Understanding the Place of Single Origin Specialty Espresso

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

First a brief preface to my questions:

I have only been making good-to-me espresso for the past few weeks.

I am hooked.

I don't want to understate that. I have always loved coffee, but espresso? Wow, espresso can be a beautiful thing. I have made shots (thanks to luck and friends here) that have knocked me over, won me over and even at times clobbered me over the head!

Now onto the topic of this discussion:

Maybe it's just my new to this status, but it seems that when most people talk espresso beans, they talk blends. I think that's interesting because I have used some single origin home roasted Brazil beans that have had a wonderful baked cocoa, chocolate flavor with a nice but not too sweet finish. I was blown away, head over heels. Espresso finally made sense to me. I love it.

Enter Black Cat. Wow, what a kick to the palate! I loved it but after 2 weeks and 2 pounds and I am ready for some subtle espresso. So I ordered some Brazil, Mexican (out of curiosity) and some Sumatra. I'm going to try each all on their own. Just to see what happens.

Anyone else adore single origin specialty espresso? Is there such a thing?

What's "wrong" with sticking to single origins? Why have blends dominated the espresso realm of coffee? Here's your chance (again) to educate me!

P.S.- I only drink straight doubles (so far). Why add milk to such a beautiful thing?
Tim Eggers

LMWDP #202

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#2: Post by luca »

Hi Tim,

I think that in the world of espresso, there's no right or wrong answer; just taste!

To my mind, blends possibly have two advantages: first, en masse, they seem to pour better than single origins. I sometimes find that single origins start off slow and speed up, but that's not always the case. Second, blends have a particular flavour that a good roaster can blend to achieve. With single origins, you're always at the mercy of the particular single origin, so if the bag has been sitting around too long, if it was just not a great season or if the coffee is no longer available ... bam; gone! By contrast, you will probably find that Black Cat will taste similar, although not necessarily the same, throughout the year.

I personally think that single origin espresso is a fantastic way to develop your palate, but you obviously can't expect single origins to have all of the features that you want. For example, you might find the sumatran rich and chocolatey, whilst the mexican might be bright and smoky. If you combine the two together, you get a more well-rounded experience.

Just some thoughts before I go to sleep ...

LMWDP #034 | 2011: Q Exam, WBrC #3, Aus Cup Tasting #1 | Insta: @lucacoffeenotes

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#3: Post by another_jim »

It might be worth looking at it from the coffee's point point of view. They'd like to taste their best when you drink them.

The bulk of the world's coffees aren't very good, and can only play in very big marching band blends where all the other coffees cover for their weaknesses. These are the commercial coffees that go into the supermarket cans.

The conventional wisdom is that espresso machines, with their amplified taste systems, are best for small combos, jazz trios or rock bands, of good but not great coffees, while the super star soloists only play "unplugged" in regular brews. The idea of SO espresso is to challenge this assumption, and invite some of the great coffees to plug in, and do their stuff at 100 decibels.

This is a wonderful concept. But it fails miserably if the result is worse than a brewed coffee; then you've just used thousands of dollars of equipment to turn a great coffee into a screech of feedback. Many people, after a few experiences like this, generally eschew SOs as a waste of good coffee, except for the rare Jimi Hendrix beans. Others keep trying and getting the feedback.

My personal take is that this is still an area for the engineers -- we still need to learn how to reliably set up espresso equipment so the best coffees can shine on it. I'm working on it, so are a lot of others; and I don't think it will be too long before it's accomplished. Once it can be done, cafes and home baristas will need to change their grinding set ups to accommodate multiple coffees, and then SOs will become the rule. But for now, it's mostly a way to destroy good coffees.
Jim Schulman

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TimEggers (original poster)

#4: Post by TimEggers (original poster) »

Very interesting.

So blends to offset current technologies in ability to best maximize the full potential of the best single origin lots?

Most interesting.

I must admit that the only greens I buy come from sweetmarias.com, which I hold in high regard for green bean quality. Tom really knows how to pick them. So far I have immensely enjoyed the SO experience, even on my humble Gaggia/Rocky combo.

I agree with both you guys, single origin can be nice but perhaps lacking what a blend can offer (this makes sense in a general way as more coffee = more flavors/attributes). However I don't necessarily count this as a strike against SO, or a plus for blends. Just simply a noted important difference.

I am finding in my very limited experiences that SO can be quite pleasing and a worthwhile pursuit.
Tim Eggers

LMWDP #202


#5: Post by Jasonian »

I love them both, but for different reasons.

When I do find a great single origin espresso, I love it far more than a great blend, because it implies maintaining a very high quality all the way down the line.

It's the culmination of everything we, as an industry, have been working towards.

But there are times when I've had a single origin espresso that just didn't do it for me.

And there are times when the complexity of a blend is a welcome "adventure" on the palate.

They are two different skills.
"Pro" coffee roaster. Ex barista trainer, competitor, consultant.

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#6: Post by peacecup »

Re: SO espresso, this thread may be worth a look.

Re: Jimi - he would have brewed espresso with a lever machine - left handed


LMWDP #049
Hand-ground, hand-pulled: "hands down.."

Matthew Brinski

#7: Post by Matthew Brinski »

I believe there are great SO espresso and great blends as well. I don't necessarily believe that one is better than the other. I think some people tend to bias there preference in favor of SO coffees because either consciously or subconsciously it validates to that person an elevated understanding and appreciation toward coffee and its origin which is not held by the average consumer. I got a little tired of being bombarded by people's taste descriptors that are always being posted on the forums and blogs. OK ... I got really tired of it, to the point where my participation on the forums just dropped off. There's people who's words I trust and respect (Schulman, Fox, and a few others), and then there's those who I think want to convince others and probably themselves that they are discovering something new and exciting in coffee.

1. I do not agree that blends are a compromise. (Yes many can be, but that does not make blends a lesser coffee)

2. To claim that SO espresso is superior and more representative of what coffee should be IS a compromise.

3. I think that once more headway and understanding is made regarding SO coffees, it will allow the creation of some amazing blends by a skilled roaster.

I really tried to convince myself at one point that SO espresso was the "top shelf" of coffee, and that blends were substandard. Toscano keeps proving that mindset wrong ... for me. There are some blends out there that provide an experience for me that I have yet to find in an SO.

I think it is naive to suggest that blends don't represent a continuous chain in quality from seed to cup.

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#8: Post by cafeIKE »

another_jim wrote:then SOs will become the rule
Not certain this is an absolute.

If there is any correlation to blended whisky vs single malts, then the statement maybe proved false. Far more blended whisky is consumed because the average imbiber does not appreciate the delicacy and / or the wildness of the component parts individually.

For my 2p, most blended whisky is a bore. Not the case for espresso blends. Some friends, however, are diametrically opposed.

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#9: Post by another_jim »

To reiterate my main point in my way too long first post:

Most great SO coffees taste better brewed than made as espresso. So making them as espresso, even if the shot is tasty, a revelation, or whatever, reduces the quality of the coffee. Nobody in their right mind would make a brandy of Corton Charlemagne, no matter how amazing it tasted, since distillation of wines at this level destroys a lot more than it creates.

For SO espresso to really reach its goal, it has to convince regular coffee drinkers that it improves the flavor of their favorite origins. And this will take some improvements in the technology.
Jim Schulman