow and meld together. Now to do this you first have to become aquainted with the Single Origin, as you said.

    Again I have to agree with your liking it to wines. I was speaking to the manager of a local off Licence who told me the here in NZ people are very slowly starting to move away from blended wines such as Cab Sav/Shiraz etc and starting to realise that each wine has the potential to stand on it’s own two feet.

    I started my journey into wine long before I became serious about coffee and found I did the same. I now appreciate each individual grape variety for what it is and occassionaly venture to a blend when the mood suits because I like the mix of flavours it gives.

    I enjoy seeing SO’s on “weekly” specials here at some places as it is there to educate the public as to what is on offer. Also apart from one instance I have been able to find out what exactly constitutes a blend. This has been great as it can be fun trying to identify each beans qualities within the cup and makes for an education.

    I am trying to find something with which I can disagree, but I am struggling!!!!!

    Maybe a new step would be a blend of the same SO taken to differing roast levels??? A new product line maybe Steve ;)

  2. Bonsaibirder says:

    Hi Steve,

    Very interesting to hear your opinions on blends since I have only heard the opposite viewpoint previously e.g. on the coffeegeek podcast . But I did look on your website for the recipes for your blends …..

    Keep up the good work!!

    Steve

  3. Has Bean Steve says:

    Espressomatic pleased you liked it, I like that your thoughts are challenged but you still agree that’s the desired outcome :) Roast levels sounds like far too much of a headache :)

    Bonsaibirder Your right and about the lack of recipes and there’s kind of a get out clause but its a bit week now I think of it. 90% of our customers are normal Joe public don’t want all the details just want to enjoy coffee, and the fact that you may present them with too much information can put them off. When we did the cupping notes I wanted it to be an option to ask for more information not the default so as not to over load people. I guess I’ve stayed away from saying on the offerings this is what’s in it, for that reason. You drop me an email and I’ll happily share the blends and I have done many times.

    But you’ve got me thinking those 10% that want some more info that 10% that crave a little more insight, why don’t I put it in the cupping notes for the blends? I’ve never had cupping notes for blends (as its tough to cup blends) but this could be the perfect intro to giving some more info. Now I hope you don’t ask for an commission for the idea :)

    I too heard Marks thoughts on the coffeegeek podcast, and although I don’t agree I do understand where he is coming from. Sounds a little contradictory, but I do see the place for blends, but as I say in the posting just not all the time.

    The whole idea of this blog was to be challenging and to make people think and share my inner thoughts. The real bonus is the communication the other way in comments that make me keep thinking and keep developing ideas thanks for your input guys

  4. RichW says:

    Don’t really know what’s offered for blends in the UK, but here in the US there will – and should – always be room for blends like Hairbender and Black Cat. They’re well crafted and although one might say they’re “friendly” or “approachable” and “forgiving”, there’s no question great blends like these are work to create, certainly not an easy way out.

    As far as being “forgiving”, what’s really wrong with that, whether for a home barista or an indie cafe? Isn’t the point to enjoy your drink? And doesn’t the idea of approachable espresso imply that these blends are perhaps the optimal entry points for those new to espresso.

    I’d argue that anyone who wants to join the espresso-loving world almost HAS to join the community via a blend to really “get it”. Nothing against SOs because that’s an area worth exploring for true bean fans, but it’s more like pursuing a Masters or PhD in coffee than achieving BA.

  5. CakeBoy says:

    There are some fierce proponents on the net of the blend being the only ‘correct’ way to prepare espresso. I have read Mark Prince of CoffeeGeek fame stating on a couple of occasions that he is not keen on SOs as espresso.

    Of course, it is true that some SOs are not suited to espresso and others are challenging, but conversely using a little knowledge and care there are some fantastic results to be had with all the subtleties of the SO shining through.

    Although many are easy to work with, it takes more work, and perhaps more skill to tempt some SOs into delivering their all. That is not necessarily something everyone would wish to do, or perhaps is capable of doing. It’s horses for courses as always.

    Personally, I enjoy SOs and world class blends, but I do like to know that the component parts of blends are top quality. I think Steve is not referring so much to the ‘Hairbender’ and ‘Black Cat’ blends of this world that are clearly good, but to those questionable ones in which the main purpose of the blend is to achieve a result for a price, perhaps using beans that consumers would not otherwise choose.

