Has single origin espresso replaced espresso blends?

Has single origin espresso replaced espresso blends?

Coffee beans

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!

4 Comments

  1. Jim:

    We have one customer with a high-volume shop who insists on one coffee to meet his espresso and filter coffee needs. In this case, I tend to favor an SO. In my opinion, it’s less of a compromise to use the SO as espresso than it is to use an espresso blend for the filter coffee. I’ll use all of our SO’s at home for a week in every prep imaginable just to get to know that bean, and some of them amaze me with their dynamic range – I think the trick to loving SO’s as espresso is to try more of them that way.

  2. Yea, smaller accounts can benefit from using a bean or blend in more than one brewing method. One of my roasters created a blend for a customer with a cart who wanted the same beans to be used in drip and espresso. The roaster created a blend that tasted great as an everyday full bodied drip (he is a cart in a hospital) and tastes great as an espresso. The amazing thing to me was how different they each tasted. It truly takes skill and knowledge to create a blend that does both.

  3. There are no correct answers, only opinions. We use a well-known blend for espresso drinks. But it doesn’t make a drip that excites us. We recently tried out an acclaimed organic blend that to us, tasted sharp. Another shop in another region tried it and loved it. We’ve tried a bunch of SOs on the Linea and some have been terrific, others too ‘one-note’. But they all work as drip.
    Your point on barista competitions in regards to passion is a good one. What are we really rewarding? We find it odd that the new Brewer’s Cup competition starts with all competitors using the same coffee, but the barista comps never had that as a requirement. Thus if a barista is more vertically integrated (involved in sourcing or roasting), those passion points will necessarily be higher than a very skilled barista who only pulls shots. Maybe that needs to be rethought.

  4. S.O. has been a term used in one form or another for years. One of the first coffees I promoted heavily when I opened in the early nineties was Costa Rican La Minita. That was probably the most recognized S.O. coffee available for quite a while, although we haven’t sold it in years because of the decline in quality.

    It will be interesting to see what happens with the Brewer’s Cup. We’ll need to watch for a while first. It does carry some of the potential spinoff issues of a barista competition and possibly more. Later this year after I see a competition I’ll post some thoughts.

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