September 2010 Newsletter
Blend or Single Origin? Which makes the better espresso? has been
the controversial topic on the two major internet discussion
forums. There are people with extreme views on both sides of the
topic, but frankly neither side has been all that convincing.
On the blend side is Mark Prince of Coffeegeek,
and on the other side, Ken Fox on Home-Barista,
The proponents of blends take the position that the only way to
get the correct balance of flavours in an espresso is by
combining the attributes of quite different coffees, and that no
one coffee has all the necessary bits. The Single Origin
supporters insist that "espresso" is just a brewing process,
balance is unnecessary and true joy is only to be found in the
extreme flavours the process extracts.
Some of the rhetoric involved from both sides is pretty over-the-
top, but a lot of the discussion seems to me to focus on what
people at the cutting edge of coffee, be it baristas or well off
hobbyists, are doing. Statements from the pro-blends side that:
"single origin is more popular with baristas because it presents
repeatable, easily describable shots for customers" made me
wonder about the last time a barista described a shot to me,
which outside of a trade show would be exactly never.
That goes double for the pro-single-origin side, where "Since you
really can't maintain a blend in a way that it will taste more or
less the same, year in and year out (not to mention, month in and
month out) the whole exercise seems to me to be largely a waste
of time." just about had me foaming at the mouth. Particularly
since I've been maintaining a blend for the last 25 years.
The secret to maintaining a blend is multiple redundancy, where
you have a wide palette of beans to manipulate the overall
flavour. Some of the premium Italian blends, e.g. Illycafe, have
up to 12 different coffees in them. Not all of the coffees are
essential, but by altering the proportions of say 3 different
Brazil coffees Illy can ensure that the taste of the Brazilian
component of their blend is always the same.
My own take on the whole argument is that it's basically
ridiculous. Yes, most single origin coffees do not make well
balanced espressos, but there are definitely some, such as Haiti
or Yemen, that do and are simply superb. Yes, there are a lot of
really crappy blends out there, usually designed to a price point
rather than a flavour profile, but there are a lot of good ones
The point that seems to be forgotten by both sides is that it's
ultimately the customer who decides. My experience is that all
customers expect signature blends to be consistent over time, and
some customers are more willing to take a punt on exotic single
origin coffees but don't necessarily expect them to always make
A case in point is this month's special. Following on from last
month's all Typica blend, this is a Bourbon-derived single origin
coffee, from the SL28 and SL34 cultivars.
Kenya AA Nduma
It has the outstanding Kenyan blackcurrant aroma and flavour,
with typical sweet fruity acidity. Brewed by the espresso process
the sweet acid is emphasized but the body is decreased, so it
can't be said to be balanced. A dash of milk can add body and
slightly mute the acidity.
Nduma is the name of the co-op wet mill where this coffee is
processed. The co-op has 665 members and is Fair Trade certified.
Until next month