Author: Jérôme Grenier-Desbiens
With specialty coffee, the emphasis is usually on simple origins. We see lot separations according to origin, often region. We even observe this separation to the farmer or to the plot of the farm. This emphasis on quality is a major distinguishing feature in the entire coffee industry; however, several specialty coffee roasters still keep blends in their offering. With the focus on single origins, we sometimes lose sight of the fact that blending was the origin of our industry and remains a cornerstone of it to this day. So, here is a context of what a mixture is.
At first glance, a blend is a relatively simple product: it should contain at least two different coffees blended together; however, establishing a precise definition can be quite tricky since you first have to determine what makes the difference between two coffees. Is this the origin of the country? Of the farm? Of the region? From the shipping port? If you dig in less, you realize that in fact, every coffee is a blend in at least one aspect. Coffees of more commercial batches, usually coming from a single country, are in fact often a blend of several regions. Co-op coffees, on the other hand, represent a mix of several farms that can often have different characteristics. Even in the case of micro-lots grown on a single farm, the beans can come from different pick weeks, which are subsequently mixed together. When we evaluate the picking days separately, we realize that each has a different character since the maturity of the gain varies with the weeks of harvest.
So, can we consider that everything is a blend? In the context of this article, we will define the blend as being a coffee from at least two separate farms or recognized as such by the roaster.
The origin of the blend is relatively nebulous historically. However, it is generally assumed that it was present from the infancy of coffee culture in London and Venice in the 17th and 18th centuries. Indeed, at that time, the origins of coffee were rarely known or often the bean arrived at its destination already mixed. So blending was the norm and often forced, sometimes even unbeknownst to the roasters. The reasons for creating a blend, on the other hand, are clearer. Fairly quickly we see the emergence of the house blend, the famous "house blend". Evil tongues often cite the origin of these blends by the need to pass the old stocks. Aged and late-batch coffees are therefore found in these “touski” blends. The desire of roasting houses to distinguish their offer from the competition is also a good reason for creating a blend and giving it a distinct name. The result is a unique product, the company's signature. Third, blending flavors from different origins, when done well, helps achieve consistency in the taste profile. The origins are adapted over the year to maintain the desired balance of flavor. Finally, the search for a more complex or balanced product may motivate the decision to make a blend. The best example being a very old blend: mocha-java. Blending Moka Port coffee with more acidity and a livelier character and Java Island coffee with more chocolate and earthy notes, this coffee therefore strikes a balance between these two tasting profiles. In the case of specialty roasters, the blend is more often used to provide a consistent taste profile to their customers.
There are several techniques to achieve a blend. The rawest method is to blend the coffees before roasting. This method is little used for specialty coffees since its main disadvantage is uneven development of the beans. Because each component needs a different roast, mixing them upstream can lead to uneven roasting. However, in specialty coffee, blending is done after roasting and extra care is taken. We will often talk about “blender” coffees. These being one-dimensional, they lend themselves easily to blends. It is then easier to control the contribution of each element. Thus, the master roaster finds himself in a role resembling that of a producer or arranger in the music industry. It must modulate the contribution and presence of each element in order to create a pleasant whole. For example, you can combine a coffee with a low acidity, with flavors of caramel and chocolate, with another more fruity and acid. The result is a more complex and enjoyable cup than each item consumed separately. Some roasters go even further by modulating the development of each coffee in order to obtain equivalent solubility between the components. The result is a coffee with a clearer taste, straighter and easier to work with.
In conclusion, a blend is not always boring in nature. If done well, this will have a complexity and flavor profile that is impossible to achieve with single origins. If the selection of origins and its arrangement are carried out carefully, we will benefit from a synergy of flavors. This synergy can sometimes reveal tastes that simply do not exist in the ingredients. We then find a unique coffee.
Thus, this allows the roaster's expertise to shine.