Monday, August 18, 2008

Death of The Blend

The big question o­n my mind at the moment is: are we witnessing the death of the espresso blend? As the specialty coffee industry gets better and better at spotting interesting and complex single origin coffees from individual estates and presenting them to the espresso community, I am wondering if we are moving into a brave new world where blends take the back seat.

These thoughts have been brought to the forefront of my mind as a result of James Hoffmann winning the 2007 World Barista Championships (WBC) using o­nly single origin coffees. Of course, a couple of years prior to James’ victory, Troels Poulsen of Denmark had won the 2005 edition of the WBC using Daterra beans from Brazil. Although not single origin in the strictest sense, Daterra is virtually so as it is all grown o­n the same farm, albeit a very big o­ne, the size of several traditional estates. The Daterra beans are taken from different sections of the farm and combined to imitate a blend. Until James’ success this year, Daterra was the closest thing to a single origin that had been used with any significant success at the WBC.

Clearly Troels’ choice of coffee two years ago was a sign of things to come, and James went o­ne step further this time with his selection of single origin beans from Costa Rica and Kenya respectively. The coffees used in this year’s competition were incredibly complex and produced a real statement of intent for the judges. The two single origin coffees he used are very familiar to me, and represented a very brave choice by James. The Kenya Gethumbwini is an intense coffee with overpowering blackcurrant in the after taste. The taste is bold and cuts through milk very well. This is a coffee that I would never have thought to be a good espresso and I am still exploring it now to find the best of it. The Costa Rican Cafetalera Herbazú is a dry processed bean from the Villa Sarchi varietal, and is as complex an espresso as I have ever experienced.

I think those observing the WBC competition this year will have observed that blends have gradually become less complicated and often now have far fewer components than they might traditionally have contained in the past. There has been a real movement towards allowing the coffee to do the talking with signature drinks, presentation and blends becoming simpler. This has to be applauded.

Let me tell you of my own personal preferences. I’ve have always enjoyed the honesty of a single origin in espresso. In my opinion, it is possible to taste and understand the bean in a far purer way. Having said that, the argument that of single origin coffee is o­ne dimensional and thin is also not lost o­n me, but I think much of this can be attributed to poor preparation, or trying to use set parameters o­n every coffee without proper experimentation and consideration of all the different beans holistically. I do enjoy constructing blends and simply enjoying them, but for me each single origin has something to offer in its own right, and I enjoy working with it to showcase those strengths and allow the individuality to flourish.

In the wrong hands coffee from a single origin or a blend can be awful, though in my experience blends are frequently more forgiving. So are we using blends as a crutch for our sloppiness, our poor barista skills or poor equipment? Well, if we are then I don't believe this is automatically wrong. Making use of something that is easy to prepare and is likely to yield a result makes sense both commercially and in terms of effort; but when we want to be challenged, when we want impress and showcase coffees and skills, we may not want to take the easy option. I remember some advice given to me by a seasoned professional roaster at the beginning of my journey in the industry that has stuck with me to this day. He simply said: “Good coffee is never easy”. He never really expanded o­n those words, but each day, as I learn more, the meaning behind his statement becomes clearer to me. With coffee, you o­nly get out as much as you are prepared to put in. Coffee gives nothing away, and it needs a little help to produce and deliver its full potential. I like to think that this is achieved by investing just a little bit of extra care and effort at the growing and harvesting stage, in the processing and milling, in the sourcing, the shipping, when roasting and most certainly in the preparation.

Many of the blends I have come across have existed solely for the purpose of saving money and/or hiding poor beans. This is not an acceptable way to use blends, and I think it is o­ne of the main factors contributing to my dislike and distrust of blending in general. That is why none of my blends are shrouded in secrecy and consumers can have confidence in the product. The o­nly point of blending should be to improve o­n the sum of the component parts, or to create something different, not to mask things that are not good enough not be in there. Consumers deserve better than that, as does the craft of roasting coffee.

As a lover of single malt whiskies, it is nothing new to me that blends are generally not a way to experience the best of anything. All too often they are bulked out by poor ingredients that are not good enough to stand alone. The problem is sometimes whether good is even attainable with the constituent parts being used. I have yet to taste a blended whisky that I would describe as good, and I think many blended coffees are of a similar standard. Yes, of course there are always going to be notable exceptions in any genre; hand crafted blends containing o­nly the best of ingredients are designed to produce very specific, balanced profiles in accordance with the producers’ designs. However, artisan roasters producing blends of this quality remain a small minority within the coffee industry.

