I often get asked how we build espresso blends here at Has Bean. I wrote an article on the subject many moons ago though I think the process of blending has moved on a bit since then, so now seems like a good time for a re-write.
The first part of the process to produce any blend takes place in the mind and on paper. Before any coffee is tasted or anything is brewed, it is crucial to have some aims and objectives for the coffee. These can be diverse aspirations or simply seeking specific flavours within the blend. There is also the basic question of what proportion of acidity, sweetness and body is required. Next, with these answers in mind, it’s time for me to think about the Has Bean coffee inventory, and this is where I feel we have an advantage over many. We taste and cup lots of coffees, and have numerous beans available to us at any given time. I like to think we always have all the bases covered in terms of options and diversity.
To create a blend it is necessary think of individual beans, how they might compliment each other and what they can bring to the blend, primarily in terms of taste, but also in respect of mouthfeel, viscosity, aroma and complexity of flavours. Putting a complex, busy coffee in a blend alongside a wallflower of a bean may not be good, though two complex coffees can also just end up as a car crash of flavours.
I like to use no more than four beans in a blend, with a heavy learn towards having just two or three. Any more in the mix can make it too complicated and reduce the chances of actually achieving what is being sought for the blend.
It is important to think about the ‘glue’ that will hold the coffees in the blend together. We have a range of key coffees that I like to use as this ‘glue’, with some of my favourites being Guatemala El Bosque, Bolivia Machacarmarca, Brazil Cachoeira, El Salvador La Fany and Nicaragua Limoncillo.
I utilise these coffees for a number of reasons, the first, but not necessarily the most important, being availability. If a main component coffee is in very short supply it leads to constant chopping and changing of the blend recipe. I like consistency in a blend and I know lots of baristas appreciate this too.
Secondly, these coffees hold up very well and remain extremely consistent over a whole season. So even when they are moving towards becoming ‘past crop’, the stage when they are not actually yet the previous crop but the transition period when the new season crop starts to arrive, all of those mentioned remain tasty and as consistent as a fresh crop. When these coffees arrive at Has Bean, we can rely on the certainty that the exporters and farmers have given them adequate resting time in order that they are calm and ready to drink straight away. It may surprise you that this isn’t always the case with every coffee that arrives, with some having to be rested longer before they can be used.
It happens that these key coffees are also amongst some of my all time favourites. Each would make it into my top ten coffees. This leads us nicely into the third reason that these coffees are often found in Has Bean Blends. They are balanced, they have sweetness, they have acidity, and they have body. They are also all incredibly tasty. This is why they act as glue to hold the other components of the blend together. They act as a bridge across the spectrum of flavours present in the blend.
The blender also needs to find the personality of the coffee. This comes from the original brief, the pen and paper stage. A shortlist is drawn up of coffees that will work together and bring the desired components to the cup.
Another thing must be considered that will dictate the shortlist; the machine that the coffee will be brewed upon. The same coffee produced on diverse machines can often, though not always, vary greatly in flavour. Therefore, a blend for a Hydra Synesso in a commercial setting, for instance, will be very different to another intended for a Baby Gaggia in the home.
Temperature stability, or the lack of it, from machines is often not considered. The skills of the barista are also frequently forgotten at the blending stage, but these factors are crucial if the blend is to be tasty just about every time it is poured. For example, I rarely use (or would at least not do so without a warning) a high acidity coffee in a blend intended for home users, as many machines in this sector struggle to produce a constant temperature and acidic coffees made on them often present sour or metallic like mouthfeel. At the other end of the scale, I find a coffee with a big body will give a more forgiving base to build a blend upon.
There are many of these broad brush rules because, as we all know, one size does not fit all. Having said that, they can often be broken with good effect, it’s just worth keeping them in mind whilst blending.
So let’s go through the formation of a blend to explain the theory. I’ll use the brand new Espresso Blend that we have just launched as the case study.
