Is single origin coffees really better than blends? Single Origin vs. Blends: Evaluating the Current Coffee Landscape. In the vibrant world of third wave coffee establishments, it’s a common sight to find at least one single origin coffee offered, prepared as either espresso or filter brew. These coffees are celebrated by both connoisseurs and casual drinkers for their capacity to vividly express the unique terroir and intrinsic qualities of their source.
The last decade has seen the specialty coffee community’s fascination with single origin coffees intensify. These coffees are not just prized for their quality but also for the values of transparency and traceability they embody. Consumers are increasingly drawn to coffees that come with a narrative, a glimpse into their origin’s essence and journey.
Nevertheless, blends have been experiencing a resurgence. Recent World Barista Championships have witnessed a growing trend of competitors incorporating blends into their presentations. Additionally, with the rise in coffee prices, roasters are pivoting towards blends as a strategy for more economical cost management.
In this dynamic market, it begs the question: Do single origin coffees retain their edge in popularity among specialty coffee aficionados? And if so, do they genuinely offer a superior experience compared to blends? To delve deeper, I engaged with Joel Singer, founder and general manager at Origin Coffee in South Africa, and Lloyd Thom, green buyer at Campos Coffee in Australia, for their expert perspectives
Defining ‘Single Origin’ in the Coffee World
The term ‘single origin’ in the realm of specialty coffee lacks a standardized definition, yet broadly implies that the coffee is sourced from a singular geographic location. The scope of ‘single origin’ can vary widely, encompassing:
- An entire country
- A specific region within that country
- A single farm or estate, which may oversee multiple properties
- An individual plot within a farm, referred to as micro-lots or nano-lots based on size
These coffees are often celebrated for their distinct flavor profiles, which are deeply indicative of the terroir of their growing area. ‘Terroir,’ a term borrowed from viticulture, refers to the ensemble of environmental factors that influence a crop’s characteristics, including:
- Soil properties and makeup
- Weather patterns
- Local flora and fauna
The growing popularity of single origin coffees is also fueled by a consumer shift towards valuing traceability and transparency. Unlike blends that combine beans from various origins, single origin coffees can be readily traced to a specific country, region, farm, or plot of land.
Roasters capitalize on this traceability by providing detailed information on their packaging, such as the coffee’s altitude, varietal, processing technique, and cupping score. They may also offer insight into the producers and the farms, fostering a connection between the consumer and the origin of their coffee.”
Exploring the Link Between ‘Specialty’ and ‘Single Origin’
Specialty coffee, for many roasters and cafes, has become synonymous with single origin due to its association with superior quality for several reasons.
This concept emerged prominently during the third wave coffee movement in the mid-to-late 2000s when the focus on quality and traceability surged for both roasters and consumers.
“Major commercial brands have established their names on the promise of consistency, although at times this can mean sacrificing quality for a particular price point,” Joel notes. “Back in those days, emphasizing traceability – knowing the producer and the coffee’s origin – was a strategy to set your brand apart.
“It signaled to the customer that there was something distinct about your coffee,” he continues.
Single origin offerings have also been instrumental in demonstrating to consumers that some roasters maintain closer ties with coffee producers, yielding a deeper understanding of the coffee’s origins and cultivation methods. This knowledge can lead to producers earning better prices for their coffee and fostering more trustworthy, long-term partnerships with roasters.
“Single origins represent a modest portion of Campos’ total sales, but they’re central to our narrative and ethos,” Lloyd shares with me. “We narrate the stories of these coffees’ origins, the communities, and the meticulous processes involved.
“Our goal is to honor the origin itself, including the cultural connections and imagery associated with a particular country or region,” he concludes.
Enhancing the Coffee Experience with Specialty Single Origins
As the specialty coffee audience increasingly values aspects such as traceability and sustainability, they show a readiness to invest in higher-priced single origin coffees that promise superior quality.
“Enjoying single origin coffee is akin to guiding the customer on an unexpected voyage,” Joel remarks. “It’s a path they may not have known they wished to embark upon, but it’s one they come to value deeply once they’ve had a taste.”
This experience not only lets consumers savor a coffee’s full flavor spectrum with unique and intriguing sensory profiles, but it also enriches their understanding of the coffee’s provenance and the intricacies of its production. This knowledge infuses additional worth into their coffee-drinking experience.
“Lloyd points out, “Featuring single origins is vital for a roaster’s image, much like showcasing a selection of luxury items. Even if some coffees might exceed a customer’s typical spending, merely offering these high-caliber options speaks volumes about the roaster’s expertise in curating quality coffee.”
Redefining the Role of Specialty Coffee Blends
While single origin coffees have certainly catalyzed a movement towards elevated coffee quality, transforming the specialty coffee industry for the better, the significance of specialty coffee blends should not be underestimated.
From the dawn of the coffee industry, blends have been foundational, crafted from a mix of at least two distinct coffee origins. These blends can be diverse, comprising beans from:
- Different countries, such as a mix of Brazilian and Kenyan beans
- Various regions within a single country
- Different producers within the same region
- A range of varieties or processing methods from a single farm, sometimes referred to as ‘single-farm blends’
Traditionally, blends have suffered a reputation of being inferior to single origin coffees, often rightly so when the combined flavors clash or when the beans’ solubility levels mismatch, leading to inconsistent extraction.
Moreover, some large-scale commercial roasters have historically blended higher-grade arabica with less expensive robusta to maintain cost-effectiveness, further contributing to the perception of blends as being of lower quality.
Nevertheless, the narrative around blends in specialty coffee is shifting. The objective with specialty blends is to curate a coffee with consistent and replicable flavor profiles, aiming for a balance and versatility that might surpass what a single origin can provide. This renewed appreciation for blends reflects a maturation of the specialty coffee scene, where complexity and reliability in flavor are celebrated
Showcasing Blends at the Apex of Coffee Competitions
In recent years, the spotlight has shone on coffee blends at premier events such as the World Barista Championship (WBC) and World Brewers Cup, marking a significant shift in competitive coffee presentations.
Take the 2023 WBC, where champion Boram Um crafted a standout milk beverage using a harmonious blend of anaerobically fermented Gesha with natural Pink Bourbon. Similarly, Daniele Ricci, the Italian finalist who took the second spot, impressed with his own blend, combining Colombian Gesha with Caturra from a single estate.
Throughout their routines, both baristas highlighted the way their carefully chosen blends contributed to a taste experience that was both more balanced and nuanced, showcasing the potential of blends to stand shoulder to shoulder with single-origin coffees on the world stage.
Valuing Consistency with Coffee Blends
While consumers demonstrate a readiness to invest in premium single origin coffees, often the choice hinges on the desire for consistency.
Blends are not merely concocted to offer a more cost-effective option,” explains Joel. “They typically occupy introductory price points for compelling reasons.
“In our cafes, blends account for half of our sales,” he notes. “However, when it comes to our wholesale clients, that figure jumps to 90%—price sensitivity is a predominant concern for most players in the hospitality industry.
The exclusive sale of single origins by roasters would not guarantee uniformity of experience for consumers across different settings,” he elaborates. “Blends, therefore, play a crucial role in ensuring that customers can enjoy a consistent cup of coffee, regardless of location.
The question of whether single origin coffees surpass blends in quality is challenging to address definitively. The determination is inherently subjective, varying with each individual’s palate, rendering a universal verdict unattainable.
From an industry perspective, it’s essential to recognize that both single origins and blends possess tremendous potential to deliver quality experiences. It’s this understanding that paves the way for both to exist side by side, complementing each other within the diverse tapestry of coffee culture.