    I am referring specifically to blends where the price charged is not justified by the individual component parts but a premium is asked because of the packaging and presentation. Not unlike JBM in the SO arena, but the difference being that everyone buying JBM knows exactly what they are getting. Unfortunately, there is no way for a consumer to make similar choices in the case of an overpriced blend.

    My view is (robusta accents aside, though that is another discussion) that unless I would consume a bean SO, I don’t want it in my blends.

  6. Has Bean Steve says:

    Hi Rich

    WOW you read my blog thats cool I’ve heard a lot about you guys and read yours regularly. ( http://aldocoffee.com/ for those who don’t know)

    We don’t have a Black Cat or a Hairbender equivalent here in the UK and I guess that could be part of the problem. They really have an army of fans and thats a real endorsement and people tell me how good they are. I also got to hear one of the components of Black Cat recently and its a top single origin we sell, and when blends are done with these ingredients they can be very good.

    I’ve tasted both of these blends on a few occasions now and although good I don’t think I’ve ever had it at its very best (it usually been on an plane for a while or on the show floor which is not good when there is a lot been pushed through) I can see the appeal but I want more than the roundness of them. They both left me thinking good but….

    I’ve worked on some high profile blends in the past and agree blends can be good, but just not all the time as some say.

    Forgiving and enjoying the coffee I hear you, but very special things rarely come with ease. It was a bit of a generalization as I’ve had some pig blends in the past too that have been good but hard work. It was more trying to paint a picture.

    I think blends have their place and there will always be room for quality blends, but its not the be all and end all (in my opinion of course).

    Thanks for your comments Rich and I’m still WOW he reads my blog :)

  7. RichW says:

    Are you kidding me? We’re hacks. We don’t even have a PID or 0.6mm gicleurs or any of the other cool toys. We don’t cup daily. We don’t roast.

    And perhaps most importantly, we haven’t been part of a WBC Championship Team. (come to think of it, we haven’t even made the USBC finals!).

    We’re the ones who are awed. If we could, we’d fly over today to taste some of whatever it was you cooked up for Mr. Hoffmann.

    But we blew our travel budget on Italy back in June ;0

  8. BazBean says:

    As allways Steve… you push the boundarys.

    a contentious title indeed and one that evokes a suitable response in many an espresso lover ….. Death NEVER ..!!

    yet reading it I became aware of just how set in my ways or ,”traditions” if I wish to choose a more gentile word to describe my closed mind possibly.
    Being passionate about what I drink and serve, I immediatly came to the defence of the blend and was not even willing to explore the possability of an alternative and wondered why this might be?. Maybe this is just me, but I wonder how many more people might think the same way!!. The world of coffee is steeped in Tradition and its fair share of secrecy which perpetuates the mystique of the Blends and I have bought into that …… maybe!

    If nothing changes…. nothing changes !!!
    interesting article indeed and I am off to ponder and maybe even experiment
    (A little).

  9. Phil Johnson says:

    I’m overwhelmingly in favor of SO coffees for use as espresso: the preparation pulls things out of the bean you would never get from any other brewing method, or at least some of those things are amplified. I had cupped some Tanzanian PB and picked up some anise and black tea, but as an espresso, it boggled the mind (and the palate!). It was like somebody hit me inside of my mouth with a raspberry lemonade concentrate and made me chase it with more lemonade. It was fantastic, thoroughly enjoyable, and supremely unbalanced.

    And that, I think, is the reason for blending. I want to highlight those lemony flavors in my Tanzanian, but if I wanted it to be balanced, I would have to sacrifice those characteristics by roasting it a bit longer. Most coffee consumers, even most espresso consumers, seem to want something a bit more balanced and even-keel than something terribly exciting, although the numbers of those interested in delicious, unbalanced SO espressos seem to be growing.

    If I had my way, every coffee shop I visited would have at least five small espresso grinders highlighting at least four SO espressos. Maybe a blend, maybe a brighter-than-the-sun SO, maybe a muted and sultry SO, the list could go on.

    Thanks for bringing this up.

    Phil Johnson
    La Prima Espresso
    Pittsburgh, PA, USA

  10. Olings says:

    At our espressobar we want to challenge our customers coffeedrinking habits by exluding things from the menu that they’d normally would choose (like a latte) and offering new things that they never tried before. People get so hung up in their habits that they forget that there is a whole coffeeworld out there. I think SO really is an interesting other choise that can bring out each coffees hidden secrets and give people an opportunity to taste something special. Too often a blend becomes a pillow to rest ones tastebuds on and you get so focused on repeating the same experience that it becomes a ritual and blocks away everything else.

