Blends (particularly those designed for regular brewed coffee) have been out of fashion at the top end of in American specialty coffee for some time now – say for the last ten to fifteen years. The excitement has been focused on “single-origin” coffees, meaning coffees from a single growing region (the broadest definition), or (a more rigorous definition) from a single farm or co-op, or (most rigorously defined of all) from a single lot of coffee further selected by field, harvest time, botanical variety and/or processing method. Such “single-origin” coffees surprise us with their uniqueness and stretch coffee’s natural range of sensory expressiveness. They also offer aficionados a conceptual path back from the cup to the mill and the field, not to mention giving coffee reviewers something interesting to write about.
Single-origin coffees even have come to prevail in the espresso arena, where common wisdom has long argued that the espresso method’s tendency to intensify sensory characteristics calls for the restraint, completeness and balance best achieved by blending.
Given the potential for excitement and connoisseurship afforded by fine single-origin coffees, what reasons are there to continue to blend? In considering that question, let’s set aside marketing reasons, like creating and branding a proprietary blend that develops its own loyal following, or purely economic reasons, like cutting costs by blending cheaper, less distinctive, sometimes faded beans with more distinctive, expensive and fresher ones.
Sticking to more idealistic blending goals, the most idealistic of all is combining one or more coffees to create a new, striking sensory sensation that has never existed before in quite the same way. Some of the twenty-eight blends we tested for this article appeared to be aimed at that lofty goal, although two of the best took inspiration from a very traditional source: the world’s oldest blend, the ancient Mocha-Java. Both the top-scoring, 94-rated Modern Times Black House and the 92-rated Paradise Coffee Romance by Paradise combined a distinguished traditionally processed Sumatra in place of the original Java with a “natural” or dried-in-the-fruit coffee from southern Ethiopia in place of the original Yemen Mocha.
The Black House was an exceptional example of this pairing, fusing an apparent deep-toned resonance from the Sumatra with a lively juicy presence from the cleanly fruity natural Ethiopia. The similar Mocha-Java-themed Romance by Paradise was a bit darker roasted, and the general structure of the cup drier, brisker and more pungent, with attractive baker’s chocolate and tartly sweet grapefruit notes.
The whimsically named Don Pepe’s Excellent Adventure from Temple Coffee (93) ambitiously combined a sort of junior-varsity version of the rare, expensive Gesha/Geisha variety of Arabica (tagged “Baby Geisha” because it was produced from still-not-mature Geisha trees) with a presumably grown-up dried-in-the-fruit Ethiopia, a very good one, the Boke Ethiopia Grade 1 Natural. The Gesha makes its fragrant floral, cocoa and sandalwood presence felt, though rather timidly. But approached with patience, a subtly intricate blend, dry yet sweet, briskly floral, quietly exotic. Those who like bitters-based cocktails may particularly enjoy it.
The Geisha Coffee Roasters Naturals Special Blend (90) doubled down on dried-in-the-fruit coffees, roasting them rather dark to net a chewy, syrupy cup that lacked vivacity but impressed with sheer weight and presence.
Aiming at the Agreeable
Most of the other blends we tested did not seem to be aiming at creating something striking or remarkable, however. Rather, the goal seemed to be softening and rounding individuality, creating a sensory profile that most coffee drinkers will find attractive, yet almost none will find off-putting or offensive. Remember that many single-origin coffees can be startling in their intensity or individuality. One can imagine a casual coffee drinker innocently buying a very high-grown Kenya or Colombia, for example, and ending shocked or even physically disturbed by their bright, acidy intensity. Or feeling bewildered and put off by the perfumy floral notes of a wet-processed Yirgacheffe, or baffled by the fruit-and-brandy character of a dried-in-the-fruit Central America or Ethiopia.
This second, quite legitimate goal – the creation of an attractive profile that will please nearly everyone while offending almost no one – seemed to motivate the designers of the majority of the twenty-eight blends we tested for this article. The best of these blends generated a pleasing though rather predictable profile: medium- or light-roasted, balanced, with a crisp but softly or delicately bright acidity, satisfying sweetness, lightly viscous mouthfeel (satiny or silky) and a clean though quiet finish. There were engaging differences among these deftly middle-ground productions, but subtle differences.
For example, the GivCoffee Sari’s Backyard blend (92; composed of three Africa coffees), was sweet and hinted at a layered complexity; the Roast House Ride the Edge blend (91) showed distinct floral and sweet citrus nuance. The Tony’s Homestead Blend, the PT’s Flatlander Signature Blend, the Reunion Island Reserve Blend (all at 91), were all in their respective ways gentle, sweet-toned and balanced; you could say the Tony’s showed some sweet citrus and baker’s chocolate, the Flatlander a surprisingly elegant floral top note we decided to call violet, and the Reunion Island Reserve showed, well, just fine balance and a clean, straightforward coffee expression.
The Summer Factor?
It occurred to us that the delicate, balanced, sweetly-bright-but-not-too-bright tendency among many of the best of these blends may owe something to the season. It is summer, after all, at least it is here in the States and in East Asia where these blends were created, and a remarkable number of them invited descriptors like refreshing, summery or meadowy.
Too, some of these blends may be year-round staple offerings designed around building stability throughout the changing seasons of the coffee year rather than making distinct seasonal statements. They may be designed to balance southern hemisphere, summer-harvested coffees with northern hemisphere, winter-harvested coffees, for example. In these cases, again, balance and the relative absence of distinction or strong gestures can be read as a sign of success at maintaining the difficult goal of year-round consistency.
The nine blends we review here, of course, were among the best of the twenty-eight we tested. (Altogether, fourteen of the twenty-eight scored 90 or better.) We also slogged through blends that would best be described as neutral or muted rather than balanced, plus a couple of others that came close to missing the good coffee boat entirely owing to some shadow taint or mild roasting fault. In these cases perhaps the business reasons behind blending I cited earlier were in play: Roasters were getting rid of faded coffees that were hanging around the warehouse too long, or cutting costs with bargain green coffees.