September 14, 2015

Everything You Need to Know About Single Origin Coffees


Have you ever walked  into a café, looked at the brew on offer, and wondered why the coffee is being touted as single origin? I mean, what does that actually mean? Why is it important? Should you even care?

While you’re not alone in feeling like that, yes, that label is important. Read on as Perfect Daily Grind demystifies coffee labels and café menus around the world. We’ll take a quick look at why it’s important, what’s pushed it into the spotlight, and give you a few tips for confidently putting your newfound knowledge to use.

SPANISH VERSION: Todo Lo Que Debes Saber Acerca De Los Cafés De Origen

 Single Origin, Single Estate, Single Farm: What Do They All Mean?

Single origin is a small phrase with a big definition. The meaning’s often simplified to a coffee that’s sourced from one single producer, crop, or region in one country. Single farm and single estate mean that the coffee is sourced from one farm, mill, or co-operative. Then you can go a step further and find coffee labels that tell you the estate name, the specific lot or paddock the coffee was grown on, or if it’s a microlot (a specific varietal from a specific farm).

Yet this isn’t all that single origin means. As SCAE’s Andra Vlaicu says:

“The most important thing about single origin is its traceability, the fact that you know exactly where your coffee is from and that it’s a specific coffee, not a blend. Usually of a higher quality, it’s the acknowledgment that the coffee is from a particular farm located in a unique setting, whilst its flavour depicts its origin, possessing characteristics of that specific area where the particular coffee was grown.”

So that’s why third wave coffee loves single origins – they’re all about a deeper understanding of your coffee’s profile and how that profile is affected by what goes on at origin. 

 Single origin harvest on drying patio, Apaneca-Ilamatepec region, El Salvador.

 Single origin harvest on drying patio, Apaneca-Ilamatepec region, El Salvador. Credit: Jasal Cafe.

The Increasing Popularity of Single Origin

So how did single origins enter “mainstream” vocabulary? Well, according to Jeremy Torz, founder and managing director at Union Hand-Roasted Coffee, the current interest in them has been influenced by an increase in the number of specialty cafés offering alternative brew methods such as pour overs and AeroPresses. “Other coffees can be offered without compromising the core espresso offer, and these coffees have then migrated into the world of espresso,” he says. “Given the fast pace of our industry and the desire amongst baristas to constantly experiment and innovate, it’s no surprise that many in our industry are now prepared to ignore convention as we look to reinvent the coffee experience for the 21st Century.”

Single origins appear to be particularly popular because of their traceability. Andrew Hetzel from CafeMakers Coffee Consultants explains, “Educated consumers that I have encountered are looking for guidance: help interpreting and communicating the complex tastes and sensations that they experience from good coffees. Most consumers are not educated and have no interest in becoming educated, but can be subtly guided to better quality coffees. The accompanying information a roaster or retailer provides is extremely helpful, describing its source (the farm, land, people, climate, cultivar, processing and so on) in as much detail as possible.”

In a coffee movement that’s fascinated by increased transparency and innovative methods, it’s no surprise that single origins are proving popular.

Pacamara coffee cherries

Healthy-looking Pacamara coffee cherries waiting for ripening. Credit: Lechuza Cafe.

Demand for Single Origins Drives Changes at Origin

So what effect has the increasing popularity of single origins had on production?

It turns out that we’re a big enough market force to affect farming methods. Certain farmers (labelled specialty farmers) are developing and improving high-quality crops in response to our demand.  Some experiment with their selection of varietals or cultivars, the control they have over the growth stage, the harvesting times and techniques, and the milling and the processing methods.

ripe coffee cherries

Red Bourbon varietal, El Salvador.  Credit: Jasal Café.

SEE ALSO: VIDEOS: How Origin Trips Can Help Producers & Green Bean Buyers

 Direct Trade Increases Coffee Quality

These experiments would never have occurred without direct trade. We’ve seen far greater communication between roasters and farmers, crucial for the pursuit of higher-quality coffee. Producers count on roasters to inform them about market trends while specialty roasters, who are always looking for an exciting new single origin to showcase, can now locate producers easily and learn from them.

