To Blend or Not to Blend

April 12, 2015

This post is an exploration of Blending: why businesses blend coffee, why I believe some roasters choose to blend, and why others don't. I also suggest why blending has a bad rep within the Specialty Industry.

For a very long time "coffee" was a blend by default. Some businesses have their own namesake as a blend, many larger businesses have consistent year-round blends, and more recently, specialty businesses have been favouring the seasonal blend.

Blends are shrouded in mystery by many roasters. It’s a dark art, practised by legendary roast masters who claim it cannot be taught. They keep the percentages a secret, and some don’t even write the recipe down lest it be copied! I find this pretty ridiculous and frankly, masturbatory. Many roasters can’t roast a coffee with perfect consistency week to week. This makes the thought of copying a blend well enough to be a commercial threat rather farfetched.

There’s a few reasons why a coffee company will make a blend. Usually, it’s correlated to the size of the business; the economies of scale it affords and the consistency at volume it demands. I do acknowledge that some companies sit between or across some of the categories below. Just take this as a general guide to the economies of their main blend rather than the business as a whole.

Large Scale Roasters

Probably not focused on serving high grade specialty customers: Illy, Starbucks.

Large scale roasters need a consistent product in gargantuan volumes. To keep some semblance of consistency, they buy a constant stream of many coffees and blend them together to mitigate change. Seasonality is less of a concern because there are enough coffees and flexibility in the blend to buffer any seasonal changes in flavour. The downside of this method is the lack of transparency and character displayed by the blend components. To be honest, in a blend of 8 components, it really doesn’t matter how floral that Yirgacheffe is.

That said, it’s truly incredible just how consistent some of these blends are. The logistical and commercial demands placed upon the professionals developing them are mind boggling, and my hat goes off to them.

Medium Scale Roasters

Serving mostly specialty focused customers: Intelligentsia, Blue Bottle, Sensory Lab.

Medium scale roasters will generally create blends that are as consistent as possible without sacrificing the “voice” of the components or seasonality. This means they might choose 2-4 countries for a blend and stick to them throughout the year. If they’re smart, those countries will have two crops per year, or a widely dispersed crop time. This means the blend can contain fresh coffees all year round without changing flavour too drastically. It also provides them with some wiggle room to adjust the blend ratios without losing transparency of flavour. For example, at Sensory Lab and St Ali, we have a blend called Steadfast that is always Brazilian and Colombian. We utilise the main and fly crops of Colombia and the varied harvest times of Brazil to keep it incredibly consistent.

Small Scale Roasters

Almost definitely serving specialty customers: Heart Coffee, Square Mile, Market Lane Coffee.

Small scale roasters will, nearly by default, create blends that are quite variable and seasonal. A great number of Specialty roasters name their mainstay blend the "Seasonal Blend” and others will have an offering that includes a consistent blend, as above, alongside a seasonal blend that’s more variable. This rapidly changing blend happens for a few reasons depending on the business.

Some will explain that coffee is inherently seasonal and that they want to celebrate that by offering a constantly changing blend according to what’s the freshest. This is the best-case scenario. Others are just bowing to the pressure of small-volume coffee buying. Without many economies of scale or a strong cash flow, it’s in one’s favour to buy a lot of smaller lots more regularly (not to mention that the highest quality coffee almost always comes in small lots anyway). Buying a container of Brazil would sink many a small roaster, so the oft-changing blend is sometimes preferred.

A constantly changing seasonal blend is great, but makes for an inconsistent product. Some might think of the constantly changing Seasonal Blend as a carefully crafted experience - and it can be - but for a lot of roasters it’s a commercial necessity rather than a luxury. It's often the case that a roaster's blend will include the waste or "buffer" inventory of the business. As the most popular product the blend can be a great way to sell coffees that are getting long in the tooth or under-performing on their own. Although it may not always hurt the quality of the Blend (it might be a great coffee that just isn't selling well!) it does damage the integrity and original intent of the business to sell one.

So that’s the why roasters blend from a rather commercial standpoint. But why do some roasters choose blending while others stay entirely away?

Pro Blending

Blending is often touted as a way to make a product greater than the sum of its parts. From this standpoint, blending allows coffees to hide their faults and show their strengths. I believe this is often just wishful thinking. If you blend one thin, acidic coffee, and one rich and sweet coffee, you don’t magically get a juicy rounded cup. You get a coffee that’s a bit acidic, a bit sweet and has a mouthfeel somewhere between thin and rich. Blending doesn’t just hide the negatives and bring out the positives, it puts everything together and dilutes those qualities according to the ratio.

Some go so far as to say that a single origin/estate/microlot coffee will never taste good on its own and must be blended to taste great (with the aggressive improvements towards coffee quality in recent years this opinion is certainly less popular). I definitely don’t agree with this, but I will happily admit that blends can - occasionally - taste significantly better than their components. This is rare, and involves a great deal of skill, but it's far from impossible.

