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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 the robustas.

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.

Personal Blending

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 prices.

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.

Blending Families

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 America coffee.
  • 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 processed Sulawesi.
  • 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.

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