April 24, 2020

How Specialty Coffee Blends Have Evolved For Today’s Market

Coffee blends used to be a common offering in the past. However, they’ve fallen out of favour with third wave coffee shop owners and roasters due to increasing concerns over transparency and quality – with many adopting single origin coffees as an alternative.

Recently, there have been signs that blends have evolved and are ready to appear in today’s specialty coffee market – in higher quality, more traceable form. Here’s what could be causing this and what benefits it might offer for those roasting and brewing coffee.

You may also like A Roaster’s Guide to Creating Coffee Blends

Credit: Nathaniel Soque

Why Did Blends Develop a Bad Reputation?

Coffee blends usually consist of two or more coffees combined in different proportions to develop a unique coffee and taste profile. They’re often created by combining the coffees from several farms in one country to create a country blend – or by combining coffees from different origins together and giving it another label.

Blending coffees together won’t necessarily create a poor quality product. The reason that blends have developed a poor reputation is that in the past, some roasters used them to use up leftover or stale coffees, or to mask the negative qualities of other profiles – keeping old stock from accumulating and lowering costs by using low-quality coffees.

Richard Keane, Head of Green Bean Sales at Balzac Brothers, says, “In the past, fair or not fairly, blends have been portrayed to consist of a few unfavourable coffee categories. First, blends may have been made up of a large percentage of lower grade coffee so that companies could bring margins up while offering a coffee that may be easy to source on the green side of things. Secondly, companies could use blends as a way to move older inventory in a volume friendly manner.”

Increasing demand for traceable and origin coffees contributed to the decreasing popularity of blends. This was partly due to consumers seeking out more responsibly and sustainably produced coffee and wanting to know where it came from, who produced it, and how much was paid for it. As Richard explains, “blends may have been frowned upon as the rise of single origin coffees have exploded [in] specialty coffee. The value of traceability and the popularity of origin/farm-specific flavour characteristics have changed how many think of blends.” This shift benefitted producers by helping them secure better margins and competitive benefits throughout the supply chain while helping them get recognition for their coffee, develop a reputation, and avoid exploitation. 

Klaus Thomsen is the Co-founder of Coffee Collective in Copenhagen, Denmark, and explains that another reason that blends could have fallen out of favour is that they erased the individual contributions of producers. He feels that the specialty coffee industry “moved towards more transparency and getting farmers out of anonymity, so they probably viewed most blends as the opposition to that… In blending, each farmer’s work is often masked and most blends are anonymous compositions, where you don’t know where the coffee came from. In some cases, blends will only state ‘The best beans from Latin America’ – or nothing at all.”

Credit: Nathaniel Soque

Reasons For Its Rebirth

There are signs that blends could be making their comeback in specialty coffee by evolving to offer roasters and consumers new benefits. Here are a few of them.

Credit: Nathaniel Soque

Blends Can Create a Better Product

Using blends, roasters can create a unique product that better appeals to their market – and one that could be better in quality and taste than each individual component. Richard says, “If done properly, blending can bring coffees together to bring something to the cup that may have been lacking before.”

Klaus feels the same way, and for him, “there’s a creative process to blending that can be a lot of fun, and sometimes 1+1 equals more than 2. Personally, I often find that I’m able to get a better balance and more depth of flavours in espresso when blending. Somehow, it’s different to me than for filter brewing, where I’m also striving for a more clean and precise cup profile.” 

Blends Can be Creatively Customised

While specific blends can be created for standard extraction methods like espresso or filter, roasters can also create ones tailored to newer beverages, such as cold brew and nitro cold brew. This is something 2012 World Barista Champion Raul Rodas does at Paradigma Café, his coffee shop and roastery in Guatemala. 

When Raul offers nitro cold brew to customers, he might create a blend of 80:20 washed to naturally processed coffee to enhance the fruitiness of the brew. He’s also created two different espresso blends – an acidic, citrusy one, and caramel tasting one. By creating different blends, he could introduce customers to new combinations or variations on what they usually go for.

Blends Offer Consistent Flavour Profiles

While blends can create something unique that can’t be found in individual coffees, it can create a consistent cup of coffee that can be sold throughout the year, to customers who want the same experience with every cup they drink or brew. 

This allows roasters to work around the limitations placed by coffee’s seasonal nature, as most do not have several harvests throughout the year or have different harvest periods from region to region. Creating blends can allow roasters to offer a consistent product all year round – or help them offer single origin coffees for a longer time.

“Roasters will be able to substitute the coffees they use in their blends with whatever coffee is most in season, while still offering consistency in their flavour profiles to their customers. This can be an extremely valuable asset to roasters who are growing in volume while still maintaining high levels of quality in their roasted product. Furthermore, consumers may be happy to find consistency year-round in their roasted coffee”, remarks Richard. 

Credit: Ana Valencia

Blends Offer Roasters Purchasing Flexibility

Creating blends means that roasters can benefit from increased purchasing flexibility, as they’ll be able to offer a coffee throughout the year without sacrificing its quality or taste. 

Richard explains that “blends allow roasters to remain flexible in purchasing coffee without sacrificing freshness from crop to crop.” It means that if any unexpected changes occur in the supply chain, roasters will be less impacted – as coffee production can be affected by everything from pests and diseases to changing weather patterns. 

Should this happen, roasters won’t be left empty-handed, as they won’t be exclusively relying on a single origin offering. This makes blends a more scalable option, as unlike single origin coffees, there’s an almost unlimited production capacity and supply. 

Credit: Ana Valencia

Blends Can be Traceable

While past blends usually lumped the coffees of several producers together into an anonymous blend, modern blends have retained their emphasis on traceability and its importance for producers and consumers. This allows roasters to create blends responsibly, without hiding the efforts of the individual producers responsible for the coffee.

Klaus thinks that “showcasing single farmers is the best way of building their brand and getting customers to appreciate coffee farmers as the exceptional producers they are.” However, he believes that this can be done without erasing their unique contributions, as “blends can showcase each individual component, down to the exact farmer or micro lot”.

For Richard, it’s an opportunity for roasters to improve their overall quality, while still providing producers with credit for their coffees. This often appears on the coffee’s packaging, with each farmer’s contribution to the blend (and the percentages they’ve contributed) being listed. “Traceability is still possible in blends with many roasters listing their blend components while yielding the most complexity in flavour to their customer”.

Credit: Rea Café 

The rebirth of blends is something that can benefit roasters and coffee shop owners in different ways. As long as the emphasis remains on using coffee that’s traceable and responsibly sourced, blends will be able to meet the need of the market – without compromising on quality or minimising the efforts of the producers who grew it. 

Enjoyed this? The take a look at In Defense of Blends: Coffee’s Most Underrated Offering

Feature photo credit: Nathaniel Soque

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