Many roasters guard their blends just as ‘Colonel Sanders’ covets his recipe, seeing it as the secret to their success. I think this is simply wrong. There should be no need for it to be a secret. Unlike Colonel Sanders’ recipe which is the coating o­n the meal, with coffee the blend itself is the main attraction. No-one would walk into KFC and expect to be served meat of an unknown origin. In any case, coffee blends are prone to change year o­n year, with crop rotations and quality swings affecting the component beans. Surely coffee is more akin to the choosing of fine wines than a finite food recipe that should be hidden for all time in case it is replicated. All consumers deserve to know what they are buying, and I believe it is imperative for the commercial customer who runs a coffee shop or restaurant, if they have a blend, to know what is in it. The reputation of their business may depend o­n that blend. How can a barista inform and share with customers if he or she doesn’t have any idea what is being sold? Knowing and sharing the whole story and information about the personalities behind individual coffees is a sure fire way to engage the customer and drive quality forward. Just as consumers enjoy finding out about a good whisky distillery; the different production methods and the experts developing the whisky; they are becoming increasingly aware of coffee origins and the demand for specific information is increasing. For consumers, knowing all about the origins of a coffee can be the ‘icing o­n the cake’ leading to a better understanding of what they are experiencing, and, for them, make a great beverage complete.

Now of course a good story without great coffee is like well presented food without the substance of taste, but incredibly tasty coffee well presented with information about how and where it is produced is a winning combination. With coffee blends, I find the opportunity to engage the consumer with stories containing these details is often lost. Even when it is possible to do so, the tale of any specific bean is significantly diluted by the fact there are so many other parts of the blend to consider as well.

Of course, I also look at this with a UK perspective. Here in the UK we don't have a ‘Hairbender’ or a ‘Black Cat’ blend; we haven't really had a blend that people can put their hat o­n and say: “that's a good coffee”. I've never actually heard anyone say either of these are the best espresso's they have ever tasted, but similarly, I've also not heard anyone say they are bad either. Blends like these represent a level, and a bar is placed by them for others to seek to attain.

Maybe the lack of passion shown and the absence of people declaring their undying love for the blend in general is another factor in its perceived downfall. o­n the other hand, I have heard real passion and desire expressed for a lot of single origin coffees. Like many, I have fallen big time for single origins; for a unique Nicaraguan or a perfect Bolivian. I have had single origin coffees that have yielded moments of epiphany in my life; I can remember exactly when and where they were tasted and how they made me feel. I cannot say the same about any blend. Maybe this is because I have not been exposed to blends that are capable of doing the same things for me. I wonder if they exist or if it is even possible to achieve the same things from them.

The UK market has not pushed the envelope; it has not been felt necessary, or perhaps it has not been possible, for those involved to develop a single killer signature blend in order to be competitive. The lack of a big name blend has meant that in our market there has been a much more diluted message, with no o­ne backing and marketing o­ne single blend as “the o­ne”. I believe this is o­ne of the major contributing factors toward my perspective o­n blends. Certainly here at Has Bean we are far more motivated toward providing bespoke blends catering to individual customer needs than to producing a o­ne size fits all solution, which in itself weakens the message of any o­ne product being “the blend to have”.

But Blending can be incredibly interesting and a rewarding education in coffee. My blending experiences with James Hoffmann this year with his UKBC 2007 blend, and last year with his WBC 2006 blend were some of the most demanding, frustrating and the most rewarding of my life. This was where I truly learned that good coffee does not come easily. Working o­n individual profiles and developing the best attributes of component ingredients to make something that was very special as the sum of those parts was really satisfying.

I can think of no better way to push the boundaries than to have a barista with the skills to get the best out of the espresso, working with a roaster capable of obtaining the full potential of the beans in his profiles. I owe a great deal to James for helping me to understand what makes coffee tick in the espresso machine, and also for being my harshest critic.

It has been said many times before, but the truth is that the barista is the face for the consumer, and is therefore best placed to know what is required and how it can be achieved. The roaster is tucked away in the roastery, and needs to be given information about what is needed. When these two forces come together in co-operation, something fantastic can be created for all to enjoy.

I do, think there is a time for a blend in coffee, just not all the time as some would have us believe. In my opinion it is important to indulge yourself, to try single origin espresso, enjoy it and not keep falling back to the blend as the default. Embrace a coffee for what it is; if it lacks a little body because of its complex acidity, enjoy and celebrate that fact. Don’t try to make every espresso consist of the same things. I think for me to say: “Death of the Blend”, in the title was a little dramatic, but it got your attention. I would actually prefer to refer to it as: “The Birth of the Single Origin Espresso”.

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