Origin visits, increasingly more commonplace, provide a wealth of knowledge for roasters and green bean buyers. In fact, it’s becoming rare to find a specialty roaster without a first hand, detailed understanding of the impact of farming and processing on their beans. Growers, buyers, and roasters cup on the farm side by side, sometimes up to a whopping 100 coffees in a day, to compare processing profiles and their cupping scoresheets – and as both information and coffee are traded, the consumer can notice an increase in the sophistication of the coffees available.

Yet it’s not just the producers and roasters in this relationship – the end consumer also plays a part. How? By acknowledging the superior quality of the coffee. According to Jorge Raul Rivera, Vice President of J. Raul Rivera S.A de C.V and representative of Finca Santa Rosa, El Salvador:

“The customer is able to appreciate all the hard work in one year’s harvest and it also encourages a farmer to work harder and show off his hard work through an amazing coffee experience for the consumer. It is also empowering because if the farmer delivers excellence and the end customer then continues to demand that quality, the roaster is compelled to pay the farmer a fair price for his product.”

So next time you order a specialty coffee, remember that you’re playing a role in the pursuit of higher-quality products and ethical business practices. Feels pretty good, doesn’t it?

coffee beans

Producer Ananias Perez with Caturra grown at her farm in Hulia, Colombia. The visibly super-tight parchment is an indicator of high quality. Credit: Caravan Coffee Roasters.

How Does the Industry Measure Coffee Quality?

So we’ve established that single origin usually means good coffee, and that demand for this coffee in combination with direct trade has led to an increase in both the quality and availability of specialty coffee – but how do we know that a coffee is good quality? After all, single origin doesn’t have to mean good.

Well, that’s where industry evaluation systems come into play. These globally respected systems (think Cup of Excellence or Coffee Quality Institute Q) measure the quality of coffees, among which single origins, single estates, and microlots are predominant. These systems don’t just guide consumers in purchasing coffee; they also incentivize the constant pursuit of higher-quality beans. As producers and roasters then use these systems in their marketing, producing excellent coffee has a considerable financial reward.

The three main systems in use are Cup of Excellence, Coffee Quality Institute Q, and Coffee Review. The Cup of Excellence competition, which acknowledges the quality and care in production of specialized, rare lots, is considered the highest form of recognition in the specialty industry. The Coffee Quality Institute Q system adheres to SCAA’s standards and evaluates, at the producer and farm level, the categories of fine Arabica, fine Robusta, and blends. Coffee Review, on the other hand, is invaluable for roasters and retailers. Arguably the world’s most widely read and influential coffee buying guide, it reviews roast profiles.

Yet how do they judge a coffee’s quality? Isn’t coffee both subjective and subject to bias? Well, yes – but these systems do their best to quantify the coffee quality and remove potential subconscious biases. They typically use blind cupping and the 100 point review system, and while the criteria might differ slightly within each systems, you’ll normally find that they follow the descriptive categories coffee professionals use on tasting scoresheets.

coffee cherries on tree

Yellow Caturra varietal, El Salvador. Credit: Jasal Café.

What Do Coffee Farmers Say About Single Origin?

Now that we’ve heard all the theory of single origins, what do coffee farmers themselves say about these coffees?

Today’s coffee farmers, particularly those focused on specialty and single origins, take immense pride in the quality of their coffee. They care about the end result in the cup and how that translates to the consumer. As Andres Salaverria of Jasal Cafe in El Salvador puts it, “Single origin coffees allow the consumer to understand a specific coffee or profile in its own right… It’s also a great way to show consumers what’s behind a specific coffee and the love and passion each producer puts into its production.”

Cesar Magana, farmer-barista-roaster at Lechuza Cafe in El Salvador, runs three small farms focusing primarily on pacamara varietals (a hybrid created in El Salvador that’s well-known for its floral notes, sweetness, and round body). Magana believes that consumers want to drink the best coffee available, which means they rely on direct trade between farmer and sourcing from origin. He says, “If they understand the quality of the product, it guarantees sustainability for everyone making extra efforts in every step of the coffee-making chain. The barista or roaster should be able to give first hand information about the farmer and the farm; to me, that’s beautiful and that’s why single origin matters.”

