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Coffee Blends: Part Two. Who Blends Coffee and Why?

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Coffee Blends: Part Two. Who Blends Coffee and Why?

Carrie Masek

Who blends their coffee? The short answer is everyone. I don't know of a single roaster who doesn't offer at least a few coffee blends. Some only offer blends. Most espressos are blends. Most of the “Kona” coffee sold in the continental US is a blend. Almost all house coffees, whether in a coffee shop or restaurant, are blends.

Which brings us to why...why do roasters blend coffee? This question doesn’t have a single answer. Roasters consider three different aspects of coffee when creating a blend: Price, Quality and Flavor.

Price: Different coffees vary in price. A lot. Higher quality beans cost more than flawed beans. Beans that are certified organic or Fair Trade often cost more than conventional beans. The price difference between coffee from different origins can be startling. Just look at the difference between Kona and a good Mexican coffee. High quality green coffee from a single estate in Mexico can easily cost $20/lb less than a comparably good coffee grown on the island of Kona. Given this kind of variance, it’s no surprise that roasters often blend coffees to minimize costs and keep their prices down.

Quality: For coffee roasters, quality refers to the green coffee beans. A particular farm, or origin may produce almost perfect coffee beans one year, and sub-optimal beans the following season. Pests, crop infections, political upheavals and even bad weather, can result in flawed green coffee, flaws that adversely affect both the quality and quantity of coffee beans available from a particular origin. Flawed coffee beans don't roast as well and don't taste as good as higher quality beans. Some of them even look bad. Many roasters, particularly very large, commercial roasters, routinely buy flawed beans (which are also much cheaper) and blend them with higher quality beans to make a coffee blend that roasts to the level of quality their customers expect.

Flavor: Mokha Java was originally created to brew the most pleasing coffee from of the two styles of bean available in the early 18th Century: The lively, but wild and occasionally harsh, Yemeni Mokha, and the smoother, heavier-bodied, sweet but otherwise less flavorful coffee from Dutch Indonesia. Nowadays, roasters start with a desired flavor profile and mix coffees with different aspects of that profile together to make the blend. Flavor is additive in blends, which is why a good Mokha Java is both lively and sweet, not some flavor in between.

All roasters consider these three aspects when creating a coffee blend, but in practice, a roaster can optimize for only two of them. Large commercial roasters usually optimize price and quality. Their goal being to create a blend that meets their minimum quality standards at the lowest possible price. The flavor of the resulting coffee may, and often does, vary.

Specialty grade roasters, like us, only roast the top 1-2% of the coffee crop. For us quality is a given, so flavor and price are the variables we consider.

We love single origin coffees. They can be amazing! They also change, season-to-season and year-to-year. The flavor, and even quality, of a single origin coffee is dependent on many factors, some of which are completely beyond the control of the coffee’s producer. (The 2004 tsunami in Indonesia, for instance, damaged or destroyed much of the coffee crop, resulting in lower quality and higher prices.)

That’s why we also love coffee blends. They can be equally amazing, and we can keep them consistent, season-to-season and year-to-year. The only problem, we can’t share a blend’s recipe with the folks who enjoy it. Why? We don’t have recipes for our blends. What we have are flavor profiles. Profiles we keep consistent, as the beans we use to create the blends vary with the season.

Another benefit of blending coffee is it allows roasters to combine coffee flavors that won’t develop in coffee from a single origin. Let’s go back to Mokha Java. As the coffee houses of 18th Century Europe discovered, combining light, lively African coffee with heavy, sweet Indonesian results in a brewed cup that is lively and sweet and has a nice, full body, arguably, a bigger, better coffee than either origin produces.

Finally, blending coffee allows roasters to choose less expensive coffees. A roaster could make an excellent Mokha Java by blending a very expensive, FTO single estate coffee from Kenya with an equally expensive FTO, single estate coffee from Sumatra. Most, though, choose a good, reasonably priced light and lively coffee (often an African, but not always) and a good, reasonably priced heavy, sweet coffee (often an Indonesian, but again, not always) for their Mokha Java blend. Good roasters will cup the resulting blend, to make sure the flavor matches their profile (sometimes coffee surprises us!), and change the coffees and/or proportions as necessary.

So the next time you go to your local roaster, or shop for coffee online, check out their coffee blends. Chances are good the blends will be more consistent, and may even taste better, than some expensive, single origin options. Coffee doesn’t have to be fancy to be good.