A question that I’ve noticed in many coffee communities revolves around coffee blends. Many seem unsure of what they are, and one of my friends, when asked, put forward the guess that it was a coffee cocktail of sorts. Given that it’s not as obvious as I once thought, what exactly are coffee blends?
Coffee blends are when one or more kinds of coffee are mixed together. The intention is to round out the flavors to make a more even cup. Moka Java is the oldest blend, mixing Javanese and Ethiopian varieties.
Why do we blend different types of coffee?
Originally, coffee blends were seen as less desirable, and even today, some drinkers of a more… “refined” persuasion might dismiss them as inferior. In some cases, this may be true, but single-origin coffees do not guarantee higher quality, as each yield will vary (though I’m sure some will fight me on this).
Now, instead of being used to hide negatives, blends have evolved into “an exploration of flavor chemistry,” as one site put it.
Let’s examine each reason.
Imagine for a moment that you are a maker of chocolate. You know that chocolate from Region A is sweet. It ranges from lightly sweet to overpoweringly and sickly sweet – but you can’t be sure which you’re going to get.
Region B has chocolate that tends to be more robust and bitter, often pushing it into a level of bitterness that it’s not appealing.
If you mix chocolate from both regions, then the end result will be more balanced, landing somewhere in between. If the one is only slightly bitter and the other is overwhelmingly sweet, it will still pull the end flavor into a range that most people would enjoy.
Because of this, it’s much more common in mass-market coffee to find blends than single origins. It’s a more sustainable practice for wider audiences.
That is the most obvious reason. Roasters also provided two others: to reduce costs, and/or to make a unique blend that people will remember.
For an idea of the different factors, check out the first part of this post, particularly the section on tasting.
By mixing an expensive blend with a less expensive blend, you can try to preserve the better parts of both while reducing the cost to a level that consumers will find acceptable.
Coffee is also a luxury good, much like wine, so it will depend which market the roaster is selling to.
This is one stage where the artistry of coffee comes in. By being aware of the strengths and nuances of each blend, you can get an idea of what you might be able to produce.
Coffee blends win awards, and if you can come up with one that’s popular and award-winning, then you can do even better with your business and customers. Win-win!
Also, roasters take into consideration whether the blend will be consumed with milk or not, so ask your local roaster (assuming you have one) which it is designed for. You can still add milk if you like, but it’s good to know the intention behind them.
Finally, the economics and business side, which is often outside of roasters’ control.
When coffee first became popular internationally, it was moved by ship. If you kept the expensive variety in a single ship which was then destroyed in a storm, all would be lost. If you had blended it with the cheaper varieties, then you could spread out your risk. It was just good business.
As well, if you only had access to one imported coffee and a lower quality local coffee, people would stretch the good stuff by cutting it with the lesser bean. Hell, Cuba used roast chickpeas to stretch their coffee stash.
What is the oldest blend?
The oldest “official” blend is Moka Java, which originates from Ethiopia and Indonesia.
Why is it called Moka Java? I’ll start with Java because it makes more sense.
Indonesia has a coffee-producing island called, shockingly, Java Island.
*Moka/Mocha, however, is the name of a port in modern-day Yemen. The beans originated in Ethiopia, then had to move to the coast through Eritrea (or possibly Djibouti), and cross the Red Sea.
Why didn’t they call it something like “Ethio Java” or some other portmanteau? Who knows.
In either case, they named the mix after the first port the Ethiopian beans were received, while the Javanese beans retained their original name. Other sources seem to believe that the Moka/Mocha beans originated in Yemen, but if that’s so, why are they named after a single port and not the country? Unlikely.
Silly, but there’s some history for you.
As for the why of this particular blend, apparently the Ethiopian coffee was “wild and fruity,” while the Javanese coffee tended to be “full and spicy,” resulting in something that was widely desired. Personally, I find it difficult to imagine the end result based on those adjectives alone.
(*The spelling seems to vary. “Moka Java” is the most common for this blend, but Google spells the port as Mocha.)
How do roasters blend their coffee?
This site said that they recommend using a maximum of 5 different varieties, each of which must make up a minimum of 8% of the blend. (If distributed evenly, they’d each make up 20%).
As they reasoned, one espresso shot is roughly 100 beans, and if only 3 of them are one variety, then it’s essentially pointless.
They recommend pulling from the following components:
- Sweet Base Notes (40%): they recommend starting with Peruvian, Mexican, or Brazillian beans.
