Are beans from just one place better than a blend? Here's the low-down on flavour, whether it's fairer to farmers and why you might want to skip the milk.
Samantha van Egmond

22 Feb 2017 - 7:11 AM  UPDATED 22 Feb 2017 - 7:11 AM

It’s coffee o’clock and you’re waiting to order when your gaze meets a chalkboard scrawled with exotic flavours and faraway places – Costa Rica, Panama, jasmine, caramel, a hint of clove... and then there’s ‘limited edition’ and ‘single origin. What’s that all about? Should you forgo your usual milky espresso blend for an unexpected, albeit pricier, morning brew?

What’s the difference?

The simplest explanation is that single origin coffee comes from one place, geographically speaking. A blended coffee, is, well, a blend of different coffees from various corners of the world. While it’s rare to be served an espresso that’s been made only from Ethiopian beans, or only Sumatran beans – blends provide a well-rounded, crowd-pleasing cup – cafés serve single origin as a way to share beans from a particular region that shine as a standalone coffee.  

Roaster Dan Bloom, who heads up Allpress Espresso’s Sydney headquarters, likens the distinction to whisky. “A single origin is very much like a single malt,” he says. “It has been picked for the fact that it’s a standout and has a special flavour.” Blends, on the other hand, are akin to the tipple’s tried and true mixed malts, available year in, year out and offering a consistently smooth, if predicable, taste and mouthfeel.

By no means an inferior coffee, blends exploit beans that reach their full potential as part a collective rather than as a singular coffee. “Balance is really important when it comes to coffee – you don’t want something that’s going to be too acidic, fruity or bold,” says Dan, explaining that it typically takes a combination of beans from varying origins to create a nice harmony in the cup.

What makes single origin unique?

Much like whisky connoisseurs, many coffee aficionados are demanding their drink of choice be of the highest quality and in its purest form, which is where single origin comes in. “Single origin is about showcasing a coffee just how it is without having influences from other flavours or regions,” says Dan.

Determining a single origin often comes down to two factors ­– grading and pricing. Grading involves roasting, cupping and evaluating the quality of the beans, taking into account taste, acidity, body and aroma as well as any defects. Roasters might come across a coffee they love, however if it doesn’t fit the flavour profile they’re looking for to build a blend, it can be kept on the backburner as a potential single origin. “It might not necessarily be well balanced ­­– it could be really acidic – but the flavours are very unique and worth sharing,” he says.

Although single origin beans can come from the same farms supplying coffee for blends, the difference is that they’re grown separately in a smaller area, or a micro-lot. This means a pricier, and generally speaking, higher quality bean. “You’re paying a little bit more for the [single origin] coffee, everything from the way it is grown to handling, picking and processing,” says Dan.

Sharing the story and provenance of a coffee can also make a single origin special. Boutique roastery Market Lane works with small-scale farmers to supply to their five Melbourne outposts a rotation of single origin offerings, with director and co-founder Jason Scheltus seeing traceability as a way people can connect to a coffee from wherever they are. This transparency also extends to their blends. “If we have an espresso blend, the front of the bag will state what farm the coffee is from and what percentage of the blend it is,” says Jason.

What are the benefits of blends?

If you think of a chef mixing ingredients or a perfumer composing a fragrance, crafting a unique coffee blend is a similar creative process. “Essentially what we’re trying to build is a flavour profile,” says Dan. “By drawing on various strengths from different regions with certain notes, we can achieve not only consistency of flavour but also in the quality and availability,” he explains.

Ensuring a reliable year-round supply is also key to a consistent cup. “We may have a bean from Brazil that’s bringing a nice chocolate body to a blend,” explains Dan. “If they have a bad season, a drought or a bad harvest, we need to know where we can get the exact same notes ­– possibly from another origin.” With single origin this isn’t possible, so offerings change several times a year dependent on availability.

Milk or no milk?

Back to the whisky analogy, why pour cola all over a single malt when you could sip and savour? It comes down to personal preference, however Dan says single origin varieties are best enjoyed as a finished product without introducing another flavour.

“Both black and white coffee work really well for blends,” he says, “Whereas you might have a really fruity single origin and then when you put it with milk, it loses that special flavour.” Jason agrees that while there’s no right or wrong when it comes to how you enjoy your cuppa, it can be easier to taste the characteristics of a coffee when served sans milk.

Is single origin more ethical?

Single origin coffee is not necessarily more ethical than any blend,” says Molly Harriss Olson, CEO of Fairtrade Australia & New Zealand, “as a coffee blend is a mix of single origin varietals brought together to complement one another.” That is, if all the coffee in the blend is sourced ethically, then the whole blend could be considered ethical.

Whether its single origin or a blend, ensuring that your coffee comes from an ethical source is key, says Molly, and this all comes down to traceability of the coffee beans throughout the supply chain, back to the coffee farmers, and ensuring they receive a fair deal. Whether they’re choosing single origin or a blend, coffee enthusiasts have a few tools to determine whether their espresso is ethical,” she says.

In addition to seeking out independently certified ethical labels such as Fairtrade, Molly suggests speaking to the roaster directly. “Learning about the provenance of the coffee beans is an essential part of every roaster’s journey when they source ethical beans… don’t be afraid to ask questions!”

Lead image by Mark via Flickr. 

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