Blends have been around for a long time. In the old days it was how coffee roasting companies got low quality, cheap coffee into the market. Nowadays, we say that they're about something different. We say that blends are a way to be more consistent. Or that they deliver flavour profiles that are more suited to espresso.
More recently, we've seen the introduction of ‘filter blends’ and I’m feeling like things may have gone too far.
Let’s have a look at the common justifications for blending coffee.
It’s about consistency.
Essentially, roasting coffee is about two things. Developing flavour and ensuring that the coffee is soluble enough. It’s a balancing act, and you need both elements.
If we blend three coffees, we will have a blend that gives up it's good stuff at three different rates during the brewing process. Unless we roast them all to be similarly soluble of course. In which case we’re choosing to deprioritise flavour instead.
If each shot is made of 100 beans, what are the chances that we’ll get the 50:30:20 ratio promised on the bag every single time we hit the button on the grinder?
It’s about a flavour profile that’s better suited to espresso.
Hmm. I mean personal preference is a big factor here, but I’ve never bought into this idea. I can see how by mixing two poor coffees together, you may be able to create something that is less poor. That is quite different though to the notion of a blend being ‘better’ for espresso than a single origin coffee.
Why do we so rarely see the blend components for sale in their own right on the roasters' website? I would suggest it’s because the coffees are not up to scratch. They can’t stand alongside other single origins and hold their own. The blend may be greater than the sum of its parts but only because the parts aren’t good enough to sell individually.
So, what is actually going on?
Why has the speciality coffee industry continued with blends? Were they not part of the ‘second wave’ that we should have all been happy to see the back of? My sense is that there are two broad themes.
The wholesale coffee market is ultra-competitive. Coffee shops feel that they can pay no more than £x for their coffee. There is always a roaster who will undercut the competition to bag a new account. This can create a ‘race to the bottom’ approach.
Anyone roasting ‘to a price’ will find the appeal of a blend difficult to resist. Much cheaper beans, mixed together to make something half decent.
Blends are something that the roaster can get behind from a marketing perspective. They give their blends names. They create different blends at different price points. Blends give their customers the sense that the roaster is ‘curating’ the coffee for them. Using their expertise to create something unique and special.
There may also be a group of customers that struggle to make choices. They want to know that they are buying the ‘right’ coffee for how they like to brew.
We are doing our customers, coffee shops and ourselves (as roasters) a disservice.
Our customers can negotiate our offerings for themselves. As long as we do a good enough job of communicating with them about what they can expect when they buy our coffee. Espresso is no different to anything else. People have their preferences. It's up to us to help them find those coffees that they will enjoy the most.
Speciality coffee shop margins are under unrelenting pressure and cheaper coffee undeniably helps with that. The risk though is that a lot of shops end up with a fairly generic espresso offering and then struggle to differentiate themselves.
Roasters are spending too much time working with substandard coffee, which is depressing. I’m certain that most would love to spend less time and energy on blends.
What should we do about it?
Three things come to mind.
Espresso blends are an enticing option for an industry that doesn’t charge enough for its product. In the short term at least, pressures on margins are only going to increase.
The per shot cost difference between a £10/kg coffee and a £20/kg coffee is less than 20p. Increasing prices allows us to offer our customers a true speciality experience. We need to stop worrying so much about staying competitive with the commodity crowd. Customers will pay more for better coffee.
If that’s too scary, here is a small step that coffee shops could take. Give your customers a choice. Continue with the ‘house espresso’ but offer a more premium option too. Charge that extra 20p for it (or a bit more to cover the cost of the extra grinder you’re going to need). It’s an easy way to test the water.
It’s like the ‘house red’ in your favourite Italian restaurant. If that’s all they have, you're missing out.
If you’re excited about your coffee, your customers will be too. It might surprise you how many will gladly pay a bit more for something better. You're also more likely to stand out from the crowd.
Blends are something that speciality coffee has inherited. I hope we can shake them off and move on. They are too big a part of our industry. Holding on to them is holding us back.
It troubles me to talk to colleagues and friends in the industry that are forced to focus so heavily on price in a business that is supposed to be all about quality.
Filter blends? Please everyone, stop. Stop selling them, stop buying them, stop drinking them. There are farmers, roasters and whole communities putting huge effort into producing excellent coffee. When we make filter coffee, surely this is the coffee we should be drinking.
What do you think? It would be good if this could be the start of a healthy conversation. Let us know your thoughts on Twitter.