    It’s good to have a blend as a standard but ruling out the SOs would be to leave out a vast ocean of experiences to be had.

    I think the wine-card is rightly played when one points out that a great wine may taste bad on it’s own, but really comes to it’s right with good food. It makes me think of a comment that someone made after roasting a Kenya as a SO pointing out that it tasted bad on it’s own, but in a cappuccino (like James Hoffman did in WBC) it was wonderful.

    Having said this I must say I enjoy unbalanced tastes every now and again in other food and drinks etc (as long as it’s not all of the time), like a strong mint for instance, so why not an unbalanced SO espresso. Why does it have to be so balanced all of the time?

    Ola

  11. RichW says:

    Hey Phil… when are you bringing some of that stuff over here?

  12. jaime says:

    I feel like a lot of the same thoughts in this exact post have been written before and yet while I should be happy for this new found acceptance of the SO and disrespect for blends tho I’m sadly ambivalent.

    For a lot of reasons but maybe it’s cynical. I feel like everyone will take up and charge to pulling the closest Harrar or wild Yemen ‘what have you’ close at hand as SO. A Sumatra or something that makes a simple shot instead of trying to understand how to get a shot of blackberry Kenya without getting floored by acidity. A yirg where the florals remain but you don’t get smashed by lemon. A Rwanda of balanced nutty flavors and crisp berries where the sweetness survives. That’s a heck of a lot more challenging than most realize but ohh so rewarding when you hit it.

    SO does not have to be unbalanced nor should it be. Doesn’t have to be overly bright either but I’m not willing to argue that too much. it’s best to show it in the cafe rather than light up the boards with arguments.

    Rich,
    Sorry to break the love fest but for devils advocate…

    Black Cat is a black box blend, right? To say it’s blended for quality not for economy would require a little more research beyond the sales pitch they give you, right?

    I wonder if you could, as an account, get a list of exact ingredients in that blend and approximate cost of each green involved. What grade, what components, the details?

    Would it be more expensive in sum than a Cachoeira or Daterra SO?

  13. Has Bean Steve says:

    Hi Jamie

    WOW Jamie’s here too, V cool :)

    As I said in an earlier post I did find out one of the components in Black cat, completely by mistake early last year, and I certainly know one of those beans is not a cheap filler bean and is a great SO that we have sold for a couple of years. I also don’t reckon that Inteli have any “economy beans” I don’t think Geoff would let them past the gate.

    And the one component I found out about is equal (maybe a little more) than a Cachoeria or a Dattera (reserve excepted).

    Olings I’ve got to get myself across to your place, I’d love to come and see the set up. I’ve followed the fitt out closely and to see the change from shell to coffee shops looks sooo cool.

    And Hey Phil bring some of that Tanzania here too :)

    Barry the title was a little over the top Straight out of the Sun Newspaper I reckon :) But we’ve talked about all this before and I think your set up in Scarborough is ideal with the customer base and good Barista skills to push the boundary’s and expectations of customers. Heck don’t give it them every day but a spare grinder sitting on the bar with something thats really special (talk to me Barry) on a special day can be so interesting.

    Still loving these reply’s.

  14. Olings says:

    Hi Steve

    You’re very welcome to come visit any time you’d like! I can’t and wont take credit on the design and idea behind the shop though as it is Tims little brainchild. What is really cool though is that people are up for the taste-challenge. They seem to emrace the idea.

    As for the wanting to come visit; I’ve been wanting to go visit HasBean for quite a while, and to cup some of your coffees! I’d love to see the new Probat up and running. Is there such a thing as a new roaster-smell like you have with new car-smell?:) We haven’t fired up our little Probatino yet, and the UG15 is a refurbished one, so I couldn’t tell…

    I agree with Jamie that to roast a SO is very tricky, and it’s not just roasting it to 2nd crack, but a fine tuning to find out at what point one gets the most out of the bean.

    I’m thinking about the balance/unbalance thing still, though as it strikes me that in many other foods/drinks an unbalanced taste (to a certain degree) is enjoyable. For instance I tend to seek out that mouthwatering acidity in drinks for that sensation in itself. This can’t be directly translated into coffee I guess but a sudden rush of blackcurrant in a Kenya SO sounds good to me (not as a rule but to break up the everyday lull).

