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The art of NOT blending coffee

Coffee Blends have been around for a very long time and is traditionally the more popular choice among many coffee drinkers compared to single origins. While I believe that blends have their place among the market, Compound Coffee’s own stance is that of NOT blending. Here’s why.

The Art of Not Blending Coffee

First of all, let’s examine what constitutes a blend. A single origin (non-blend) would usually be defined as a coffee from a single farm, region, cooperative or washing station/mill etc. A blend would normally be known as a mix of 2 or more single origin coffees. However, many times even a single origin can actually be a blend. Blending can happen at 2 stages; at the farm level or at the roaster’s level.

Farm Level:

Coffees, even Single Origins, can be made up of a blend. This can be in the form of different coffee varietals being grown in the same area being harvested together, or coffees grown across a variety of altitudes, picked at different ripeness, levels of fermentation , moisture content and water activity. Certain coffees are also sold as a combination of various smallholder farms either as a co-operative coffee or those from the same washing station to form a bigger lot of coffee.

Roaster Level:

This is probably a more commonly known and talked about practice. The art of blending is not an easy one and there are various techniques from pre-blending to post-blending, wet and dry blending to harmonious and tension blends. However, this is not a post on how to blend, rather I want to talk about why some companies blend their roasted coffees.

Reasons for Blending:

Price - probably the most common reason for the practice of blending. Mixing low quality coffees with higher quality coffees to try and make up for its poor taste can help to lower costs significantly. However, don’t expect any particularly delicious coffees coming out of blends like these.

Signature Namesake Blends - Having a signature blend with a unique flavour profile to call your own can have great marketing benefits. Especially if it is a well-crafted and delicious blend, one that is greater than the sum of its parts. People will identify you with the name of your coffee blend and that is always good for business.

A Greater Coffee - Many old school coffee books and schools would teach that a single origin coffee just wasn’t good enough to hold its own as an espresso compared to a blend. I would argue that with the current quality of specialty coffees across the world, this is almost untrue. Countless baristas are entering competitions with single-origin espressos of the highest qualities. Although it is possible to create a blend that is greater than the sum of its parts, it requires a great deal of time, effort and testing to get the blend right; something which many roasters don’t actually commit to. Unless all the components are roasted to a similar solubility, it almost always results in a subpar taste experience. But again, this isn’t a post on how to blend coffee.

Consistency - Large scale roasters like Starbucks require a consistent product to be served at their thousands of outlets globally. It would be impossible to serve coffee from any one farm to meet all their needs. Therefore a blend of multiple coffees is required. At this point, you would need to roast relatively dark to ensure consistency since lighter roasts would expose the immense inconsistency that comes with a 12-bean blend. After all, how can you seriously expect the ratio of the 12 beans to be the same each time you grind the coffee for a single shot of espresso? At this point, all flavour and uniqueness is sacrificed for the sake of consistency.

Compound Coffee Co.’s stance on blending

If you’ve followed us for awhile now, you would know that we have not produced or served any blends at our own shop. There are 2 main reasons why we stick to this philosophy.

First of all, blending a coffee quickly reduces the coffee’s unique individuality. The coffee’s subtle nuances and complex qualities are diminished and all the hard work gone into presenting the coffee at its best is instantly reduced. Have you ever seen famous wines being blended or different aged whiskies being mixed in the same cask? Why then would you think of doing that to a coffee which has been painstakingly farmed and produced? Not blending also forces the roaster to be at the top of his game. Precisely because there is no other coffees to cover up for poor quality, it means that the roaster is forced to use high quality coffee and roast it perfectly to avoid any faults showing in the resulting brew. The advantage is two-fold. That being said, it is possible to create blends that are greater than a sum of its parts, although I would never suggest going beyond a 2-origin blend. This leads me to my second reason.

I believe the most important detriment is the effect blending has on the dehumanization of coffee farmers. When was the last time you recalled the name of a coffee’s producer or farm when it was a component of some 4-bean blend that you drank? Perhaps you remembered the name of the country at best. A single origin coffee shifts the focus to the farm, estate and the farmer’s story, making their contribution much more significant and relatable. This is important because the increased focus on the farmers produces a much more relatable experience with the farmer’s hard work and would help consumers understand the coffee on a deeper level and be willing to pay the price the coffee deserves, which hopefully goes back to the farmer. Some of us might purchase fair-trade coffees and think we are helping in some way, but frankly, even those have shown to be of little help. Here’s a post from Huffington Post showing why fair-trade is ineffective at best

When a coffee is treated as a simple commodity or ingredient, as it is at many places, there is a disconnect from the consumer to the farm and that’s exactly when price becomes such a huge issue and consumers are constantly looking for the next cheapest coffee. Unbeknownst to them, their savings also contributes to the multitudes of poverty in coffee-producing countries where farmers try to survive and feed their families on a meagre dollar a day. Such production standards are unsustainable, yet we as consumers are extremely detached from the circumstances on their end simply because it is out of sight. I believe that if we stop treating coffees like a simple commodity and start connecting them to stories and pictures of the families; and the hard work behind each estate, it would help to promote less price shopping and ultimately, a more sustainable quality coffee production.

For larger-scale roasters with massive supply and demand, a single estate farm cannot possibly support all their needs. It is therefore inevitable for these companies to continue making blends. However, this creates a vicious cycle, as coffee farmers neglect coffee quality production in order to keep their costs from increasing and to sell at prices demanded by large companies. Coffee companies continue to pay minimal sums to the farmers, and consumers’ demand continue to drive the prices of coffee down.

In contrast, I believe this is where smaller-scale roasters and indie coffee shops can step in and contribute to the entire coffee eco-system. They have an important role to play in helping quality conscious coffee producers connect with customers, allow them to receive better prices for their coffee, and achieve a sustainable quality coffee production. With their size and financial standing, larger-scale roasters can also impact the situation in a huge way if they start paying attention and focus on bringing good to coffee farmers in less-developed countries. The question then is, as smaller-scale roasters grow and expand, how do they maintain this focus on the farmers and avoid the same pitfall of creating gargantuan blends to meet their business needs?

What are your thoughts on blends / blending as a consumer and would you be willing to give up your staple blends for high quality single origins?

 PS: You can also check out some of our unique single origin offerings at our Online Shop.

 

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