So the brief for this one was of course to be tasty, and to be very forgiving with temperatures, extraction time and extraction pressures. This would be used on many diverse machines in numerous homes by some people who are not professional baristas. Sweetness is a major player, chocolate caramel with a tight but not overt acidity, a healthy body, and it should cut through milk.
The Selection for the cupping table was broken into three things that I was looking for as components; body, acidity and sweetness, plus something to tie them all together.
Bolivian Machacarmarca: Sweet, balanced, tight controlled acidity, spice body.
Brazil Rancho: Thick mouthfeel of caramel, chocolate, slightest hint of acidity, vanilla.
Brazil Fazenda Cachoeira Canario: Elegant, clean, sweet, mellow, creamy, dark chocolate.
Sumatra Raja Batak: Heavy body, syrupy flavour, spicy, tones of dark chocolate.
Sumatra Wahana Natural: Herby, black pepper, over-ripe apples, big body.
El Salvador Los Amates: Sweet, great mouthfeel, lovely espresso, spicy, blackberry, dark chocolate.
Ethiopian Yirgacheffe: Mushroom, earthy, jasmine, light and bright.
Ethiopia Zege: Clean, transparent, lemons, floral, jasmine.
Nicaraguan Limoncillo: Toffee apple, sweet, caramel, green apple, body.
El Salvador La Ilusion: Balance, fruit salad, winey, rich, sweet aftertaste.
El Salvador La Fany: Sweet, caramel, creamy, great mouthfeel, great espresso.
Guatemala El Bosque: Milk chocolate, grape, apple, cherry, spice.
From the table the coffees that stood out and I thought would tie well together were:
Sweetness – I decided that I would go for the Bolivian Machacarmarca for the sweetness, with its balance and tight controlled acidity, spice, smooth controlled and big body.
Acidity – I didn’t what high acidity as the body (as you will see) wasn’t going to be the normal big body one might expect, so the need for something bright was not so necessary. I decided to go for El Salvador La Ilusion, an all-rounder that brings many of the components into one. This holds everything together in the blend. An expensive choice, but one I felt would bring so much to this blend and give it a real backbone.
Body – For the body, I decided that the component we had so far were enough so I would reach for something to tie the other two together. I decided on Guatemala El Bosque with its milk chocolate sweetness and grape, apple, cherry, acidity with a spicy body in the background.
Now what came from the final outcome was a second consideration that I had not to that point thought much about (though it should be included in the stages of espresso blending); the final cost of the blend. With our current blend at £3.30 and the average price of the three chosen coffees at over £6, the cost would make it not possible for retail.
So, in order to bring down the price, I decided to remove the El Salvador La Ilusion and swap it with the Nicaraguan Limoncillo. They share many common properties with an elegant controlled acidity, sweetness, body and are equally delicious. I felt we were not lowering the quality, just adjusting affordability for the real coffee world. Maybe one day I’ll offer the original blend as a special one-off for people to try side by side with the amended version. I also felt that it would aid the body too.
I then took this blend as equal thirds mixed and tried it as an espresso. This was the first time it was tasted as an espresso.
Although I could tell there was a delicious blend coming together, it was not quite ready and the balance needed to be addressed. The ratio of thirds rarely works but I find it’s the best place to start tasting espresso. The initial espresso was a bit too bright and a little low on sweetness (which was crazy with the three sweet coffees it contained), so a tweak of the mix was necessary.
Version two consisted of 40% Bolivian Machacarmarca, 40 % Nicaraguan Limoncillo and 20% Guatemalan El Bosque. The sweetness was bigger, the body bigger, and the acidity more controlled.
The next stage of testing was to try the prospective blend in milk, pulled long, pulled short, ristretto, macchiato, etc. It passed all those tests with flying colours and a new blend was born!
So there you have it. That is how the latest incarnation of our Espresso Blend was devised. However, the method is not set in stone. There is not a set of hard and fast rules and often blends can be born out of experiments going well, surprises, or even mistakes that prove delicious.
I hope you found this little insight into blending at Has Bean interesting. As always, I welcome your questions and comments.