Single-origin vs. blends: What's the difference?

Much like the craft beer scene in the last few years, craft coffee is taking off and Tampa is now home to a number of small roasters and independent coffee shops. If you frequent any of these establishments, you’ll no doubt run across the term “single-origin” to describe the coffees on the menu. But what does single-origin mean and does that mean it’s better than the alternative (in this case it’s blends).

What is a single-origin coffee?

The most accepted definition of single-origin is a coffee from a single farm or group of farms that are sourced from a known geographic region. Now, what counts as a “geographic region” is up for debate with some large roasters even considering a blend of coffees from the same country as single-origin (I won’t mention any names). That would be like saying a wine is made from grapes grown in France. There are huge differences between growing regions within a country as well as the specific cultivar of the plant, processing method, etc. And this isn’t the only comparison to wine, but more on that to come.

Single-origin coffees are typically thought to premium quality and generally roasted lighter to highlight the flavors unique to that bean rather than just the flavor of “roast”. They are going to be like a wine from a single estate or vineyard and only one type of grape, like a Dry Creek Zinfindel. You will get a lot of specific flavors out of these coffees and they can be quite interesting. However, the downside is that unless you have some of the best of the best beans, you can end up with less depth and complexity compared to a high quality blend.

What’s in a blend?

Blends get a bad rap these days particular in the craft coffee scene. They are often seen as lower quality or somehow less interesting than their single-origin cousins. Part of this reputation may be because blends have been the standard for large chains for years. Major fast food chains and the ever ubiquitous coffee shop franchises use blends because it would be nearly impossible to obtain enough volume of single-origin beans to serve their huge volumes of customers. They also allow you to maintain a consistent product by blending different beans together to achieve a target flavor profile.

The ability to maintain a consistent product over time is one big benefit of blends. Different beans from different regions can be carefully blended together to yield the same delicious coffee cup after cup even as new beans are harvested. Like grapes, coffee beans from the same estate can taste different year to year depending on growing conditions. That means the same single-origin bean from a farm last year may not be quite as good as this year’s harvest, or could be even better! For those of you that want the same cup of coffee to wake up to every morning, that may be a bigger risk than you’re willing to take.

Maybe the most important benefit of coffee blends is the ability to create rich, complex, and dynamic flavors. Like it was mentioned before, single-origin coffees are very unique and therefore may not have all the characteristics you want in a particular coffee. Maybe there isn’t enough body, not enough acidity, not earthy enough, etc. Roasting and blending multiple beans can yield near limitless potential for flavors, textures, and aromas. Think about it like a fine Bordeaux wine. These are some of the most expensive wines in the world and they are blends of up to 6 types of grapes grown in the Bordeaux region of France. Some years it’s more cabernet sauvignon, some years more merlot, and so on. The key here is that the quality depends on the flexibility of using multiple grapes and the skill of the vintner to blend them to perfection.

As with wines, the best coffee blends need the best source material. Unlike large commercial manufacturers, craft coffee blends utilize the highest quality beans (i.e. they can easily stand on their own as a single-origin offering) and combine them to realize the roaster’s vision for that coffee.

In my opinion, you can’t judge a book by its cover nor should you judge a coffee based on how many beans were used to create it. Next time you ask is it single-origin? Ask yourself if you would not drink a wine made from more than one estate’s grapes or a beer that used only one type of malt and hops. It’s about the quality of the product, not what’s written on the label.

Bottom line: Single-origin doesn't mean better quality, but can be an amazing, unique, and delicious coffee. Blends don't mean lower quality and can be complex, deep, and beautiful.

Speaking of quality, not all coffees are created equal. In our next post, we’ll discuss how coffee is evaluated, rated, and what it means to be a specialty coffee. Stay tuned.