The Trouble with Blends

Posted by Matthew Orchard on

When we were throwing ideas around the table at the very outset of this company it was pretty much a given that our house espresso would be a blend. That’s what everyone does, right? The more we thought about it, the more we started to question it.

The first issue for us, which is what we love about specialty coffee, is that the lots we buy are all tasty as hell and reflect the hard work that the producers have put in at origin. Why would we then detract from that by blending them with other coffees?

Another issue is with consistency in the brewing. Even with a simple 50/50 blend it is unlikely that many shots you pull will actually be representative of that ratio, meaning it’s harder to get consistent flavour. Espresso is already incredibly complex with many variables affecting consistency. Why add more?

There are some good reasons to blend. If, for instance, you want to create a product which has a consistent flavour profile despite seasonal component changes. As coffees age and start to show woody flavours you can switch them out for alternative components which fulfil that character. The more components you have in the blend, the easier it will be to keep it tasting consistent and have a broad sweet spot for espresso. This is an approach which is more relevant at scale (think huge Italian coffee companies) when you have customers all over the world expecting a consistent product that’s super easy to work with. In specialty we are more interested in celebrating seasonality and most peoples blends reflect that rather than doggedly aiming for a consistent cup profile.

If you are blending for economic reasons and want to meet a certain price point then you could choose inexpensive lots which have complementary characteristics; one with body, one with sweetness, one with acidity etc. The problem is that when you start to buy better and better coffees they are inevitably more balanced and nuanced and blending them becomes a bit of a waste.

Now, there is no denying that blending can be a fine art; just think of whisky blenders choosing from thousands of nuanced single malts to keep their product consistent. I just don’t think that many of us in specialty are really doing a good job of it. We are usually blending to meet a certain price point, in the best case combining flavours and characteristics to cover up what what each component may be lacking, or at worst throwing coffees together because they meet the right price and volume requirements. Neither of these is an approach for us.

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