    Ola

  15. jaime says:

    Steve,

    british are very diplomatic.

    I don’t know what Geoff would or wouldn’t do. The man speaks poetry bout his coffees and says all the right things about processing and sourcing but when it comes to sampling the lineup, I am often completely befuddled?!?

    Show me a solid 90pt cup and I’ll be quiet, show me an amazing one and you’ll win me over. Anything else and I will be a snarky cynic of the hype surrounding.

    BTW, what’s with James sorting his beans, did he always do that before a competition?

  16. RichW says:

    Jamie,
    I’m admittedly way behind the curve when it comes to roasting knowledge and greens. But I’m responsible for running a profitable operation, not being a hobbyist or critic. I can’t be you, I can’t be Tacy.

    If we aimed to serve and satisfy the two of you, we’d be broke.

    That said, I don’t know what point you’re arguing. That Black Cat and Hairbender shouldn’t exist? I didn’t say they were the best things in the world, I said there would always be a place for well crafted blends and cited those as examples. I also suggested they are useful as entry points. If you’re going to argue that, have at it, but I don’t think there’s a need to trash anyone in doing so.

    Steve, sorry to use your blog for this.

    And Phil, thanks for the PB. We’re looking forward to seeing what we get.

  17. Espressomattic says:

    I feel pretty much out of my depth, being a home roaster and all and was in two minds wether I should continue posasting some thoughts, but I figure…what the heck…Here is something I posted on toomuchcoffee.com in regards to this…

    I have been thinking about his and whilst I still agree with the general notion, I am thinking about so called signature blends. Blend or mixes that speak for you as an individual when drunk, that expresses something of what you are about and like.

    Tonight we are having some friends around who appreciate good coffee. I have knocked together a blend with the MM Robusta again. I am going to enjoy telling tham about the blend, the flavouras in the coffee etc as in a way it is a part of me, an expression of part of my being. Ok I know this sounds a little weird and deep, but it is my creation, something very personal.

    So from that point of view, I don’t think the blend will die, just develop as individuals develop.

    And that is my point of view an igsignificant homeroaster down under. I don’t pretend to have the knowledge you guys have, but I am passionate about coffee and this discussion has fired up a new desire to keep exploring and experimenting. THANKS!!!!

  18. jaime says:

    Rich,

    Tacy who?

    You know I am trying to rile you a bit but no harm intended.

    I don’t really like BC. Sorry. I like a lot of what geoff has to say about coffee but I don’t get that blend at all. hairbender, I can drink though.

    I plan on serving blends with the components listed on the bags. SO espresso, gr1, focused on balance, sweetness, and aroma. Sure that limits me but I have good roasters willing to dance with me on it as would you if you ever took that route. i am cupping a lot, an attempt in understanding defects, taints, roast error flavors. We are roasting a lot right now also and spent a lot of time and money learning green better. It’s work and as a hobby, you’d have to be insane to take it to the level we have. I assure you, we have solely business in mind. I recommend you take the same tact of learning if you want to get ahead on the financials. The easy answers on the forums/blogs won’t get you the differentiation you are seeking. Getting rid of the proverbial 20oz cup is hard because you have to set your own course which involves a lot of education(suffering).

  19. Has Bean Steve says:

    Ok I’ll try and cover some replys here, if I miss you out or miss the main point poke me and tell me.

    Olings, if your ever planning a trip over here, you’d be very welcome as I’m sure I would be at your place. Unfortunately ours is less exiting a warehouse in the middle of the country with nothing good to see around it I guess Oslo may be a little different, but the invitation is there.

    Jamie English, Diplomatic, me my A*** I call it how I see it. I’ve got to know Geoff a little on trips I’ve been on with him and he is a the gate keeper of those coffees. You only have to see the response he gets when he walks into a room full of farmers to realize the difference he is making out there. James in the past has always goes through his beans to make sure all is well, more of a check than anything else. I guess this year he was aiming or a very clinical taste so it was more important. As you know I’m not a fan of over sorting, but thats another post for an other day and we can “discuss” that then :)

    Rich use away this is interesting and thought provoking I’m pleased its happening on here. Tacy there is a blast from the past what did happen to chris?

    Espressomattic (Matt) you weigh in you are, I’ve learnt more from home roasters than I have from most people in the “industry”. In fact there are a lot that don’t have half the knowledge or roasting experience you do so you chip in, I love your point of view and its always really valuable to me.

