Espresso Blends; Why Bother?

Discuss flavors, brew temperatures, blending, and cupping notes.
Ken Fox
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#1: Post by Ken Fox »

I was going to post this as a reply in either of two recent threads, but then I thought, it really deserves its own thread.

If we take the wine analogy, as we are wont to do here, the obvious comparison is with red wines like those you find in Bordeaux or Chateauneuf du Pape, which are almost always a blend of several different grapes in varying proportions. In the case of these wines, it is grapes that are all grown on the same contiguous property, and the proprietor arrives at a final blend each year which attempts to make both the best possible combination while at the same time reflecting the "house" style. The wines will differ from year to year but should always have some sort of institutional resemblance when one drinks wines from the estate that come from different years.

With coffee it is more of a contrived thing, this idea of a marquee blend for a given cafe/roaster. For one thing, the beans they will use in their blend(s) typically don't even all come from the same continent, no less from the same property, except in very exceptional cases. In the typical example, one is dealing with an attempt to produce a relatively consistent taste profile, regardless of what variations one finds in the raw ingredient beans from year to year.

I think it is fun to go around to these well known cafes and to drink their wares in their own surroundings, getting the effects of both the coffees they have blended and the ambiance of their cafes. But when you then take their beans and try to make espresso out of them in your own home, there is a disconnect because then all you are tasting is the actual coffee and this is separated from the ambiance of their cafes. 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.

I think it would be a lot better to focus on individual varietals that can work on their own to make good espressos, and to vary these by season and by crop. A really talented roasting staff will know how to get the best out of these beans that is possible to get, and will be able to roast them in a way that will have them show at their best as SOs. It would therefore be better in my view if the roasters would concentrate their efforts on seeking out the best SOs that will work by themselves rather than spend so much effort on their blends.

This might not be as good for the bottom line, in the sense that if you can sell the customer on the name of the blend, then there is nowhere else the customer can go to buy that blend. But since we all know that these blends are anything but consistent, its a bit misleading to promote these blend names when the actual coffees that bear those names are so inconsistent over time.

If I was buying roasted coffee on a regular basis, I'd be much more interested to find a roaster who was constantly seeking out the very best single varietals and who could recommend to me the best ones he had in stock at any given time, rather than monkeying around with blends that can never remain consistent for long.

Just my take, for what it is worth.

What, me worry?

Alfred E. Neuman, 1955

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#2: Post by another_jim »

I think coffee blends are more like cocktails and brand recipes then like wine blends.
  • Generic Blends: Mocha-Java for US strength brewed black coffee, Kenya-Colombia for coffee with cream, and Brasil with a pinch of Central, Ethiopian, Indos, and maybe Robusta for espresso or demi-tasse are as traditional as Manhattans and Martinis. Order one of these drinks and get the time-tested generic recipe blend, competently prepared, and you'll have a muzak coffee, pleasant, mostly familiar, and guaranteed not to interfere with the conversion.
  • Brands from Folgers to Illy need to blend to maintain the same taste year in year out. People who buy these products expect this taste and never anything profoundly original or terroir based. The marketing blather may be about origins, but the average consumer (and perhaps not so average ones) would be up in arms if there were any hint of originality
  • One-Offs: The espresso blends we've just been reviewing are something different again. I think they might be closer to sampling one-off cocktails at a mixologists' convention, rather than brands, generic coffee blends, or a wine estate's carefully tweaked mix of grapes and plots for its prime bottling
These are all perfectly legitimate motives for creating blends; however none of them applies to hobbyists' "haute cafe." But that does not mean there is no possible rationale for hobbyists or connoisseurs to countenance blends for their tasting coffees; just that the ones now used don't work as tasting blends
Jim Schulman

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#3: Post by JonR10 »

Interesting topic, and the timing could not be better because Mark Prince just published a counterpoint:

part 1 - ... 08-14-2010

part 2 - ... 08-16-2010
Jon Rosenthal
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#4: Post by cafeIKE »

Blends and SO each have their place... just as do a Rusty Nail [2/3 Chivas Regal blended Scots whisky / 1/3 Drambuie] over ice and Ardbeg or Lagavulin malts, neat or w a smidgen of mountain spring water.

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#5: Post by malachi »

Blending is hugely challenging.
To be honest, the majority of blends I've tasted are failures in the sense that they don't truly reach the point of being greater than the sum of their parts.
When, however, a blend does achieve this goal - they can be wonderful experiences.

Judging "blending" based upon failed attempts is short-sighted.

While I love tasting single origin coffees (cupped or as espresso) - this doesn't mean I don't love a masterfully blended coffee.
What's in the cup is what matters.

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#6: Post by tekomino »

I tried blends and single origins from 90% of roasters on recommended roaster page. I found only 3-4 blends that I really liked and no single origin that I would like to drink every day... Single origins, why bother?

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#7: Post by malachi »

Maybe you don't like coffee?
What's in the cup is what matters.

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#8: Post by tekomino replying to malachi »

No doubt about me liking coffee, but single origins I tried as espresso just did not leave me wanting more like good blends, say Klatch WB, Epic espresso, Metropolis Red Line, Red Bird espresso to name the few. SO's are nice occasionally, say like eating tripe, but not something I could drink every day. And blends I listed I do drink every day :D Not that I can eat tripe more than once in 10 years :shock:

SO' nice for exploring but for me not every day espresso.

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#9: Post by oqcoffee »

Just like there are good spro blends and bad ones, we shouldn't lump all SOE together.

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#10: Post by seedlings »

Coffee is variety. Variety is expensive. The auxiliary SO rudder on the roaster's large ship is very small, and it is likely that said roasters will always discourage SOs in favor of blends.

We who roast at home entertain the luxury of variety, while those with little espresso experience outside the local cafe (cafes who purchase large quantities of espresso blends from large roasters), represent a significant portion of the market... If they decide to make an espresso once in a while on their Breville at home, they are kin to use the same branded beans as their favorite cafe.

Should we let the black cat out of the bag? Maybe we should enjoy our invitation-only party.