FUNDAMENTAL #3 - Blending



Balance I learned a great deal about coffee and the art of blending from my mentor Alfred Peet.  He was a tough and serious teacher who didn’t appreciate superfluous adjectives tied to coffee descriptions. Alfred had little patience for nonsense and was a big proponent of blending with balance.  A well-balanced blend has a singular yet complex flavor.  You may be able to pick out a component in a blend, but the overall taste is one not found in any single coffee, and no flavor dominates.  If a blend I created didn’t hit the mark, Alfred would shake his head, point at the cup say “this one’s kicking under the sheets.”  As a child in Holland, he explained, he shared a bed with siblings and when they didn’t get along, there was kicking under the sheets – just like the battle among incompatible coffees in a bad blend.

Creativity Once they learned to identify quality, specialty coffee roasters in the U.S. could always find great single-origin coffees – there was little demand in the market, and coffee brokers looking to grow their business saw the fledgling roasters like Peet’s, Starbucks, and Coffee Connection as high-potential customers.  Due partly to Alfred’s influence, blending coffees became a legitimate expression of coffee goodness.  Truly anyone willing to pay could buy as much complex, cocoa-y Guatemala Antigua as they could ever hope to sell.  Buying that Guatemala, however, and combining it with other washed coffees and perhaps a bit of big, earthy coffee from Indonesia requires a certain amount of creativity – as well as a depth of knowledge about how flavors combine to create a stellar, differentiated taste. 

Blending at Fundamental Coffee Company

Several years ago I spent about two years getting a Sommelier certificate from an internationally accredited organization called the ISG (International Sommelier Guild). The wine world is full of active and often arcane dialog on the merits of a mélange (blend) versus a single type of grape to showcase the taste of a place (terroir.) The one thing I recall vividly is that virtually everything is about blending in wine from grapes permitted in certain regional AOC’s like Chateauneuf- du- Pape to the specific parcels of land within a given vineyard even growing the same grape. Blending is about balancing specific attributes achieving a harmonious balance.

However, we’re here to talk about coffee where interestingly enough, a similar discussion has been taking place for years. Most roasters offer both blends and unblended, single-origin coffees. This isn’t a right-or-wrong debate, or at least it probably shouldn’t be, given coffee’s long history. 

So there are two important points I’d like to make on this subject.  I feel strongly about these.

  1. Blending is not a copout.  Many of the so-called “Third Wave” roasters all but apologize for even offering blends.  (On one Web site, a roaster has a category called “Blends and Decaf” – clearly not an endorsement of blends!)  The idea is out there that blending is just a trick to hide inferior beans and drive costs out of a finished product. While this may be true for some larger commercial roasters or even once-small national specialty coffee chains, at Fundamental, we blend to showcase great-tasting coffee and to highlight what the various origins contribute. We’re not building these blends with the hope that slipping in enough lower quality “coffee x” is fine because people just won’t notice. This philosophy of blending is insulting to me and astonishingly common in the industry.
  2. Some matches are made in hell. The other thing I’ve seen a lot of lately –most recently at the SCAA trade show this past April – is the practice of blending complex single-origin coffees --apparently based on the belief that there cannot be too much of a good thing, or perhaps the result of not following conventional wisdom. The result is blends that exist along a continuum of woe – at best confusing, and at worst, an insult to all the component coffees.  One example of this is a natural Ethiopia with blueberry and cocoa notes blended with a middle-of-the-road Brazil, thought by many to be an important part of any good espresso blend.  Each has its own merits, but together, they just don’t work. 

To put it another way just because you can doesn’t mean you should. Yes, I might like the acidy bright notes of a Kenya coffee and I like the earthy spicy notes of a Sumatra but they don’t really taste good together. At least not to our palates. I know an Australian winemaker who sells a sparkling Shiraz/Cabernet blend. It’s a lovely example of people being too cute. Our blends lead with honesty and respect for the countries and farmers who participated in making them great coffees. 

Scott McMartinComment