A guide to roasting specialty coffee blends
In recent years, blends have become more and more prevalent in specialty coffee. Whether it’s the growing number of roasters selling them or more World Coffee Championship competitors using them as part of their routines, it’s clear that blends have made something of a comeback.
However, while it certainly takes skill to roast single origin coffees, roasting specialty coffee blends also requires a high level of expertise. Each component of a blend needs to be roasted in a way that best highlights its flavours and aromas.
To find out more about roasting specialty coffee blends, I spoke to Tony Dreyfuss, co-founder and co-president of Metropolis Coffee, and Tony Konency, co-founder of YESPLZ Coffee. Read on to find out what they had to say.
You may also like our article on how exciting specialty coffee blends can be.
How can specialty coffee roasters start developing a blend?
There are an almost endless number of factors which roasters need to consider when creating and roasting new coffee blends. However, Tony Dreyfuss tells me that it’s important for roasters to ask themselves a set of initial questions to make the process more efficient. These include:
- What kind of consumer are you developing the blend for?
- Would the flavour profile of this blend align with these consumers’ taste preferences?
- How can you best highlight the qualities of each individual blend component?
- What brew methods will be used for the blend?
- What will be the roast style for the blend: espresso, filter, or omni-roast?
- How much will the blend cost?
- What role will the blend play on your menu?
- Will the blend be a temporary or permanent addition to your menu? (Such as a house or seasonal blend)
While there are undoubtedly more factors to consider, another important point is deciding whether to blend each component separately or together.
Roasters can decide whether to combine different coffees to make a blend either before or after roasting. Their chosen method largely depends on their own flavour preferences.
Tony Konency explains that he avoids combining coffees prior to roasting.
“From personal experience, we would never pre-blend coffee before roasting,” he says. “Every coffee should be treated as a unique component, and therefore roasted separately, so all of our blends are post-roast blends.
“Even if you’re a larger roaster, it’s still important to blend after roasting,” he adds. “There are some rationalisations for blending before roasting, but it can often sacrifice quality in the long term.”
Choosing coffee for a blend
When it comes to narrowing down which coffees to include in a blend, there are many options to choose from. Roasters need to consider factors such as:
- Processing method
- Bean size and density
“Certain types of coffee are going to provide [the flavours] and mouthfeel that you’re looking for,” Tony Dreyfuss explains. “For instance, some customers may want a blend with more acidity and fruit flavours.
“In line with this, roasters can include coffees from Africa or Central America,” he adds.
Moreover, as coffee is a seasonal product, roasters must also have an understanding of when these blend components (or coffees with similar sensory profiles) will be available throughout the year.
Tony Konency explains that quality also plays a key role in building and roasting coffee blends.
“From our experience, many importers think that we’re looking to blend 83 or 84-point coffees,” he says. “However, we tend to prefer using 88 or 89-point coffees in our blends.”
For roasters focusing on more premium blends, making sure that all components are high quality will result in a product which better aligns with its branding.
Although all components of a blend are important for overall quality, the base coffee arguably has the biggest impact. A base component can be:
- When a blend contains two coffees, and therefore accounts for 50% or more of the overall product
- When a blend contains more than two coffees, and therefore accounts for the majority of the product
For example, the makeup of a blend with three coffees could be 40% Brazilian, 35% Honduran, and 25% Rwandan. This would make the Brazilian coffee the base component.
Do you need to roast blend components differently?
It’s important to note that all roasters will approach their blends differently.
“Some coffees should be roasted separately as they wouldn’t roast very well together,” Tony Dreyfuss says. “This is largely because of bean density and hardness.
“If you roast beans together which have different densities and hardness levels then they will roast at different times,” he adds. “It’s best practice to roast all components separately [to achieve the optimal roast profile] and then combine them all after roasting.”
The solubility of coffee is an essential part of this. In simple terms, different kinds of coffee extract at different rates for a number of reasons. In turn, this means roasters need to make sure all blend components have similar solubility levels – otherwise the blend will taste both under and overextracted at the same time.
Which kinds of roast profiles are best suited for blends?
Ultimately, roasters can use whichever roast profile they choose for a blend.
“It can be a light, medium, or dark roast – it’s really up to the roaster,” explains Tony Dreyfuss. “It also depends on the kind of product that you want to create, which is what makes blends so unique and inspiring.
“A roaster may want one of the components to add body and depth, so they might roast that coffee for slightly longer than others,” he adds. “For the second component, they could add a single origin coffee which has more acidic qualities or fruit flavours, so they would need to roast this coffee to a slightly lighter roast profile.
“A quality blend should be able to combine these different flavours and textures to create a unique product, just like a recipe,” he continues.
However, Tony Konency emphasises that it’s important to maintain a certain level of consistency in roast profile for all components.
“You can’t combine a very light roast coffee with a very dark roast and have it be a successful blend,” he says.
Different roast profiles also have different solubility levels. For example, darker roasts extract much more quickly and easily compared to lighter roasts.
To avoid a combination of under and overextraction as much as possible, roasters should aim to keep the roast profile of each blend component within a certain range.
How can roasters maintain quality?
Although creating a blend can be a unique way for a roaster to showcase their skills and creativity, preserving quality is vital, too.
“It can often be more difficult to maintain quality when roasting for coffee blends,” Tony Dreyfuss says. “If something isn’t quite right, it’s hard to pinpoint what it is exactly – it could be a specific coffee in the blend or it could be a roast profile.”
To overcome these challenges, Tony Dreyfuss suggests following certain procedures.
“You must regularly cup your blends, and you also need to sample roast the blend components separately to make sure they are holding up over time in terms of flavour,” he explains. “If you find that any of the coffees change, you might also want to change your approach to roast profiles so they can better fit into the blend.”
In line with this, roasters need to pay particular attention to achieving consistent results. A coffee’s flavours and aromas will naturally change over time, as well as from season to season, so developing a blend with a repeatable flavour profile is key.
However, for a blend to be successful, it also needs to be marketed as a unique product.
“With a single origin coffee, the roaster’s main job is to make sure they roast it well,” Tony Dreyfuss says. “But when you create a blend that’s proprietary to your company or for a wholesale client, it’s your opportunity to really showcase your skills and creativity – and show what your blend is really about.”
Blends are a staple of many roasters’ menus. Furthermore, in recent years, it’s become clear that they aren’t going anywhere anytime soon – including higher-quality single origin blends.
However, despite their trending popularity, roasters still need to focus their attention on what is most important when it comes to blending: creating a dependable and consistent product.
Enjoyed this? Then read our article on whether blends are becoming more popular in specialty coffee.
Photo credits: Paul Hansen, Metropolis Coffee
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