So there you go – coffee farmers approve of single origins as a process for increasing transparency around coffee.

Specialty roasting in action.

Specialty roasting in action. Credit: Caravan Coffee Roasters.

What Do Coffee Roasters Say About Single Origin?

Coffee producers like the label single origin, but do coffee roasters? Well, yes and no.

Steve Hall, green bean buyer and head of quality at Caravan Coffee Roasters, says that originally single origin wasn’t an indication of a perceived higher quality; it was only used to differentiate a coffee from a roaster’s house blend. And nowadays, he feels that “for most specialty roasters, single origin does not do the producer and coffee enough justice. These days we’re talking single varietal, single farm, day lots; the possibilities are endless and fascinating.”

Does that mean single origin is a bad phrase? Well, for Steve, perhaps inadequate would be more accurate. “Think of a country like Tanzania,” he told me. “It has coastal tropical weather, the snow-capped peak of mount Kilimanjaro, the Nyiri desert, Lake Victoria and the Serengeti. The coffee growing regions border Rwanda, Burundi, Kenya, Uganda, Mozambique and the Democratic Republic of Congo; the taste variations are outstanding! When looking at single origin on this scale, it misrepresents the amazing differences that can be found in coffee, but for lack of a better term, we use the phrase single origin. Over the course of time, it has come to be an indicator of quality; it’s basically your coffee roasters way of saying, ‘Hey, I think this coffee is pretty damn special and I want you to know about it’.”

So… single origin both has a lot of meaning (as we said above) and not enough, but regardless, you can expect an excellent coffee when you see that label.

What Does Single Origin Mean for Coffee Consumers?

We’ve established that single origin coffees are are a good choice (especially if they come with a Cup of Excellence award)… but is that all you should look for?


Jeremy Torz advised me that “more than single origin, single estate is probably the main charge right now. As cafés look to provide something ‘exclusive’, and with many brokers and importers willing to bring over containers loaded with smaller parcels of coffees instead of 300 bags of a single type, roasters can increasingly look to offer named coffees much like wine estates or producers and this would appear to chime with the public interest for enhanced provenance in food and drink in general.” His advice to customers right now is “to ask about post-harvest processing as well as country and roast, as these are the main elements that will help you navigate by flavour as opposed to pure geography.”

So there you have it: single origin is the diving board you use to discover exactly how good those coffees really are.

For consumers trying to decide in a cafe setting, here are some tips from Roast Ratings co-founder Holly Bastin:

  • Filter Coffee

“With filter, single origin versus blend usually boils down to adventure versus stability, from my experience. If you want your coffee to be your old, reliable, always-unchanging-and-never-out-of-stock variety, then blends are perfect for you. For those that want to constantly explore the flavour merry-go-round that is coffee, single origins can provide a wide variety of options from wild to tame.”

  • Espresso

“Similar to filter coffee, in espresso the choice between single origin and a blend is still about stability and adventure – to an extent, but what I would recommend might differ depending on the beverage you are ordering. In espresso, blends are usually developed for one overriding purpose: balancing the flavours. When it comes to milk-based beverages, blends can often be preferable to single origins, as they’re able to provide the solid base of flavours to be expanded on and complemented by the milk. Some single origins can work, especially depending on the ratio of milk to coffee, but the best way to know is to simply ask your barista for their recommendation. If you usually drink straight espresso, I say try anything once!”

Now that you know a little about single origin coffee, what next? It’s OK if you feel slightly intimidated by all this talk of varying geography and microclimates. It’s a big world out there, after all – but by no means does it need to stay this way. Strip away the pretense and let the adventure begin, starting with that next single origin brew. Roasters and farmers alike want to draw you in and help you appreciate their hard work, so don’t be scared to ask questions and provide feedback as you navigate the coffee landscape, one single origin coffee at a time.

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Edited by T. Schrock.

Perfect Daily Grind.