Pete Licata: Blends and single origins should not exist in isolation
2013 World Barista Champion, Pete Licata, says it’s time to shake up the way we perceive blends in the specialty coffee industry.
A long time ago, when I started working in coffee, the industry looked quite a bit different.
Espresso in particular was designed to emulate traditional Italian blends and, while we sold single origin filter coffees, there was not an incredible level of traceability or identity to most of them.
Now it wasn’t void of identity – we’re talking 20 years ago – but I certainly didn’t know what a “coffee producer” was at that point, and the idea of making espresso with coffee from one single country was practically heresy.
Blends were the standard for espresso, and very common for filter. We had great techniques in action and the expectation of sweet extractions, but the individuality of coffees wasn’t really there. I might also add, we tended to roast notably darker than we do now.
I’m sure you know how things turned out. We started roasting lighter, companies pushed the boundaries with single origin espresso, and our connection to countries of origin has become intricately intertwined.
Travelling to origin to visit farmers and producers is the norm. We post our farm photos on social media. We even seek some coffees primarily based on who produced them rather than where they came from. The identity of location, harvest time and method, processing specifics, drying times, etcetera, are all becoming standard for a large number of coffees.
With all of this work in tracking and telling the farm story, we have gained respect for the specific character that each carries. In some ways, it feels like we care more about the coffee’s provenance than the customer’s experience with it.
Suddenly everything has to be identifiable. The need for ever more separated and unique taste experiences has redefined our specialty industry – and I personally think it’s a great thing.
The redefining bit that is.
We have levels of traceability that some would have thought impossible in the past. We’re making an effort to improve coffee farmers’ lives (as inadequate as it may still be). Coffee geekery is ever-growing, and the number of businesses within the industry has exploded. This doesn’t even mention the level of refinement we have been able to gain in the flavour of the coffee itself.
Individual varieties are often known by their taste or body characteristics. I have tasted stunning coffees from nearly every origin I can think of, and a few from countries that I didn’t even know produced coffee. Florals, berries, stone fruits, citrus, melons, caramels, textures, and intensities that would have blown my mind as a young barista have been coaxed out or created. It is hard to argue that coffee is not better than it was 20 years ago.
But here is where things get a bit less idealistic.
Have you ever tasted a fantastic, juicy single origin espresso that just disappeared from existence the second milk was added to it? Ever hear someone complain that your espresso is too sour for them? Or that a customer just doesn’t “like the taste”?
From a customer service perspective, these are valid aspects to consider. While it is often our job to point the customer in the direction we want them to go, if the experience is not excellent, then we are in some trouble.
As our palates and preferences have evolved over time, not everyone has taken that journey. Believe it or not, not everyone is happy with the bright, intense flavours we have found in single origins.
It brings the conversation back to using blends. Now, I have heard arguments that blending destroys the integrity of a coffee, or that it doesn’t do justice to the farmer’s hard work. This of course is a bit of a subjective topic, but one that I’m happy to talk about.
Single origin versus blend comes down to two things: expectation and application.
In terms of expectation, we, as an industry, seem to be infatuated with the acidic properties of coffee. I believe this may be because we expect dynamic and articulate flavours to be part of the identity of that specific coffee, and the acidity is a big part of being able to pick out “apricot” in a cup, for example. We do the same with anaerobic and natural processing. Suddenly, a coffee tastes more like “flavours” so it must be better, right?
Again, this is great for providing better value back to farmers and showing the effort that we go through to provide excellent coffee that we sell. However, we have somehow conflated “high-quality coffee” with “coffee that tastes like fruit” – and we have been attempting to pass that expectation on to our customers.
Some are totally on board; others are not.
The problem with pushing our industry-focused expectations is that we often forget the customer has expectations as well. There are plenty of people in the world who simply want coffee that tastes like coffee (or is reminiscent of their idea of coffee at least), and this is where blends have excelled.
The application of a single origin versus a blend is also a big avenue to consider. A single origin often tastes amazing as a black coffee, but the majority of people don’t drink black coffee.
Whether it is filter or espresso, you have to admit just how much milk (or alternative milk) we push across the bench. Often, a single origin gets lost in the milk. Its beauty is masked by the fatty, sweet bits that are inherent to dairy products and foamable waters.
We know that certain coffees can work well in milk but, in reality, blends are usually the easiest, most consistent option to create great milk drinks in the café.
So why do blends work better in this case? In a traditional approach, the coffees used will sometimes score lower on an SCA score sheet, often getting referred to as “blenders”. They also tend to get roasted to an “espresso profile” which usually means longer development and higher temperatures.
This doesn’t mean that a blend has to be lower quality or roasted darker. I believe we can simultaneously use less intense coffees, roast to preserve the nuance, and blend to bring about a great product. Call it a modern approach to blending, but I’ve seen a number of top-notch companies making great blends.
Now, there are a few things that I would consider when deciding on a blend or single origin, especially in a café.
The first is if I want something consistent. This is probably the most valuable aspect of blending, and it has been an approach since well before I started in coffee. Having a coffee (blend) which tastes very similar, if not the same, all year long and year after year can be highly valuable. A particular blend can have brand recognition or a flavour profile that customers love and seek out.
Selecting coffees for these blends is based on what will make the finished product taste the same. When an old crop of Brazil finishes, does the next crop taste the same? There is a profile and character which is desired, and the roaster may choose or reject a lot based on hitting it.
What I do find interesting is that there are many coffees I may use in a blend which are not the typical “articulate” coffees. Often I don’t want a coffee with intense fruit notes for a blend, but rather more general characteristics. Think inner parts of the flavour wheel rather than the outer, more specific parts. The more clean, intense, and articulate a coffee is, the more likely it will clash with other coffees’ flavours when blended.
What I love about blending is that you can take a few coffees which may taste average by themselves, but when combined into a blend bring about an experience that is much better than the individual components. I see this with Indonesian coffees all the time. Many friends will say they don’t prefer the herbaceous or spicy elements in a traditional Sumatran coffee, but they can add a huge amount of depth to a blend in even small proportions.
Another thing to consider is if you need a coffee to cut through milk drinks, and what size those drinks might be. Again, blends tend to shine in this situation. While we can of course roast coffee darker to cut through milk, we are more likely to end up with burnt or ashy flavours to get there depending on the coffee itself. With a blend, we don’t need to roast so darker if the right components are chosen, or we could choose to roast some origins darker and others lighter depending on what we’re looking for.
Trying to save costs on coffee while still serving great drinks? Another benefit of blending. Lower-cost coffees can combine with higher-cost coffees to even out the average, and deliver some very tasty results in the process.
We can go on and on about the benefits of blending, but I don’t want you to misunderstand my point of view here. I think blending is valuable and can be delicious, but I also appreciate the uniqueness and intensity that single origin microlots can hold. My perspective is less that one is superior to the other, but rather that each has a place and application. It’s a balanced approach to coffee, which may seem less common these days.
Do you want clarity or provenance? To serve high-level filter brews? Do you pride yourself on the black espresso you offer? Single origin makes great sense.
Do you want body and complexity? To serve milk drinks all day long? Do you just want coffee that is cost-effective and consistent? Blends make great sense.
There is no reason that these two things need to exist in isolation.
Some cafes offer both options, and some take the responsibility of curating the experience as they see fit. At the end of the day, keeping ourselves open to varied coffee experiences and how we can deliver them is the key to keeping customers engaged.