The Ultimate Guide to Coffee Blends (Coffee Blends explained)
Whether you like sipping on lattes or prefer working your way through the silky foam of an easy-going cappuccino, the vast majority of beverages we drink in a café are made using what we refer to as a coffee blend. Even though coffee blends make most of the coffee we drink, there is ongoing conversation in the specialty coffee industry around the topic. So, in answer to the questions going around, we thought we’d share some insights on what a coffee blend is, the processes involved in blending coffee, and also, the reasons why we blend coffee.
What is a coffee blend?
First things first, what is a coffee blend? Here’s a simple coffee blend definition: coffee blends are a mix of two, three or sometimes even more different coffees that each come from a unique origin. ’Origin’ refers to the country where the coffee is grown and processed before being roasted. Most cafes use a espresso blend for milk based coffees (like lattes, flat white and cappuccinos) and single origin coffees for black coffee (like long blacks, espresso and filter coffee).
The espresso blend, or 'house blend' as they are often referred to, sets the foundation for most cafes – it forms a crucial part of their identity, and becomes the flavour their customer base knows them for. That’s why a good coffee blend should have a taste identity that you can rely on each time you drink that coffee.
In some cases, cafes have a seasonal blend coffee as part of their coffee menu. Seasonal blend coffee is a coffee blend that is made up of origins that will change during the year based on fresh-crop coffees available from different harvest times and seasons. These are often high end specialty blends showcasing interesting and exotic flavours of high scoring coffees. Our African Mailman blend is an example of a seasonal blend. The actual microlots used to create this fruit bomb blend change quite frequently as, by definition, each microlot is limited in size.
Difference between single origin and blend coffee
Before we talk about the difference between single origin and blend coffee, we need to understand what single origin coffee is. Single origin means that all the beans come from one country. These coffees are not blended with other coffees, but are instead roasted and enjoyed on their own. As specialty coffee roasters, quite frankly, these single origin coffees are the ones that excite and delight us as we explore the unique and exotic flavours that are the result of the specific terroir that forms their characteristics. Single origin coffees can be used in black coffee, milk coffees and filter brews.
At Zest we always have an array of interesting, high scoring microlots (a special single origin coffee from one specific farm). These change from month to month giving discerning coffee lovers an evolving experience of distinctive flavours from around the coffee world.
However, to meet the wider consumer demand for a consistent, predictable, and affordable coffee experience at their local café, most mid size specialty coffee roasters will still offer one or more blend options. Operationally, because coffee is an organic, seasonal product, blending allows the roaster to achieve this dependable consistency even as new crops are received.
As, Rod Greenfield, one of our owners, says ’We strive to produce a blend where the taste experience for the drinker if greater than the sum of its individual parts. When we combine origins we come up with an amazing coffee blend recipe produces delicious, consistent, dependable flavour in a cup.’
With all this information, you’re probably wondering which is better: single origin or blend coffee? The answer is that it depends a lot on your palate and on what your preferred brew method is. If you are using manual brew methods (V60, Clever Dripper, AeroPress) look to single origin offerings to give you amazing flavour in your cup. If you're an espresso or long black drinker, we would still recommend exploring single origins or perhaps a seasonal blend. And then, for those that just want to relax with a lovely, familiar chocolaty latte, a specialty coffee blend will not disappoint.
Why do we blend coffee beans?
The purpose of blending coffees together is to produce a desired flavour profile that is distinctive, balanced and consistent. Blends are created to make coffee enjoyable for different markets, coffee styles and demographics. Nobody likes starting their day on a sour note, so it is crucial that a café offers something that is delicious and consistent. That's why we develop coffee blend recipes to ensure our wholesale partners are able to offer a flavour that is recognisable and repeatable.
As a specialty coffee roaster, our goal is to produce signature blends that provide a distinctive, complex flavour for our café partners to offer their customers. We have worked hard to develop a diverse and tasty lineup of coffee blends. All our blends come with a coffee blend recipe, which you can download from our website. The individual components of the blends are also listed on the website allowing users to see exactly what origins make up their favourite brew.
How do we develop a coffee blend?
This is where the teamwork, skill, experience and palate of the head roaster and team comes into play. Knowing how to blend coffee is a very distinctive skill. Different origins produce different characteristics and flavours, so it’s crucial to try and understand and balance them all. Brazilian coffee beans are renowned for their nutty and chocolaty flavours with mild acidity due to their processing techniques and terroir. Colombian coffees have clean citrus flavours with brighter acidity thanks to the common washed process technique and higher altitude plantations. Ethiopians are famous for their berry-like flavours including blueberry and strawberry, as well as floral notes like jasmine. In Australian cafes popular coffee blend examples are often a combination of Brazilian and Colombian coffees – try our Corcovado blend to get a taste of a Brazilian and Colombian coffee blend.
