Understanding the economics of coffee blends
As blends continue to rise in popularity in the specialty coffee sector, Jenna Gottlieb speaks with Origin’s head of coffee, Freda Yuan, and 2017 WBC Champion, Dale Harris, about their cost-saving benefits.
In recent years, coffee blends have taken centre stage in the specialty coffee sector.
Broadly defined as a combination of two more single origin coffees, they are generally seen as an effective way to offer flavour consistency all-year round, while catering to a broad customer base.
Despite existing in the shadow of single origin coffees for a time, blends have experienced a growing resurgence, with many highlighting their ability to elevate the flavour experience and create a more balanced, well-rounded cup.
Dale Harris, chief operations officer at Hasbean and winner of the 2017 World Barista Championship, explains that the old stigma around blends largely concerned the “storytelling” aspect that many were craving in the early days of the specialty coffee movement.
“So much of the early narrative of specialty coffee was around provenance, particularly before espresso culture and the specialty coffee movement came together in what we now describe as third-wave coffee,” he says. “There is a benefit and ease in storytelling and customer education to single origins: ‘This is what you’re drinking and therefore why it tastes like this.”
However, with more and more blends appearing at a competition level, their acceptance in the specialty coffee sector has become widespread.
“Coffee blends exist for a purpose, mostly for providing coffee profiles that can’t be achieved with a single origin coffee,” says three-time UK Cup Tasters Champion and head of coffee at Origin Coffee Roasters, Freda Yuan.
“Having a blend can be very interesting: you can take Brazilian beans with its nutty and sweet flavour and mix it with Ethiopian that is more fruity – and find that you have struck a great balance.”
Blends have a number of benefits when it comes to providing consistent, well-rounded cup profiles. However, it’s not the only reason they have become widely adopted by specialty coffee shops around the world.
Price is also an important factor. With arabica coffee prices at record highs, many see blends as a viable, long-term solution for running their businesses. Importantly, they are considered an effective way to balance the costs of expensive micro lots with cheaper “generic” coffees.
“Micro lots are normally smaller volume, single origin coffees separated for their distinctive qualities,” Dale explains, “and their relative rarity increases their price. But the higher quality the blend, the more likely it may include some of these, as well as larger, more generic tasting coffees.”
Depending on the business size, the lots that suit the balanced profile of most blends and hit the right price point can be the most challenging part of a buying programme.
But logistics can also be an incentive for businesses to explore blends. Single origin coffees can be challenging to get hold of year after year, as they come from a single producer, crop, or region.
Therefore, keeping a coffee shop or roastery constantly stocked up with several single origin coffees is nearly impossible.
Propping up sales & building relationships
For businesses looking to cut costs while continuing to provide customers with a consistent supply of coffee, blends are a great option.
However, although many brands launch “signature” blends for which they eventually become known – such as Square Mile’s wildly popular “Red Brick blend” – Dale explains that single origins are still necessary for grabbing attention.
“Most businesses use blends to prop up their sales,” he says, “and single origins are sold as a unique selling point to attract specialty customers.
“We’ve seen chains adopting single origins as their premium, second hopper offering, but blends have remained a core – if undiscussed product – with almost every roaster selling more blends than single origin, regardless of quality and aesthetic.”
Leading with single origins also caters to the demands of consumers for a more transparent and traceable supply chain. Despite the fact that blends can, depending on the definition, be from the same farm, they don’t tend to have the same traceable aspect as a single origin bought directly from a farmer.
“The relative volumes can also be a really strong tool to help build long-term sustainable relationships at origin, where pricing and quality can be built together in a partnership that works for all parties and shares the benefits of growth.
“That said, it’s possible to create blends that are consistent throughout the year and deliver your customers’ core needs. With the best single origin coffees as ingredients, they can be of equal or higher quality, too.”