- Mid-palate Satisfaction (40%): this relates to the experience that starts from the first sip and ends just before the swallow (aka the finish). If this part is mismanaged, it may be described as “hollow.” They suggest using something with fruity tones (with malic acid). Tasting notes would be green apple, stone fruit, or peaches. They recommend Costa Rican, Colombian, Guatemalan, or Burundian.
- High Notes (20%): this is often from coffees that do well when lightly roasted. They note that you don’t have to be making a light roast for this to be a consideration. Kenyan and Ethiopian are recommended.
The ratio of each (noted after each point) can be varied to play with your blend. To reduce waste, they recommend trying the 40:40:20 (as listed above), but you may also want to consider trying a 30:30:40 or even a 60:20:20.
The bottom line: if none of those combinations result in an espresso shot that hits your target outcome, then you have to start over.
This site goes into greater detail for those who want to really dive into making their own. Here is another source, if interested. If you want to know more about roasting coffee in your own home, check out this post.
What are single-origin coffees?
I’m including this and the next section as a contrast to blends. In stores, you’ll mostly find blends, but in specialty shops, you can also find single-origins. It’s worth noting that there isn’t a defined, agreed-upon definition for the term (according to Forbes).
It’s been noted in wine (single-vineyard), whiskey (single-malt), and other luxury goods that “single x” fetches a higher price, so market forces may have persuaded the industry to avoid clearly defining what single-origin coffee includes.
Forbes also went on to explain why beans intended for espresso aren’t often single origin:
The flavor profile of a single origin may be amplified to the point where it’s out of balance, or at least seem that way for those accustomed to a more typical shot. Bright citrus notes in a single-origin filtered coffee can become an arresting, overly lemony sensation in an inharmonious espresso.Lauren Mowery, Forbes
They also implied that finding a single-origin espresso would imply that the baristas are paying particular attention, so it could be worth a shot… or, again, they could just be trying to cash in. Only experience can tell.
Single-origin beans come from, surprisingly, a single geographic location. It may be a single farmer or community, or it could be from the country.
In tasting and luxury goods, there is a concept called terroir (rhymes with cigar), which is the localized effects on a product. It takes several factors into account, such as soil quality, climate, length of time of the growing season, as well as production and processing methods. These factors can all affect the final outcome of the beans.
What are single- or micro-lot coffees?
Technically still under the umbrella of single-origin coffee, it is even more specific, restricting where the beans come from down to a single square on a single farm. As stated above, single-origin is not clearly defined and can range from country to a single farm plot.
Depending, they can either be the yield from a specific plot or it can be the highest-quality beans selected from within the farm’s entire yield. People have said they’re “hand-picked,” but that is pretty standard for many coffee farms (namely producing Arabica) and doesn’t mean as much as the term implies.
Either way, the theory is that single-/micro-lot will be better than blends.
But again, if you’ve read this far, you should know that smaller lots can have more variation between crops and can give you anything from an extremely pleasant cup to something you can’t finish.
The general assumption, however, is that single-lot or single-origins are the cream of the crop, though that may not be the case.
It seems to me that there may be some merit to single-origins being better: supposing they test each batch, they could retain the good samples as “single-origin” while the lackluster ones can be mixed back in with the beans destined for blends. Is this practical? I don’t know, but it would be one way to make sure that single-origins would be better.
What should you do with a blend when it’s not enough for a single cup?
I found this question strange. People on the coffee subreddit were discussing what to do when you have a partial bag of a particular blend leftover.
You have two options:
- Make a really small cup.
- Make your own blend by mixing it with another blend.
Remember, a blend is a mix of two or more kinds of coffee beans. Experiment and see how it turns out! The worst you’ll get is a mild flavor that you don’t particularly enjoy, but it’s unlikely that combining two blends will result in distasteful results.
TL;DR – What are Coffee Blends?
Coffee blends are coffees grown in various areas and mixed together with the intent of making a more enjoyable or unique cup. It’s easier to make the outcomes more predictable concerning quality and flavor when averaging out various crops.
They can be blended pre-roast as (green beans) or post-roast. The goal is to round out the flavors so that it results in a nicely balanced cup. Some equate balance with bland, but it depends on your own preferences.
Enthusiasts seem to assume single-origin beans are better than blends, and this may often be the case.
The way I see it, even if you had a great single-origin bean and you buy the exact same thing from the exact same seller, you may end up with inconsistent results because conditions can change significantly between yields. Single-origin beans are more expensive, so always keep in mind the rules for luxury goods:
- expensive ≠ good
- cheap = likely bad.
Blends allow for stability, pulling out unique flavors, and more favorable prices for both sides of the sale.
I recommend giving both a shot and discovering what flavors different countries tend to produce.