Across the world of specialty coffee, there is undeniably a growing focus on sourcing high-quality, sustainable, and traceable coffees. A large part of this revolves around offering single origin coffees; these coffees are grown in one particular location, which can range from one country to one specific plot on a farm.
For many years now, single origins have been popular in specialty coffee shops around the world, as well as in the World Coffee Championships (WCC) – favoured by many coffee professionals for their complex and delicate flavour profiles.
However, over the past year, we have seen more and more roasters selling high-scoring coffee blends, and more WCC competitors using blends in their performances.
So why are high-quality blends becoming more popular, and how might this impact the coffee industry? I spoke to two coffee professionals to find out more.
You may also like our article on how specialty coffee blends have evolved for today’s market.
Why are blends becoming more popular among specialty coffee professionals?
Many coffee professionals and consumers alike enjoy single origin coffees, largely because they allow the inherent qualities of the coffee to shine through. In many cases, single origin coffees showcase the characteristics of where they were grown and the hard work of the producers who grow them.
However, in recent months, as shipping costs have increased along with a range of other operational costs, roasters’ profit margins have tightened. As such, some have turned to selling higher-quality blends as a way of controlling costs.
Blends have long since been a staple on coffee shop menus around the world, offering more traditional coffee drinkers a repeatable and consistent flavour profile. Ultimately, this can help a brand to build a more loyal customer base.
Moreover, in theory, blends also give coffee roasters more flexibility. By mixing together higher-quality, more expensive coffees with cheaper coffees which add more body or robust flavours, roasters can still appeal to consumers while keeping costs down.
Although blends have historically been associated with lower-quality coffees, this is now changing.
Daniel Velasquez is the owner of green coffee trader Campesino Coffee in Colombia.
“As demand for specialty coffee has increased in recent years, requests for high-quality blends have also increased,” he says. “Similarly to decaf coffee, blends don’t have to be low-quality, high-volume coffees, and I think coffee professionals and customers alike are finally acknowledging this.
“Our Madre Laura Community Blend includes coffee from more than 120 smallholder producers in Jericó, Colombia,” he adds. “Although the blend is one of our higher-volume coffees, we don’t sacrifice on quality or traceability.”
While there are a number of factors to consider when creating a specialty blend, such as the seasonality and solubility of different coffees, they allow roasters to develop a completely different sensory experience to single origins.
Philip von der Goltz is the Managing Partner of green coffee importer List + Beisler.
“Specialty blends can help roasters develop a specific flavour profile, while optimising costs, as well as the freshness and quality of the product,” he tells me. “Blends can provide flexibility to a roaster and decrease its dependency on a certain origin or quality.
“Other roasters use blends to create a more unique and better-tasting coffee than is possible with a single origin,” he adds.
Alongside the recent increase in specialty blends in coffee shops, we have also seen more and more WCC competitors using blends as part of their routines – mainly to balance out the flavours of emerging new varieties and species.
For instance, 2021 World Brewers Cup winner Matt Winton used a blend of eugenioides (a rare coffee species) and Catucaí in his routine.
That same year, 2021 World Barista Championship (WBC) competitor Andrea Allen placed second, when she used a blend of eugenioides and Gesha in the espresso category. Hugh Kelly, who placed third in the 2021 WBC also used a blend of eugenioides and liberica in his performance.
What makes these blends specialty?
If a coffee is to be certified as “specialty”, it must have no primary defects (such as black beans), as well as no more than five secondary defects (including broken beans), in a 300g sample. The coffee must also score 80 points or more on the Specialty Coffee Association’s 100-point scale.
“If every coffee included in a blend scores more than 80 points, it can be classified as a specialty coffee blend,” Philip says.
However, there are a number of other, less formal considerations for roasters when they create specialty coffee blends.
Firstly, high-quality blends are not just limited to coffees from different origins. Roasters can include various different varieties, processing methods, or even use different micro lots from the same farm.
“Our Community Blend, for example, is made up of small lots that would otherwise be sold as premium micro lots,” Daniel tells me.
This process allows roasters to bring together different single origin coffees to create a more balanced cup, while still maintaining quality and complex flavour profiles.
Moreover, specialty blends also ensure that the coffee can still be traced back to the farm and producer who grew it. More and more roasters are including information about the different components of their specialty blends – helping to maintain traceability and transparency.
Ultimately, blends are becoming more and more important in the specialty coffee sector.
Is there a move away from single origin coffees?
In view of the recent growth of specialty coffee blends, there is one major question to answer in response: are single origin coffees becoming less popular?
Philip tells me that he has noticed some recent prominent trends in the specialty coffee industry which are contributing to the growth of premium coffee blends.
Firstly, he says that as roasters and green coffee traders scale, they understand more about the benefits of blends. Not only can some blends offer customers more consistency, others can create new flavour experiences for different customers.
Secondly, Philip tells me that increases in the C price (which has since declined in recent weeks) have influenced green coffee traders and roasters to start developing more blends as a way of offering a product which is still noticeably high quality while controlling costs.
“Furthermore, logistical issues and shipping delays have forced roasters to become more creative to ensure quality doesn’t slip and flavour profiles are consistent,” he adds.
Daniel, meanwhile, doesn’t believe that there is a shift away from single origins.
“[The biggest change in the coffee industry] is that roasters are finding new ways to develop and market their blends,” he says.
For example, rather than selling premium micro or nano lots as more exclusive or limited edition coffees, this trend shows that there is the scope to blend them with other coffees.
This could also be beneficial for producers, as coffee quality can fluctuate as a result of several factors – including unpredictable weather and an increase in pests and diseases.
“Specialty blends can be versatile,” Daniel says. “They can be used for espresso or filter, and still have the same level of quality as single origins.”
Looking to the future
Considering how specialty coffee blends have recently surged in popularity, it seems like there is more growth to come – at least until the price of coffee stabilises or shipping costs fall.
Daniel tells me that the success of premium blends is ultimately down to roasters and green coffee traders, rather than producers.
“It’s impossible for smallholder farmers to grow higher volumes of coffee for blends, especially when the majority of producers in Colombia grow coffee on two or three hectares,” he says. “The responsibility to create and market specialty blends which are traceable and consistent falls on exporters, associations, co-ops, and roasters.”
Philip says that roasters will need to adapt to any upcoming trends in the coffee market, as well as C price fluctuations, which could ultimately affect the makeup of their blends.
However, he adds that demand for both specialty blends and single origins is likely to keep increasing.
“The two aren’t contradictory, but more complementary,” he concludes. “Consumers don’t always have to decide between the two.”
While it’s clear that specialty coffee blends are becoming more popular, it’s safe to say that single origins certainly also have their place in the specialty coffee industry.
However, while they have dominated the sector for many years, a recent economic downturn and other supply chain issues have made it clear that they can indeed exist in harmony.
But whether or not specialty blends will become more of a focus in the coming years remains to be seen.
Enjoyed this? Then read our article on whether coffee roasters should add robusta to blends if arabica prices increase.
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