Anti Blending

Others have gone so far as to stop blending altogether; notably Tim Wendelboe in Oslo and The Barn in Berlin. I believe the prevailing argument here is that the coffees being bought are incredibly complex, unique and special, so blending them would only serve to diminish their qualities. I think this is a noble and just cause - their coffees are indeed special - but I’m not convinced that this is the best course of action for the industry at large.

I don't believe the majority of coffee-drinking customers are quite ready to appreciate and understand why roasters have suddenly dropped blends from their offering. Blends still hold a special place in customer's hearts; they're the flag-bearer for the business; the gateway to the rest of your offering. Don't get me wrong: I'm definitely a strong advocate for exposing customers to unique and special coffees. I'm just wary of how we go about that as an industry.

Tony Konecny, founder of Tonx Coffee (recently acquired by Blue Bottle Coffee) wrote a great piece on blends here. He wears the different hats of purist, cynic, master and optimist quite well. Check it out for another perspective on these matters.

The Real Dark Art of Blending

I can see why a lot of roasters and baristas don’t like blends. Quite often they’re a disappointing representation of the coffees within. You take a chocolaty Brazilian and a juicy Kenyan, put them together and you get a powdery, dry, sour blend. But why? Shouldn’t you get fruity chocolate?! No. Not unless you understand solubility and how it plays a part in blending

If you have ever tasted the components of a blend separately, and then together as a blend, you may have noticed that the blend tastes nothing like the best of its components. In fact, it tastes like the worst of them. This is because the coffees have differing solubilities. Please, allow me to explain.

Back in my post on Talking about Roasts I mentioned that a developed roast makes a coffee more soluble. In other words, it allows water to permeate its structure and dissolve its flavour. Unfortunately, solubility isn't a yes/no situation. There are many shades of solubility, and every coffee is a little different.

Think of an aeropress with 6g of a very soluble coffee (A) and 6g of another coffee that's less soluble (B). From the moment you add water, those two coffees will extract at different rates. Let's stop the brew at different points and check in to see what those coffees will taste like.

2:00 - A will be powering towards a full extraction, beginning to produce some nice sweetness and roundness. B will be struggling to keep up, and is still very under-extracted. To combat that sourness you let the brew go on.

3:00 A is starting to taste a bit over extracted. B is only beginning to taste good, and needs more time.

4:00. A is well over-extracted and, finally, B is tasting great! ... Damn.

At no point during that brew did both of the coffees taste their best. No matter how skilled you are as a barista, the brews you make of this blend will always be a compromise. There is, quite literally, nothing you can do to fix that. The best you can do is to stop the brew around 2:30-3:00 where neither coffee is aggressively under- or over-extracted.

[Some call this mix of roast flavour "melange" and strive for it as a desirable characteristic. Just like over and under-extraction being boring, generic and definitively 'non-specialty' flavours, this mix of roast flavour has less to do with the coffees used and more to do with the varying levels of extraction created because of it.]

I'm about to throw out a very personal opinion that many won't agree with.

If a roaster isn't fastidiously matching the solubility of every component in a blend it will never taste great. There's nothing anyone can do to fix it. Once blended, varying solubilities of coffee will always be extracted differently and will taste muddled or incoherent. I really, really dislike blends with varying levels of solubility and extraction. I will not waver on this one. It's game over for me.

When adjusting the ratio of coffees in a blend with varying solubilities, you're not adjusting the intensity of each coffee's flavour. You're actually adjusting how disparate their extractions will be. A sobering thought.

I know of a few companies that measure and match the solubility of their blend components. It's also really difficult to manipulate roasts according to that kind of information. I have a very strong suspicion that this is the root cause of why many specialty coffee professionals don't like blends. It's not the blending itself, it's a result of blending coffees with differing solubilities.

When performing quality control on blends for Sensory Lab, I've been blown away by just how much better things are when the solubilities are matched. It's night and day. When mismatched, the blend will taste jumbled and confused; it'll be a big mix of under-, ideal- and over-extraction. When matched, every coffee can be easily identified. None of the components are hidden or diminished by the presence of the others, they just all exist peacefully side by side. It's magical.

So if you've been sitting in the anti-blending camp, maybe give it another go. Talk to your roaster and understand a little more about the solubility of the components in a blend. Maybe ask for some of your blend components to taste individually, and play around with different ratios.

After all that talk about magical blends I can't leave you hanging. Here are three examples of blends (geographically dispersed to avoid postal pains) that I know are definitely solubility matched. Maybe order some and give blending another chance. See if you can taste the individual components all at once, rather than a boring old melange!

Square Mile's Sweet Shop is, continuously, a wonderful expression of seasonality and vibrancy. Right now it's a mix of Aida Batlle's Kilimanjaro (washed) and a Yirgacheffe.

Heart Coffee's Stereo is a treat. I love the concept of 50:50 as a fixed blend ratio, and right now it has two Ethiopians; Schilcho and Reko. #rekosuave

Sensory Lab's Seamless is on point right now. One of my all-time favourite Colombians is the majority, followed by a soft Panamanian and a sprinkle of rich Brazil.

Have an opinion about blends? Completely disagree with me? Great! Let's chat below.

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