In the world of scotch whisky, the term “single malt” has a very special meaning, one that is often revered (perhaps to a fault) by both those in and out of the know. For better or for worse, the term has become synonymous with quality. The reverence attached to it is sort of silly; there are many fine blended scotch whiskies as well. But the distinction associated with being known as a single malt persists.
The coffee world has its own special signifiers as well. One of these is “single origin coffee,” something you can purchase from many high-end coffee shops and premium roasters. It’s a term that has a certain amount of cache as well, but what does it really mean? I talked to representatives from several different coffee companies about it to determine exactly how much value we should give to the term “single origin,” what its real meaning is, and what difference it makes as far as the flavor in your cup.
What exactly is single origin coffee?
“’Single origin’ is insisting that the producers and terroir of the coffee drive the sale, not the roaster,” says Charlie Habegger, Blue Bottle Coffee’s green coffee buyer. “It’s a broad term that sellers use for coffees of an intentionally specific place that are meant to evoke a sense of place through flavor.” According to Habegger, the place in question can be many things – a farming cooperative, a particular plot or farm, or even a specific period of picking the coffee beans. Illy master barista Giorgio Milos and Grounds & Hounds Coffee Co. founder Jordan Karcher have thoughts on what the term refers to as well. “The simplest way to define the term… is coffee beans that come from a specific… country (Ethiopia, Brazil, Costa Rica, etc.),” says Milos. “The region can range from a country (i.e. single origin Ethiopian) to a sub-appellation (i.e single origin Ethiopian Yirgacheffe), and all the way down to a single lot on a farm,” explains Karcher (whose company gives 20% of its earnings away to dog charities).
How does “single origin” translate to quality, the way in which the coffee is sourced, and pricing?
It’s a complicated answer to a multi-faceted question, but what it boils down to is that just because coffee is called single origin doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s of a higher quality. “As in any food industry, the product (coffee in this case) could be high or low quality, according on the agriculture practices and the after-harvesting processes,” says Milos. An important point is that by calling a coffee single origin, the understanding is that there will be some level of transparency as to where the coffee was grown and how it was processed. “Regarding price, you tend to pay a premium for single origin coffees,” says Karcher, “as most boutique roasters who offer single origin beans do so with the intent to provide the best representation of coffee from a specific region, farm, etc.”
Blue Bottle’s Habegger likens the process of a coffee company sourcing single origin coffee to being able to inspect every berry in a basket of strawberries for quality. “Imagine… making one small bowl of only the ripest, reddest, softest strawberries,” he says. “You might get something dramatically sweeter, floral, or more syrupy tasting than the average. You could avoid a lower denominator by isolating only the most compelling, successful strawberries. And for the people interested in connecting with something selective like this, this would be worth a much higher price.” The same goes for coffee.
So is single origin coffee better than a blend?
Karcher talks about what he calls “single origin loyalists,” people who think blends are inferior, but he believes that the two categories serve different purposes. “For the blend, we are focusing on creating a consistent, multi-dimensional coffee experience,” he says. “With single origin coffee, we focus on emphasizing flavors and characteristics offered by the appellation (and processing method) itself.”
Habegger describes how blends have traditionally been the most popular product in the marketplace as coffee was for a long time a commodity instead of a luxury. “Traditionally, the act of blending allowed companies to mask flaws, keep their products consistent, and keep prices balanced for large volumes over long periods of time,” he says. But Blue Bottle treats its blends with the same respect it would give to a single origin coffee, as the company highlights the skills of both its roasters and cuppers. “Blends begin as a creative idea and a way to celebrate a particular theme or flavor set in coffee, and then we seek out the exact terroirs and producers that are providing this year after year and partner with them.”
Also, a blend is going to be made better by the quality of components that are used in it. If high quality single origin coffee is used in the blend, the resulting product will be tastier and of a higher caliber. “Unfortunately, many coffee roasters use mediocre-low quality beans for their blends. That’s why people think that a single origin is better quality,” says Illy’s Milos. “Coffee lovers tend to get the same coffee (a blend they like that has a consistent taste) regularly, and try something new (single origin) on occasion. Single origin coffee is not consistent; like in wine, every season is different and the product is different as well.”
Of course, the best way to understand the nuances of single origin coffee is to try it. So here are some recommendations of single origin coffee from each of these purveyors to try for yourself.
Sumatra Takengon Mahara is a microlot from the Mahara coop in Aceh where we buy coffee for the blends. I was visiting them last year and the coffee we were drinking on the farms was spectacular, and I found out a small group had decided to pick more selectively as an experiment. We penciled out a business plan that afternoon for a picking schedule to get enough coffee of this technique for Blue Bottle to sell. The result was shipped in the same container with our all-coop lot that is currently in Giant Steps and Bella Donovan (blends). The Mahara microlot is sold separately.
Myanmar Shan State Kyauk Kuu Pyin is a coffee produced by one very small village in southern Shan State. Their coffee this year was distinctly tart and tangy, and we’re air-shipping a small amount to the US direct from Myanmar so we can serve it months ahead of the rest of our shipment. This will be a first taste of Burmese coffee for almost every one of our customers, which makes me very happy, because it is wonderful.
Costa Rica Regulo de Rivas is a single-family farm in Rivas, near San Isidro de El General, Costa Rica. Blue Bottle has bought from the Ureña family for three years now, and they pick, process, and mill all entirely on their own small family land. We will sample each individual plot from the farm, all with different elevations and varieties of coffee, and will combine plots together for the best possible representation of their farm. Then they mill and blend on the property, pack the container, and it ships directly to us. And we often have far less than a full container to ship, but we happily pay the extra cost because it allows them to work completely independently of other exporters, and not have to agonize over possible delays during harvest time. Their coffee is caramel-y and juicy in tactile with some lovely tropical fruit notes.—Charlie Habegger
Illy has a line of nine different single origin coffees that represent the nine ingredients of the legendary illy blend. The single origin coffees provide coffee lovers with a better understanding of how a blend is created and illy achieves the distinctive taste and flavor profile of its proprietary blend. The most popular single origin is the one from Brazil – Cerrado Mineiro. It is also the one we recommend for cold brew preparation. Its beautiful dark chocolate notes are highlighted by the cold preparation. My favorite of the nine single origin is the Guatemala – Huehuetenango for its sweetness, caramel/honey notes and a clean sweet after taste. The most distinct out of all nine is Ethiopia – Yirgacheffe for its harmony of aromas with jasmine and lavender floral notes.—Giorgio Milos
Our line of single origin coffee ranges from full-bodied, savory beans from Papua New Guinea, to crisp beans from Ethiopia. During the warm summer months, I’m a sucker for the bright, floral notes of an Ethiopian Yirgacheffe pour-over. On a slow Saturday morning, I can’t pass up a French press of our single origin Mexican Chiapas. The bean has incredible natural sweetness, complimented by hints of milk chocolate and cherry. We currently offer five single origin coffees (Mexican Chiapas, Ethiopian Yirgacheffe, Papua New Guinea, Colombia, and Peru), and each will provide a unique sipping experience.—Jordan Karcher