So there’s this discussion going on about S.O. (single origin) coffees. I’m not sure how prevalent it is, but I know of at least a few people including myself who have been thinking, and now verbalizing questions about SO coffees. Not whether a particular SO is a “great” coffee, or whether it does or doesn’t earn the title as such, but rather does it taste good as an espresso. Why have SO coffees become so popular and used by many baristas in competitions? Why are they poured in many trendy coffeeshop’s demitasse cups? What has happened to the espresso blend?
First, let’s back up.
Traditionally espresso blends were, well, blends. There was a reason behind the philosophy of blending and it goes something like this: Blending can take a great coffee and make it a great espresso. Just because a coffee brews up well in a drip style, does not mean the espresso method of extraction will yield a favorable result. Super fine grind, coffee packed into a puck, a much shorter extraction and water at 130 pounds of pressure pushed through the coffee create such a unique dynamic that the water and “oil” in coffee actually make Hollandaise sauce (kidding-actually an an emulsion we call crema). The process also has the potential of wrecking coffee so quickly that we see a massively higher percentage of espresso shots dumped by baristas then any other method. We must then drink the beverage within seconds of extraction or any flaws in the coffee begin to show quickly (when is the last time you saw a drip brewed coffee dumped because the barista wasn’t happy with the extraction?)
When it comes to blending, there are reasons for each part of a particular blend. Certain coffees do not have a trait we are looking for, other coffees need balancing and still others have something undesirable that can be downplayed by the right counterpart. So we create a blend in which the whole is better than the individual parts. As examples – in an espresso blend dry processed coffees are usually responsible for the crema (often Brazils); wet-processed Central Americans add aromatics; for bite we often look to some dry processed Ethiopian or Costa Rican; for chocolate and caramel we add some Guatemalan. Robustas were historically added to blends to increase body, crema and caffeine, but for the most part they have fallen out of favor (though today there are some brilliant exceptions). Robustas have 2-3 times the caffeine of arabica, they produce more crema than arabica and add a particular bite to the cup that for those who have had it is immediately recognizable. Historically robustas were used as a cheap filler or caffeine boost and accounted for anywhere from 10-40% of the Italian espresso blends. Another variable in blending is each year the coffee crops vary and the dynamics of their relationship in a blend changes. As the green coffees age over a years time or when new crop comes in the blend changes in subtle or not so subtle ways. This makes the process of creating a great blend an ongoing one.
So, what has made SO coffees so popular as of late? In a matter of just the last 5 years or so, we have seen a large percentage of barista competitors using SO coffees (Does anyone know the percentage of competitors using SO coffees vs. blends barista competitions?). Someone made the observation in our discussion that today’s barista competitors are judged in part on passion. And that a direct connection to a farmer, their farm and their coffee, has a story that sells. A blend, well not as much. I’m not against the connection to and promotion of farmers who care, who work hard at creating great coffee, but I think a side consequence, one not seen or done on purpose, has been this pressure to use an SO coffee when competing. Which then trickles down to the rest of the industry. If a competitor is spending all this time practicing a performance, working on technical skills, creating a signature drink, and getting exact timing down, isn’t it natural for them to secure every advantage they can to win? And if they know their competitor gains an edge by telling a story about a coffee farm, farmer, or varietal wouldn’t they be pressured to do the same? When I connected those dots it was a ‘wow’ moment. It makes sense. I’m not screaming “conspiracy“, but I am putting two and two together in this discussion and seeing a possible unintended consequence of barista competitions.
I’ve only had one SO coffee made the espresso method of preparation that dazzled me, maybe two or three others that were just beneath that. But I have had many blends that were like a party in my mouth, everyone bringing something to share. The sum of the whole greater than the parts by themselves.
Viva la miscela!