Some of the worlds most expensive, and arguably best, coffee come from a single place in the world. This is what is known as single origin coffee.
Although the coffee being referred to above isn’t the Kopi Luwak, the rare Vietnamese weasel coffee, which is made by collecting coffee beans eaten by wild civets and sells for between $100 and $500 per pound; Single original coffee can get expensive too.
Anyway, that’s a little too single origin for our purposes here.
The general public at large probably thinks that single origin translates to better coffee whereas blends are a technique for disposing of bad beans. This is not totally true though.
So you might be wondering why it’s so difficult to walk into your favorite cafe and see a single origin roast in the drip dispenser. That’s where blends come in.
Your single origin coffee might not always have to be retrieved from Vietnamese weasel feces, but coffee roasters are often concerned with delivering a product that will meet the public demand.
This translates to a coffee with a good mouthfeel, like a Brazilian roast, but those tend to lack aroma. So the roaster will blend with Columbian beans. If the profile is still lacking, let’s say the aftertaste isn’t up to par, then Mexican Altura beans can be added, for instance. This creates a blend that checks all the boxes for the broad public or possibly the ever scrutinous coffee fanatic.
Such is the plight of the coffee roaster.
Roasters are trying to optimize their selection and offer coffee that can satisfy the masses and aim for balance. It can be difficult to acquire single origin coffees that might meet those standards in every season.
That said, many roasters will tout their skill by taking a single origin batch and bring out the best qualities of the bean. Additionally, marketing a single origin product is easy because true coffee connoisseurs are always on the lookout. After all, it feels good to know exactly where your coffee is coming from.
Single origin can be labeled by region, farm, or even as specific as micro lot coffees, these derive from a single field on a farm.
There are an infinite amount of blends available to create and use, which can give the beginner the very daunting task of figuring out where to start and what bean is best. There are some beans that are great for different tastes, and others that are good for nothing and best avoided.
Single Origin Coffees
Single origin beans are, quite literally, those coming all from the same place.
There are Arabica beans and Robustas, with the Arabica being the highest quality and Robusta being the cheaper of the two.
Single origin beans are great if you can get good ones and afford the price of these, but with coffee like all plants, their fruits change quickly and a good bean one season may well be not so great the next.
Single origin beans are great when good but they can lack consistency season to season, and this makes the buying of beans a little tricky. If you want to buy single origin coffee beans, get them from a knowledgeable coffee shop or coffee bean roaster, and ask your salesperson which beans are good for the type of coffee you want to make.
Does your local coffee shop sell coffee brewed in a Chemex or Aeropress? If so chances are they know a thing or two about the origin of their beans.
Are Single Origin Coffee Beans Better?
It is not necessarily true that the most expensive beans are always the best, so if they always seem to point you towards the most expensive varieties, maybe you should try somewhere else.
Single origin can be thought of as an outlet for the adventurous. This is a way to get burnt, if you’re coffee is too hot or if you’re wallet is getting shallow in the process. Ultimately, single origin coffee will allow one to hone their pallet to a very specific flavor profile.
So what’s all the fuss about? Not only are you going to be able to develop a taste for elevation, region, but perhaps you can notice the change of the farm itself.
The word coffee come from the arabic word, “qahhwat-al-bun” said to mean: wine of the bean.
Like wine, coffee beans vary year to year. Still, the bag of beans you pickup from your roaster isn’t likely to read ‘Arabica Vintage 2011″. It’s important to understand that even coffee from the same region or even as specific as the farm will vary based on how the weather treated the crop that year.
What are Blends and Why Use Them?
With blends, you avoid some of the inconsistency, because the use of different varieties of bean masks the inferiority of one kind, and you can mix blends to create the desired balance. As there is no one bean which is good all the time, the flexibility of a blend is something to celebrate.
Some coffee brands, such as Starbucks or McDonalds just to name a couple big players, want to keep their branded blends to a similar taste all the time and by mixing different beans and roasts together they can achieve a high level of consistency (whether you consistently like it or consistently don’t).
It is also true, however, that blends are often high quality beans mixed with low quality ones to keep costs down. This is a bit of a disappointment but when you consider the price of a single blend top quality coffee, sometimes a little bit of lower quality coffee is a good thing. Otherwise, if you’re drinking a lot of coffee, you may find yourself needing to remortgage to keep up with the cost of the good stuff.
What Makes Coffee Beans Different?
The glossary on coffee can be difficult to understand, and some experts would argue that the terms aren’t always applicable or even definitive enough. Still, if you’re searching for a single origin coffee then you’ll want to know some of the crucial lingo.
- Origin of the Bean: Most of the worlds bet coffee is argued to come from ‘The Coffee Belt’, an equatorial band that most certainly lends it’s optimum growing season to the character of the bean. Knowing where your coffee originated from lends insight into the quality of the grow. If you’re searching for a floral coffee or maybe something on the earthy side, than that will help you determine where you want your coffee to be grown.
- Farm to Cup: Obviously the more transparent the farming operation, the better. When roasters have a clear picture of where and how the coffee was grown, it is easy to understand the value. This is where we start to see labeling such as ‘Fair Trade’,’Rain Forest Alliance Certified’ or ‘Organic’. While some of these terms can be used loosely when labelling, it is another consideration in how your coffee came to be.