    Jamie thats an interesting point about its hard to make the big calls. About three years ago we decided we wouldn’t sell anything under the fairtrade brand. Its a mantra of mine, not because of any ethics but because of there is no quality tired to the branding. That kind of decision hurts because initially you lose a chunk of customers but in the longer term its a differentiator and the quality bar gets raised so your reputation rises. Look at is it 9th Street Espresso real hard core guys, great coffee (I’m told, yet to visit but soon I hope) doing it the right way and benefiting from it. I think its harder to do these big decisions later than earlier.

    Forums and blogs are the beginning of the journey, there the terminus to begin the knowledge trip. Only seeing, tasting, experiencing the whole picture can you leave the station. And the trip I’m told never finishes. In fact if I look behind I can sstill see the station.

  20. RichW says:

    Jamie,
    If you’re indeed doing all this with the idea of having your own place, I’ll give you one piece of advice you should heed… don’t set up shop in the suburbs. Even the ‘burbs of a much bigger city.

    If we were downtown or in one of the city neighborhoods, we’d probably do things differently.

  21. Grib says:

    I don’t know if its my place to jump in, as I am in all senses a total n00b, but I’ll go ahead anyway. We’re based in Northern Ireland, where I’m sad to say the speciality coffee business has a lot of catching up to do and the majority of the public over 35 would order “black coffee” “milky coffee” or if they’ve been reading the Times a “cappuccino” (in some places made with instant and frothed milk). Like most coffee shops we’ve been buying our beans roasted from various large suppliers, 3 of the biggest in the country being right around the corner. A month ago I noticed for the second time that we had been getting beans with the same batch number as the fresh ones 4 months previous and decided to bite the bullet buy a small home roaster and see what happened. Before that point, I hadn’t a clue about roasting and after discovering the hard way (by drinking the stuff) I found some single origins tasted rotten as espresso. I tried to find info on good blends and techniques online, only to find the attitude (especially being a business owner, not a home roaster) that good blends were protected by the official secret’s act. A month on its still hit or miss, a lot of guess work, tasting, wasted batches, a few golden gems online (sweetmarias), roasting tips and I’ve found that even some of the “rotten” single origin espressos work if you take the time to roast it differently.

    I don’t know what its like where everyone else is, but here there is very little sense of espresso/coffee culture, even among baristas, meaning there is very little support or proper education among peers when it comes to procedures, roasting etc. Baristas in general are untrained college kids who couldn’t care less (my staff included! Although I’m working on it), not to say there aren’t some star baristas around here, I can think of a few guys from Clement’s and even a Starbucks employee. To be honest though, because of the drought of knowledge locally I don’t think I’ve ever (unless by chance) tasted a real fresh, properly prepared cup of espresso made with fresh beans so as to even compare what we are now roasting and blending, to know if it’s good or not.

  22. ben says:

    Steve
    For me it’s fascinating to read your views just after departing my usual SO habit, buying the HB Premium Blend and thinking how bloody good it is. Certainly there are some really poor blends, and certainly a blend should stipulate what it’s made up of. But they shouldn’t be written off. The wine analogy is good, as always – many of the best glugs come from bottles containing two or more grape varieties.
    If blends are becoming the Cinderella of coffee, it’s a shame and the fault of lazy and uncaring roasters and retailers who think the buying public don’t deserve better.
    But in spite of all that, my staple will go on being the wonderful longberry harrar – delicious and comforting as bedtime cocoa!
    Ben

  23. Teija says:

    Hi,

    Very interesting this conversation about single origin espresso’s. I have a pleasure of actually live in the coffee farm, and as we roast for the local market (and export the rest of beans overseas) I have in last two years spend lots of time creating espresso roast from our own coffee’s. This had meant hours spend on cupping different coffee’s from the farm, playing with roast levels and tasting the espresso’s. Now we are actually trying different processing methods just to get right kind of beans to suit espresso. We are getting there and I definately believe in single origin espresso. We don’t have option of course, being in business of promoting local coffee for local market and really not having any other origin green beans available here, but making single origin (single farm) espresso has become great hobby.

    Interesting to hear Tanzanian Pb works so well, I am also great fan of peaberry and use some in my espresso roast as well. Another thing to try is pulped naturals instead of washed arabica’s.

    Teija
    Zambia

Leave a Reply

x

*required

Current ye@r *