What is a Coffee Blend vs. Single Origin?

Every morning one of the first decisions I make is “What coffee am I going to brew with my Etkin Dripper? 

I typically am reaching for a single origin coffee from one of my favorite roasters. Whether it’s a bright and citric Kenya or a sweet and delicate El Salvador, I love the transparency of flavor single origin coffee offers. 

But a recent brew of Southern Weather from Onyx Coffee reminded me how a blend, when done well, can be more than the sum of its parts.  This brew had sweetness, acidity, body, complexity. There were some dark fruits and sugar browning notes. I thought I could detect some origin characteristics I associate with Ethiopia, but individual tasting notes took a back seat to an overall tasting experience. 

In short, it was exactly the sort of coffee I’m happy to start my day with. 

Why Blend? 

Blending coffee from different origins is practically as old as the coffee trade itself. As Augustine Sedgewick explains in his book Coffeeland, blending often was a way for coffee traders to obscure old or tainted coffee by mixing in some fresh crop. 

It goes without saying, the best specialty coffee roasters don’t use blending as a way to obscure past crop or faulty coffee. But blending can be a way to add a degree of complexity not found in individual components. 

Perhaps you have a washed Ethiopian coffee with delicate florals and bergamot-like fruits. While coffee nerds typically love these sorts of flavors, for some more traditional coffee drinkers, it might taste like Grandma’s perfume. The body might be thinner, and tea-like. Blending in a sweeter, fuller-bodied coffee with brown sugar notes— let’s say a washed Colombia— might be a good way to produce a more well-rounded cup. It turns out, the Southern Weather blend from Onyx is precisely that: a blend of washed coffees from Ethiopia and Colombia. 

Blending also offers roasters the chance to provide the customers with a consistent product. 

Coffee, like any other fruit, is seasonal. Most coffee producing countries only have one harvest a year. Thankfully, there are so many different countries producing coffee, each with its own geography and climate, so there’s always single origin coffee in season. 

But seasonality is still not widely understood by consumers, many of whom have preferred flavor profiles. This is where the blend comes in. 

A skilled roaster can switch out blend components as different coffees come in and out of season, even while maintaining the general flavor profile of a blend. Perhaps those sweet caramel notes are coming from a coffee from Papua New Guinea rather than Costa Rica, but the net result is the same. 

Everything is a blend. 

Years ago, I was talking to a sales rep at a major coffee importer. He explained that in many regions of Central and South America, if coffee from a single farmed failed to exceed a certain cupping score — say 86 points — it would be blended together with lots from other farms in the region. Interestingly, these regional blends would usually end up scoring higher after blending. Maybe one farm had a little more acidity, another one had a little more body, and so on. 

Although these regional lots would still be considered “single origin coffee” by most roasters, it reveals that every cup of coffee is a blend. 

It’s a blend of different screen sizes. Likely a blend of different varieties. It’s a blend of cherries picked at different ripeness levels. It’s a blend of coffee from different trees grown at different elevations. It turns out, that’s part of the beauty of coffee.  

So which coffee do you prefer to brew with your Etkin Dripper? Although I'm still reaching for a single origin coffee most mornings, I'm happy to brew a good blend from time to time as well.