Complexity in Blending
Ah, blending. I’ve been thinking about what angle to take on this for a long time, and finally settled on all of the angles. I have a LOT of love for blends. At their best, they’re one of the only truly creative things a roastery can do with their coffee. Equally, my sense is that they’re misunderstood by consumers, and misused by so many in the specialty industry in particular. We’ll be doing a week-long soak on this topic with several more articles to come, but this one is the primer that introduces my thoughts on how blending is often (sadly) done, and what blending can be at its best.
When I think about bad blending, first and foremost in my mind is old coffee. Most roasters have been here. You bought a lot of a particular coffee. You were trying to get a quantity-based price break from the importer, you were expecting growth in sales, or perhaps you lost a big customer… Maybe the coffee just didn’t age as well as you thought it would, or the importer wasn’t clear about arrival dates when they sold it to you. My very unscientific opinion is that somewhere around ⅔ of the blends you get from specialty roasters in the UK are hiding old coffee. Look, I may be especially sensitive to aging coffee from my days as a green buyer, but there’s nothing I hate more than that papery, cardboardy, bitter wet hay flavour of an old coffee in a spro. Blends very rarely hide it successfully… Sometimes as a roastery, you have to do what you have to do, but why is this so frequent?
A second similar problem is blending with coffee you overbought. I’ve seen house espresso blends with geishas, pink bourbons, etc. in them. It’s not necessarily that the coffee is getting old (although often it is), maybe you’re just struggling to shift it, or moving on to new and exciting things in the offer list. Again though, the reason the coffee is in the blend isn’t for the sake of creating a flavour profile… It’s to cover up a buying mistake.
Finally and most cynically, blending can be a way of hiding lower-grade or less traceable coffee. A blend of Brazil and Rwanda might be 70 percent Brazil to make it cheaper. Do they say something generic on the label like Brazil Cerrado or Colombia Narino? Often (not always) these are cheaper regional blends with lower price points and less traceability. Most cafes or consumers don’t have the time to research all of the coffee in a roasters’ blends, which is why we only blend with coffees that we also offer as single origins (with all the traceability easily found on our site).
Now that we’ve gotten those out of the way, let's look at blending as I believe it to be; one of the few true creative forms in the coffee industry.
First and foremost in my mind when blending is creating new flavours, or creating flavours that would normally be expensive at a more accessible price point. Sometimes when you blend, you collapse flavours. I’ll give you an example… a few months back, we were trying to prep a coffee for a WBC competitor recently, and we tried combining a hyper-processed 90 point natural with a floral washed gesha. Instead of the best of both coffees coming out to play, we collapsed the flavors of both and ended up with a flat, boring coffee with almost no acidity or interest. Alternatively, blending at its best is creating new mixes of flavours that you rarely if ever get otherwise. It’s not as simple as putting 2 or 3 delicious coffees together and getting a delicious coffee out… Blending actually requires creativity and lots and lots of tasting to expand the flavour profile and combine the high, medium, and low notes into a symphony. To use a whisky analogy, there’s a danged big difference between a home-brew infinity bottle and a Compass Box. One is a flat, dead whisky that just tastes vaguely of the loudest thing you put in it. The other is a specialist blending house that curates unique and award-winning melanges that result in combinations of flavours that would be rare for one distillery to achieve on their own. Our Stable or Deluxe create 85 and 87-point flavour and body combinations at prices that are far more friendly than would be typical of those scores.
Secondly, the honest truth is that blends are always going to be your top sellers as a roasterie. They’re typically the only coffees you have year-round, and lots of customers are drawn to a consistent flavor profile, and a name they can pronounce. This is why we feel like it’s supremely important to focus on vetting the coffees that go into our blends. If your ethical efforts are focused on your single origins, they’re never going to have the large-scale effect of buying ethically for your blends. All of our ‘blenders’ have a social purpose–just for example, the three coffees currently in our Stable blend: The Brazil Santa Rosa is from a carbon-neutral farm that pays workers well. The Acacia is from a project I set up in the past to buy lower-grade Ethiopian coffee, clean it up, and buy it for a higher price. The Villamaria natural is from a CIC owned coffee mill in Colombia that returns excess profits to producers. Additionally, all three of the coffees in this blend are naturally processed to reduce water waste in countries that struggle with drought.
Finally, and just as a teaser for more articles to come, all of our blends are deeply rooted in story. I strongly believe that as a blender you have to have a goal, and I also strongly believe that story and memory has its place in coffee. All of our blends are drawn from memories of spectacular coffee experiences in my past, and I think the pursuit of recreating those experiences translates in the cup. If I’m trying to recreate some of the best coffees I’ve had, isn’t that the goal for blending? Blending at it’s best is one of the few creative forms in the industry, and you have the unique opportunity to make blends that create flavours, carry memories, and do good for the earth and its inhabitants… It’s such a shame to throw away that opportunity on old, overbought, or untraceable coffee.