October 6, 2015

Everything You Need to Know About Coffee Blends – Part 1


Let’s talk coffee blends, shall we? A few weeks ago, Perfect Daily Grind shed light on the edginess of single origin coffee, but now it’s time to get to know their cousins.

Single origins are like the snowflakes of the coffee world: no two are alike. With blends, however, the keywords are consistency and uniform excellence. They could be seen as the embodiment of market forces as articulated by the mastery of highly-skilled roasters looking to hit that bull’s eye of their customer’s palates. So, what exactly are these market forces that play into blend creation?

SEE ALSO: How YOU Can Make a Career Out of Coffee Roasting

Coffee Drinkers Are Winning

Until specialty coffee came along, coffee drinkers were subjected to mass-produced generic blends made from commodity coffees. These blends were typically sourced from the world’s dominant coffee producers at the time, namely Brazil and Central America.

This is fine and all, as long as you don’t know what you’re missing out on. Ignorance is bliss, but once you’ve had that first cup of specialty coffee, there’s no going back. It’s much like going from only eating white sandwich bread to tasting your first buttery croissant baked at your neighborhood bakery. You’re ruined – in an extremely good way. 

Pacas family farm and mill in El Salvador, which grows coffees for blend

Pacas family farm and mill in El Salvador. The Pacas varietal is named after them since it was discovered by two generations prior. Credit: Jon Attenborough for Origin Coffee.

Espresso blend being extracted using naked portafilter

A perfect extraction exposed by a bottomless portafilter on a Synesso Hydra espresso machine. Credit: Five Senses Coffee.

Are Blends Any Good?

So we’ve established that specialty coffee is much better than the old blends you used to get – but is today’s blend any better?

Well, yes.

Mass-produced brands continue to blend largely for economical reasons, and also to mask any flavour discrepancies. On the other hand, specialty roasters focus on two main areas: flavour consistency and unique signature blends.

Why Blend?

Café owners have a responsibility to offer a staple house blend. Their customers expect the same reliable taste that they’ve come to enjoy. It’s both delicious and comforting. Since coffee differs from crop to crop and season to season, this presents a challenge for the roaster.

Roasters these days also want to add value for their customers – and demonstrate their sophistication –  through offering limited, seasonally created blends. By doing this, cafes are able to expand their menus to include a choice of their trusted blend or a unique, adventurous coffee experience.

Pacamara growing on Finca El Injerto in Guatemala

Pacamara growing on Finca El Injerto in Guatemala. Credit: Stumptown Coffee Roasters

Origin Coffees’ Josh Tarlo at Finca Los Altos, Nicaragua

Quest for great coffee. Origin Coffees’ Josh Tarlo at Finca Los Altos, Nicaragua. Credit: Jon Attenborough.

Ask the Roaster: How Do You Create a Blend?

We went ahead and spoke to some of the industry’s most respected roasters. They were kind enough to give the lowdown on how they are winning hearts and minds with their blends.

For Jacob Ibarra, the coffee buyer in charge of the coffee program at Five Senses Coffee, it’s all about fulfilling needs. “Our aim is for each of our blends to be servicing a different niche in the specialty market,” he told me. “Each cafe or customer has different needs and providing a blend solution to compete or offer a point of difference is something that we must offer”. Five Senses recently repositioned their blends, and as a result they developed and currently offer four clearly defined blend profiles their customers can select and expect throughout the year.

Origin Coffee Roasters is another specialty roaster that has recently reexamined the construction of its staple espresso blends that cater to their cafes’ (and in turn their customers) coffee wishlist. To gain insight into what modern palates are craving, they spoke to everyone from the true aficionados to those simply looking to kickstart their day.

Origin’s marketing manager Grace Reith explained, “We wanted to give people a clearer understanding of what every blend is. To do this we looked past the cupping tables, past the cafes, and even past the cup itself. We [thought] about what people look for in their coffee as inspiration for everything we do. In other words, we didn’t want to ask questions such as ‘do you feel like a filter or a cappuccino or a Nicaraguan or an Ethiopian coffee’, but rather we considered what happens even before that”. The customers’ expectation of the coffee experience drove them when deciding how to create a blend.

Ross Quail, wholesale general manager for St Ali, Sensory Lab, and Clement Coffee Roasters, also from Melbourne, Australia, agrees that a blend should encapsulate what the consumer expects: “Thinking about what people will want to drink and enjoy [is crucial]; it can be a mistake to just think about what you want.”

Yet while blends are definitely about the customer, they’re also about the company. Timothy Hill, coffee buyer and quality manager for Counter Culture Coffee, feels that “Blends are important because they tell you a lot about the company that makes it. In many ways, they are the products many companies are defined by. Blends are also the go-to products for customers that identify with the company and are likely looking for something that is more consistently available.”

They pride themselves on full transparency regarding recipe and blend structure, whether it’s on the labels for the 12 ounce bags or the website description for the 5 pound bags for wholesalers. As Tim said, “We don’t believe in hiding the information; great blends simply come from great coffees, not some secret recipe.”

It’s nice to know we’re in good hands and roasters have our best interests at heart. Next up we’ll take a look at how this translates into various blends and how roasters deal with the challenges of working with seasonal differences. Check back next week for part 2.

Edited by T. Schrock.

Feature Photo Credit: Five Senses Coffee

Perfect Daily Grind.

Los Altos farm manager, Nicaragua

Los Altos farm manager, Nicaragua. Credit: Jon Attenborough for Origin Coffee.