- Optimum Elevation: As coffee beans develop during the growing season, the elevation can have an interesting effect on the way they taste and exhibit qualities. For instance, it can be generalized that the higher the origin the harder the bean. Harder beans contain more sugars and produce the more desired robust and nuanced flavors. This has to due with the air quality and moisture that higher elevation beans are exposed to.Drainage of water on mountainsides mean better development of sugars. Also, fewer diseased plants survive at high elevation and thus contribute to a healthier crop over time. It’s important to note that some countries desire different elevations:
- below 2,500 ft. beans will feature soft, mild, simple, and neutral qualities
- around 3,000 ft. beans will be slightly sweet and a smooth finish
- around 4,000 ft. beans will start to take on complex qualities, such as citrus, chocolate, or nut-like taste.
- above 5,000 ft. beans start to earn spicy, floral, or fruity character that can be extremely sought after.
Arabica Vs. Robusta
Although there are over ten thousand varietals, the two main varieties that are widely prominent are: Coffea Arabica and Coffea Canephora, which is more commonly known as Coffea Robusta. These two variations are also important to note for those seeking a caffeine fix. Robusta is typically a stronger caffeine concentration at 1.8 – 4.0%, while Arabica is lighter and less caffeine at 0.9-1.4%.
You can use any coffee bean to make any kind of coffee, but it is the Arabica single origin blends to look for if you’re making anything, Robusta beans tend toward bitterness and while they have the occasional place in blended coffee, they are not recommended for single origin coffee.
Their use is usually reserved for instant coffee, and here we won’t speak of such terrible things.
Variations in Coffee Species
Just like wine made from different kinds of grapes, coffee also features a variety that contribute to polar flavor profiles. So it’s easy to differentiate the noted major kinds:
- Bourbon: This is one for the experienced AND novice palette. Taste notes often tend toward smooth, rich, and bold. These plants tend to be more fragile and of few numbers. These beans are grown at some of the highest elevations, around 6,000 to 7,000 ft.
- Columbian: This is a very common kind of coffee, you’ve probably seen cans of it everywhere at grocery stores. This is due to the fact that it’s quite disease resistant, making a small farm favorite. More notes of sweetness and cherry also contribute to the popularity.
- Ethiopian: Descending from wild coffee plants in the mountainside forests of Ethiopia, this variety is truly unique to each farm that produces it. As they’ve been cared for over decades and decades the elevation, soil, and weather has shaped their flavor profiles.
- Typica: The name might not sound so appealing, yet this is the a kind of coffee perfected over centuries of genetic variation. Coming from the Arabica family you can guess what this coffee is meant for. Quality coffee with excellent taste and mouthfeel, and less of a caffeine delivery.
- Java: These are the high quality beans from Central America. Tolerant to major diseases, and a common product for small farms. It’s commonality lends itself to why Java has become such a colloquial word for coffee.
Obviously there are an absolutely astounding number of varieties out there. Trying them all would be a daunting task, but if you’re going single origin then perhaps it would be easy to at least start differentiating them and experiencing the variety of beans.
How To Judge A Coffee Plant
Some coffee experts pride themselves on judging the plant itself. Sure, people might be so obsessed that traveling to the actual origin of the bean itself is necessary.
If you were to visit a coffee plantation for a tour there are a few things you might try to lookout for.
- Coffee Leaf Rust: Experts judge coffee plants by many factors and susceptibility to leaf rust is a glaring characteristic of a crop about to be lost. the rust-like character is caused by a fungus that causes loss of leaves and limbs.
- Coffee Berry Disease: Another fungal infection of the plant, this affects the berry and is quite serious, however this is a disease that hasn’t spread toward South America, while it has been observed in other countries.
- Nematodes: These critters infect the ground soil and spread disease throughout crops, sometimes wiping out everything in it’s path. Though they exist in great number just about everywhere on earth, many plants develop a resistance to them and do just fine. Thus, it is important to know what varieties of coffee are more resistant to them. The extra caffeine can protect the plants from pests because caffeine is a powerful anti-microbial agent.
- Quality Potential at High Altitude: What is the potential for quality of this plant variety when it’s grown at higher altitudes? For instance, you might be getting a plant that produces great beans, but understanding how well is it going to grow at an certain altitude is key.
- Year of First Production: Again we reference wine. Some coffee plants might be late to fruit, it could take several years to see a good return on the crop.
Is There More to Good Coffee than just Beans?
As with all coffee, there is a lot more to it than the beans, you can make or break your drink in the grind, roast or the technique used to make it too. If your coffee is not fresh that will change the flavor too, so while all this information is worth bearing in mind, there is magic in the art of coffee-making which doesn’t come across in all the science.
Scientists currently are developing theories about micro-fungi call mycotoxins. These are spores that are found growing on coffee plants without obvious signs of pathogenicity, or invade the coffee crops after harvest and produce toxins during drying and storage.
There are even coffee companies that have moved away from beans entirely to focus on brewing coffee from mushrooms. The tasting panel is still out on that one though.
Everything in the process of growing, storing, roasting, and brewing is able to be scrutinized. Maybe you’re just on the beginning of the journey to an optimal brew, but the extra effort will pay off. You can read everything there is to read on the subject and still fail to make good coffee, it takes trial and error and a whole lot of practice, but it is certainly worth the effort.
You don’t want to be stuck with that same pot of Folgers your whole life, right?
Experiment with blends and single origin to further broaden your palette and find your favorite ways to enjoy a brew.