Blends and Blending: Introduction
Since blending is the ultimate proof of coffee
expertise, and since it gives consumers a chance to participate
in the creation of their own pleasure, specialty coffee customers
often blend their own coffees. The only drawback to such a rewarding
practice is impatience: Consumers may decide to begin blending
coffees before they know enough to do it right, and sellers may
get frustrated if they have to stop to make a blend of five coffees
for a customer when there are ten more customers waiting in line.
But few storekeepers will object if they feel the customer is
really blending, rather than just showing off or demanding attention.
Different roasts, coffees with different caffeine
contents, or single-origin coffees from different countries can
be blended. One of the more common practices is to blend dark
and light roasts to maximize the complexity of roast taste. Another
reason to blend is to cut caffeine content. If you drink only
decaffeinated coffee, you may get bored, since specialty shops
carry a limited number of caffeine-free coffees. An excellent
compromise is to blend a caffeine-free coffee with your favorite
single-origin coffees, thus cutting your caffeine intake while
fulfilling your sense of coffee adventure.
Blending Different Origins
The art of blending coffees from a variety of
origins brought to approximately the same degree of roast is a
subtler business, but hardly difficult once the basic principles
are understood. Blenders who work for large commercial coffee
companies need to be highly skilled because their goals are more
complex than our simple efforts to blend a coffee that suits us
better than would a single-origin coffee taken alone. The commercial
blender blends to cut costs while maintaining something resembling
quality, and wants to assemble a blend with consistent taste even
though the single-origin coffees that make up the blend may differ.
Certain coffees are not always available; some coffees may be
cheaper than others at certain times of the year, and so on. But
in an economy dominated by highly advertised brand names, the
blend has to taste more or less the same every time. So blenders
may find themselves amid a shifting kaleidoscope of prices and
availabilities, constantly juggling coffees in an attempt to keep
the taste the same and the cost down.
A good commercial blend may take an acidy, aromatic
coffee such as a Colombia, Costa Rica, or Mexico and combines
it with a decent grade of Brazil coffee to cut costs, plus some
bland robustas to cut costs still more and add body. If it is
a premium blend, the blender might combine more than one quality
coffee with the Brazil: a rich, full-bodied coffee to balance
a bright, acidy coffee, for instance. Low-cost blends might decrease
the proportion of high-grown and Brazil coffees and make up the
difference with robusta. The cheapest blends eliminate the high-grown
coffee entirely and simply combine a decent grade of Brazil with
With blends found in specialty-coffee stores,
the blender's main goal is to produce a distinctive and consistent
coffee, rather than simply to cut costs. A typical specialty roaster
may have only one blend, a house blend, or a dozen for all pocketbooks,
tastes, brewing methods, and times of day. Some larger specialty
roasters, like their commercial counterparts, also may blend for
price, although (one hopes) with less urgency and compromise.
Coffee lovers who create their own blends have
less to consider than either commercial or speciality blenders.
They should not have to worry too much about consistency, and
they cannot use blending to bring the price down much, since most
single-origin coffees sold through specialty stores are already
premium coffees with premium prices. Blending for price would
be like trying to save money by cutting caviar with truffles.
Commercial coffee concerns can save money on their blends because
they are able to buy large quantities of cheap coffee at bargain
So you will be blending for taste. The way to
go about this is simple: Combine coffees that complement one another
with qualities the others lack. The world's oldest and most famous
blend, for instance, combines Yemen Mocha and Java. Part of the
reason for its fame is tradition. The blend originated when Mocha
and Java were the only coffees the world knew. Nevertheless, it
embodies the sound principle of balancing extremes or complements.
Yemen is an acidy, fruity, winy coffee; Java is rounder and deeper-toned.
Together they make a coffee that is both less and more -- less
striking and distinctive, but more balanced and comprehensive.
The first, pleasurable task in assembling a personal
blend is to learn to taste coffee attentively, to distinguish
acidity, body, and flavor and some of the more individual quirks:
the floral tones of Ethiopia wet-processed coffees, the pungent
tones of Sumatras, the dry fruit tones of Kenya. You should also
know what qualities you prefer in a coffee and what to blend for.
You may simply want an all-around coffee with the best of all
worlds, or a heavy, mellow coffee with only a little acidy brightness,
or a brisk, light coffee with plenty of body as well.
Always proceed the same way. If you have a favorite
coffee that seems to lack something, combine it with a coffee
that provides what your favorite lacks.
- For brightness, briskness, and acidity, add
a Costa Rica, Colombia, Guatemala, or any high-grown Central
- For body and richness, add a dry-processed
Brazil Santos or estate coffee or a good Sumatra Mandheling.
- For body and sweetness, add a dry-processed
Brazil Santos or a high grade India.
- For flavor and aroma, add a Kenya, Guatemala,
New Guinea, Yemen Mocha, or Zimbabwe.
- To add aromatic intrigue at the top of the
profile, add an Ethiopia Yirgacheffe or Kenya. To add complexity
near the bottom of the profile add a Sumatra Mandheling or traditionally
- To add wine or fruit notes, make the acidy/highlight
coffee a Yemen, an Ethiopia Harrar, or a Kenya.
The only real mistake you can make blending is
to combine two coffees that are distinctive or extreme in the
same way. Two coffees with similar bright, winy acidity, such
as a Kenya and a Zimbabwe, might produce a pointless blend. On
the other hand, coffees such as Brazil Santos are so congenially
understated that they get along with everything. Others, such
as Yemen Mocha, wet-processed Ethiopias and most good Central
America coffees, are like easy going individualists who manage
to mix with almost everybody, yet still maintain their distinction.
Blending with Chicory
Dark-roast coffee is sometimes blended with chicory,
particularly in northern France, parts of Asia, and the southern
United States. Chicory is an easily grown, disease-resistant relative
of the dandelion. The young leaves, when used for salad, are called
endive. The root resembles the dandelion root and, when dried,
roasted, and ground, produces a deep brown, full-bodied, almost
syrupy beverage that has a bitter peppery tang and does not taste
at all like coffee. In fact, it tastes as if someone put pepper
in your herbal tea mixture. It is almost impossible to drink black;
sweetened with milk, it makes a fairly satisfying hot beverage,
though it leaves a bitter, cloying aftertaste.
According to Heinrick Jacob in Coffee: The Epic
of a Commodity, some Germans first exploited the use of chicory
as a coffee substitute around 1770. The Germans adopted chicory
because it lacked caffeine and (possibly most importantly) because
it eluded the tariffs imposed on such foreign luxuries as coffee.
Jacob describes the trademark on eighteenth-century packets of
chicory: "A German farmer sowing chicory seed, and waving
away ships freighted with coffee beans. Beneath was the legend:
"Without you, healthy and rich." But it was under Napoleon's
Continental System, a reverse blockade aimed at cutting England
off from its European markets and making conquered Europe self-
sufficient, that chicory came into its own. The French developed
the sugar beet to replace sugarcane, but the chicory root was
the best they could come up with for coffee. It was not much of
a substitute, since it has neither caffeine nor the aromatic oils
of coffee. After the collapse of the Napoleonic empire, most of
the French went back to coffee, but some never totally lost their
taste for chicory.