The process of identifying the right coffees to use in a blend is intense and elaborate as the objective for each coffee blend is different. Whether we’re trying to find the best coffee blend for milk-based beverages or experimenting with a new unique coffee blend for black coffee, the process remains the same. Usually the team of coffee professionals tests many samples from around the globe through a process that is known as ‘cupping’ to find the right flavour characteristics to combine and create the desired taste profile.
The next step is to arrive at the perfect percentages of each origin in the blend to optimise the complexity and distinctiveness of the blend. This is a process of trial and error and much slurping of coffee until the team settles on the best recipe. Once all of that has been completed, the team works together to bring the blend to life by giving it a coffee blend name and creative packaging.
what is coffee cupping?
Coffee cupping is the industry accepted way to practise and observe the tastes and aromas of brewed coffee. Coffees are usually lined up in cups on a table where different people use a spoon to slurp (or taste) coffee after the crema of the brewed coffee has been broken (more on this later).
The goal of coffee cupping is to level the playing field between different coffees. All coffees are brewed at the same time, using the same grind size and brew ratio to make it easier to identify the flavour characteristics of each coffee.
Cupping is used to provide insight into different coffees, and to help coffee roasters choose which coffees to use in their blends. It is a way for us to design and taste the blends we create. Apart from using it to design and taste blends, we believe that It is also a great way to learn more about how different roasting profiles, origins, processing methods and other factors affect the final flavour of a coffee blend.
How is coffee blended?
Now we’re getting into the nitty-gritty of the lengths we go to to bring extraordinary coffee experiences to our coffee drinkers. In order to understand how to blend coffee beans, it’s important to understand the different aspects involved in the whole process. Coffee beans are blended by mixing them gently (so as not to break the beans) but thoroughly together in a large purpose-built blender. The roaster follows a coffee blend recipe to ensure the correct beans are blended in the correct proportions. Thorough physical blending is important to ensure that the blend is correctly represented in every cup.
There are two ways of blending coffee: roasters can choose whether to pre-blend or post-blend their beans. This is important because it can make a difference to the flavour in your cup.
Pre-blending is when all green components (different coffees) are mixed together and roasted as a single batch. This is a quicker and cheaper way to roast coffee and is often used by large commercial roasters as it cuts out the step of post blending the beans. We’ve learnt that coffees tend to react differently when heat is applied depending on the density and moisture content, so some beans may end up over-developed and some under-developed if we roast them all together.
We are not saying that pre-blending is never appropriate. The chemical and physical aspects of a particular blend may in some cases lend itself to pre-blending and there is ongoing research and commentary on this subject.
Post-blending is when each green component is roasted individually to it’s own “sweet spot” and then blended afterwards. Each origin is respected for its own identity and care is taken to let it express its finest characteristics. The benefit of post blending is you have greater control over the final product. At Zest, All our blends are post-blended as we believe this achieves the cleanest and sweetest flavour profiles for our coffee blends and helps us achieve our goal of unique and delicious taste identities that all our patrons can rely on .
Specialty coffee vs commodity coffee
Not all coffee blends are created equally. Some blends consist of higher quality coffees that, because of their distinctive attributes, earn the categorisation of specialty coffee.
There are many attributes that are considered when grading and classifying a coffee, including the cupping score, the certification, the grade, physical appearance and number of defects in a given sample size. Even details such as whether the beans can be traced back to a particular farm, the flavour profile, and technical sensory terms such as balance, body and complexity in the cup are considered when classifying a coffee.
Peter Giuliano, Executive Director at Coffee Science Foundation, recently announced a progressive definition of specialty coffee on behalf of the Specialty Coffee Association: “Specialty coffee is a coffee or coffee experience that is recognised for its distinctive attributes, resulting in a higher value within the marketplace.”
In contrast, commodity coffee is coffee that has less distinctive attributes and is often produced at higher volumes with less attention to the detail.
At Zest, we only use specialty coffee to deliver our special blend coffees. From the Guatemala Santa Rosa used in our Libertango blend, to the Brazil Royal used in our Corcovado blend. We do not compromise on the quality of coffee we use in our blends. We go a step further by forming direct trade relationships with farmers and cooperatives in Peru, Brazil, Colombia, Panama and Ecuador. This assures us of a steady supply of high scoring specialty coffee beans so that we can roast consistent, dependable coffee blends.
Our goal is to show people that there is so much more to coffee than just the kick it gives you in the morning. We like to say "Education Brews Appreciation". The more we discover and understand about coffee, the more we appreciate this amazing beverage. Keep these things in mind the next time you are looking to buy coffee. And hey, it doesn’t hurt to try a little, so we encourage you to try something new and explore coffee flavour with us.