As more people have been working from home over the past year, coffee drinkers have had a chance to explore coffees apart from their usual Starbucks. Home baristas are digging into specialty coffee, grinding their own beans and making cold brew, Japanese iced coffee, espresso and pour-overs in their own kitchens. As a result, they’re realizing there’s a whole unfamiliar world of coffee beans out there ― one of which is single-origin coffee.
Most third-wave specialty coffee companies offer both single-origins and blends, but what’s the difference between them and what should you be buying and drinking?
What is single-origin coffee, anyway?
Essentially, single-origin coffee comes from a single producer, crop or region in one country.
“Single-origins are small lots and typically, depending on how granular you get, single-origin can be from a single country or region, and you can go all the way down to as granular as a specific lot size, which would be a small section of a [coffee] farm where they’re growing one specific type of coffee,” explained Jeremy Brooks, Verve Coffee Roasters’ head of sourcing and green coffee buying.
“Single-origins really do highlight the terroir of a specific place — so how the coffee tastes in that place,” Brooks added. “Single-origins are typically very expressive of the country where they’re purchased from. [Anecdotally], Ethiopian single-origin coffee is like eating a peach. Whereas with blends, we can play around and position them in a way that actually gives you a little bit more of a dynamic range: Instead of having a peach, you have a peach cobbler.”
Most blends contain single-origins, but the difference comes from how a coffee roaster will build a flavor profile. “We’re taking coffees that maybe have one attribute of chocolate or plum and then you’re building something in order to bring a coffee to a customer that would allow them to experience it in a certain way,” Brooks explained.
Which tastes better: single-origins or blends?
“I think there is a time and place for everything,” Brooks said. “Early on in my coffee career, I was a die-hard single-origin maker. I would only drink single-origins. As I developed my coffee career and I’ve also become closer to the sourcing and roasting side, I now understand the value in both. They both play an important role in sourcing and the supply-chain side of how we support farmers and kind of what you want to taste. Like anything in your life, it depends on your mood.”
“Blends are a way that roasters communicate a vibe or something about themselves, something signature,” Talitha Clemons, owner of the Oklahoma City-based mobile coffee company Bright Vibe Coffee and a coffee taster competitor, told HuffPost. “Maybe they want to create something that will remind folks of time around a fire or of holidays. When you taste a blend called Fireside, Sweater Weather or Tropical Weather, you are in a frame of mind to let that coffee take you to a place or a moment or memory, rather than focusing so much on given tasting notes. What is difficult for me is that a blend can contain multiple coffees and you may get some information about the regions the coffee comes from, but the level of transparency changes.”
Veronica P. Grimm is the founder of Glitter Cat Barista, an inclusive organization focused on helping minority groups become baristas and providing them resources to compete in coffee competitions. Grimm prefers to work with blends in these competitions because it balances the coffee with more depth. “Basically, [it’s] like having a soprano and a bass in a choir,” she said. “When they are in harmony it is beautiful.” Despite preferring blends over single-origins in the field, Grimm likes to drink single-origins. “Blends bring together something magical in a cup of coffee,” she said. “But blending coffee takes work and on a daily basis I like to just enjoy what I’m drinking without too much thought.”
While both single-origins and blends will appeal to different types of coffee drinkers, Brooks said some people complain about how acidic or sour single-origins can taste. “It is a little bit more of a unique flavor profile that you have to grow to love,” he said. “Sometimes people can take that as a negative. On the reverse, some people can say that blended coffees are boring, they don’t have any flavor at all, that you have to put milk and sugar in them just to make them taste good.”
Clemons points out that just because a blend might not taste like a single-origin, the blend’s quality isn’t necessarily inferior. “Blends can be really tasty,” she said. “I am all for adding sugar and milk if and when you want it, but feeling the need to add something to coffees like milk or sugar because something it is lacking can have more to do with that coffee not hitting the notes you hoped it would.”
Brooks recommends that single-origins are best made with paper filter pour-overs, or a Chemex. As for blends, “If you’re looking for something with more body and you’re wanting the coffee to showcase a little bit more of that blend traditional flavor profile, using a drip pot or doing a French press is really good with blends,” he advised.
Single-origin costs a bit more than blends
During the pandemic, Verve saw an increase in online sales, with single-origins outpacing blends ― Brooks thinks more at-home brewers are curious about specialty coffees. But single-origins tend to cost more than blends — Verve’s single-origins cost about $5 more than its blends, at an average of about $21 per bag — but customers are willing to pay the higher price points.
Clemons said she has seen good single-origins priced for $11-$12 a bag. “I think that people should drink the coffee that they can afford. Things are rough and there are folks who love to drink several cups of coffee throughout the day. I say just buy the best coffee that you can buy,” she added.
For novice single-origin drinkers, Brooks recommends they start with mild Latin America coffees from Costa Rica and Colombia. “They tend to be inherently sweet and really approachable,” he said. “As you progress, you can get into some of the more exotic profiles, getting into Africa, especially East Africa.”
Whether you buy single-origin or a blend, here’s why you should always look into where your coffee is sourced
As both Brooks and Clemons stated, the most important part of buying any coffee is the ethical practices of the company. “I would love it if people drank more coffee that is sourced ethically from roasters who practice direct trade, safe and equitable work environments for employees, and who bring us tasty coffees,” Clemons said. “There is a need for wage transparency, racial equity, access and so much more in the industry as a whole.”
Brooks echoed similar thoughts. “Whenever you’re really looking to buy coffee, you’re really looking at the underlying missions and values of the people who are buying the coffee and the coffee that you’re drinking,” he said. “If there’s a coffee company that’s buying really amazing blends and they’re paying their farmers really well, and they’re making a blend and that’s your approach, I think as long as you’re buying the coffee you know is supporting the long-term sustainability of the coffee industry as a whole, then you’re doing your part. If some coffee companies are really doing that just through their single-origins, then I think you should buy single-origins. But if they’re doing it through their entire buying philosophy, with their blends through their single-origins, I think it’s perfectly fine to buy from either side.”
The bottom line: Give new coffees a chance
Changing one’s coffee palate takes time, and a big part of that is education. “I think a lot of people are like, ‘This is weird. I’m out. I’ll just go back to whatever I was doing before,’” Brooks said. “I think once you start understanding it, you start to appreciate it because you realize this is intentional. This doesn’t just taste this way by accident — they’ve actually done something to make it taste this way, and that’s really cool. I think that once people start taking the time to learn about the coffee — the processes and the growing — and they learn about how complex it can be, they start to appreciate it.”