The upside of blending coffees is the possibility of creating a coffee with more range and complexity than can be displayed by a coffee from a single crop or origin. The downside is the potential loss of idiosyncrasy or distinctiveness, the danger of creating a boring muddle rather than a complex symphony.
Although only one of the twelve blends reviewed here struck me as a full-on symphonic masterwork, all are impressive coffee compositions. Furthermore, all are distinctive, and distinctive in ways that appear to reflect the craft and intention of the blender rather than the givens of the component coffees themselves.
Roasters generously submitted over twenty-five blends for this cupping. Of the twelve I chose to review, four are bright, medium-roasted "morning blends," seven are medium to moderately darker-roasted blends, and two are blends of two different roast styles.
Morning blends ranged from the giddily floral- and fruit-toned Pride of the Andes blend from Neighbors Coffee, to the dry, bordering-on-astringent Eastern Carolina Morning Blend from Classic Coffees, to Caribou Coffee's grandly classic Daybreak Morning Blend with its intense acidity, voluptuous sweetness, and complex nuance.
The Dark-Roast Contenders
Given the challenges of dark-roasting - particularly the ease with which careless roasting can burn the sugars in the bean rather than richly caramelizing them - the quality and variety of the darker-roasted blends submitted for this cupping were impressive. It is true that a couple of the twenty-five-plus submitted blends were burned, but most were not, and those that were not nicely showcased the pungent yet caramelly character that attracts coffee drinkers to these darker roast styles.
Blending is particularly important with coffees brought to darker roasts. Since individual coffees begin to simplify and lose their distinctiveness when roasted darker (Kenya becomes a bit less Kenya-like, Antigua a bit less Antigua-like), blending offers the possibility of compensating for this loss by combining coffees that, despite the simplifying impact of the dark roast, preserve enough character individually to collectively create a distinctive, nuanced cup.
Which is exactly what the six darker-roasted blends reviewed here accomplished. They displayed something extra, a bonus, whether the roasted nut tones of the Café Moto Dolphin Blend, the earthy character of the PJ's Viennese Blend, or the floral and sweet-ferment fruit notes of the Solstice Blend from Intelligentsia Coffee Roasters.
An Achilles Aftertaste
Despite their overall success, several of the blends displayed a bitterness in the aftertaste. It's axiomatic among coffee professionals that the last impression a coffee leaves with the coffee drinker is the most important impression. In other words, a really fine coffee should preserve its character and quality even after it has cooled. Furthermore, hot or cold, it should leave us with an aftertaste that persists on the palate with satisfying resonance as the caffeine simultaneously begins to light up our nervous system.
All of the reviewed blends were quite satisfying in the cup when hot, but a handful faded to a thin astringency or bitterness toward the finish. I introduce the term "thin" very deliberately, because the two Café Moto blends, both big, full-bodied, moderately dark-roasted coffees, finished bitterly but also richly and ruggedly. In other words, I'm distinguishing between a rich, full bitterness that some coffee drinkers, particularly those who take their coffee with milk, may enjoy, and a thin, listless bitterness.
Read the Fine Print
The issue of different kinds of bitter finish leads to the unresolvable issue of the relativity of taste. I need to regularly remind readers that simply buying the highest rated coffee in any given cupping can lead to disappointment. The Caribou Sunrise Morning Blend is, from a classic coffee perspective, by far the finest coffee in the cupping: powerful, without shadow or fault, acidity perfectly balanced by sweetness, as delicious cold as it is when hot. But many coffee drinkers may find the Caribou blend too challenging, too acidy. They may prefer a coffee with the rich bittersweetness of a good dark roast. Or a lighter roasted coffee with a natural sweetness and subdued acidity, like Alan's Blend from Polly's Gourmet Coffee, or the sweet, balanced completeness of Coffee Roasters of Pasadena's Chuck Roast. Still others may prefer a coffee that teases with an odd or ambiguous edge - that incorporates the sweet taste of fermented fruit, for example, or earth tones.
It is true that a couple of the coffees I received for this cupping (not reviewed here) were outright bad by any standard. But the twelve coffees I did review are all winners in their own way, and, if you take the time to read the fine print, possibly in yours as well.