Sweet Maria's Home Coffee Roasting

Blending Coffee: Espresso Blending, Dark Roast Blending, Filter-Drip Blending

Update 3/16/09 - see below

Blending Basics

Coffees from different origins are blended together for several reasons. Presumably the goal is to make a coffee that is higher in cup quality than any of the ingredients individually. But high quality arabica coffee should be able to stand alone; it should have good clean flavor, good aromatics, body and aftertaste. So one reason coffees are blended in the commercial world might be the use of lower-quality coffee in the blend. Another reason might be to create a proprietary or signature blend that leads consumers to equate a particular coffee profile with a particular brand image; consumers don't often call Starbucks by the origin names used in the coffee but simply as "a cup of Starbucks" as if the dark carbony roast tastes were somehow exclusive to that brand. Coffees are also blended to attain consistency from crop year to year. This is done with major brands that do not want to be dependent on any specific origin flavor so they can source coffee from the least expensive sources. Such blends generally reduce all the coffees included to the lowest common denominator. But let's put aside the less-than-noble reasons that coffee is blended and focus on details that concern the quality-oriented roaster.

Before blending any high-quality coffees you should know the flavors of the individual coffees and have some goal for an ideal cup that cannot be attained by a single origin or single degree of roast. It would be a shame to blend a fantastic Estate coffee ...after all, you are supposedly trying to attain a cup that exceeds the components and its not likely you can do this with top coffees. And given that you have both a reason to a blend and a logical process for doing it, there will be little need for more than around 5 coffees in the blend. Blends with more than 5 coffees are considered to be fanciful, or indulgent, or confused by more than a few expert coffee tradespeople I know.

The Case Not to Blend

While blending requires the expert skill of knowing each ingredient coffee, having a clear cup profile as the goal in mind, and knowing how to achieve it, blends should not be considered a "higher" form of coffee by any standard. As indicated above, the opposite case is often true. For me personally there is much more satisfaction in enjoying single-origin and estate coffees roasted to their peak of flavor. In my opinion, even a so-so single-farm coffee is more intriguing than a blended cup ...even if the blend is admittedly superior! Why? Because when I taste an unblended coffee it is the end result of a long road from crop to cup, without any one person deciding what I will be experiencing. While I enjoy that cup, I like to think about that process, and it informs my opinion about that region or that specific farm. I enjoy feeling connected to the origin of the coffee and the process in this way...

Blending Before or After Roasting

I get a lot of questions about blending before or after roasting ...which is better? Well, if you have an established blend it certainly is easier to blend the coffee green and roast it together. If you are experimenting with blend ingredients and percentages you will want to pre-roast each separately so you can experiment with variations without having to make a new roast with each change. The case for roasting coffees individually is strong with the Melange type blend (see below) and with a handful of particular coffees, such as Robusta in espresso blends. Some coffees are more dense, or have extreme size variations. These will roast differently than standard wet-processed arabicas. All dry-processed arabicas require roasting to a slightly higher degree of temperature. But in most cases the coffees can be roasted together and I would advise this: roast the coffee together until you encounter a situation where the results are disappointing and for success you must roast them separately. Every coffee roasts a bit differently but there is a great deal of averaging that occurs between coffees in the roast chamber, especially in drum roast systems. And then there's the coffees that do not roast evenly as single origins either: Yemeni, Ethiopian DP coffees, etc. Uneven roast color is not a defect, and only when it occurs in a wet-processed arabica that should roast to an even color (and sometimes not even in this case) is it of any consequence.

Blending for Filter-Drip Brewing: the Melange

One of the most compelling reasons to blend coffee is the Melange. This is a blend of coffees roasted to different degrees of roast, so they must be roasted individually. In particular, you may want the carbony flavors of a dark roast but also want the acidy snap of a lighter roasted Kenya or Central American coffee.

Here's an idea for a blend that has dark roasts flavors, good body, and an acidy snap to it:

  • 40% Colombian Tuluni roasted Full City -to preserve body (var. other Colombian, Nicaragua La Illusion, or perhaps Brazil Monte Carmelo)
  • 30% Mexican Tres Flechas roasted French -for sharp, carbony flavors (var. other Mexican)
  • 30% Kenya Estate roasted City -for bright acidy snap (var. bright Costa Rican or other Central American)

If you want a Melange that has good body, good bittersweet flavors, but still has acidity, and without the carbony flavors:

  • 60% Colombian roasted Full City
  • 40% Kenya or bright Central American roasted City

With a really good Central American that has nice balance, acidity and body, you can even blend two roasts of the same coffee with each other:

  • 60% Colombian Tuluni, or Nicaragua La Illusion, etc. roasted Full City +
  • 40% of the same coffee roasted City, just past the finish of first crack.

Our association trade shows are a great place to taste popular blends that are showcased by bigger roasters (they pay to serve their coffee between seminars) and taste what some roasters consider as benchmark quality blends. At the 1998 Specialty Coffee Assoc. (SCAA) trade show in Philadelphia it was amazing how many Melange blends that feature 30%-40% Kenya for acidy snap were put forth. It's an easy way to create dimension in the cup, and highlight acidity against the depth of bittersweet roast tastes and better mouthfeel (body) than Kenyas normally exhibit.


Blending for Filter-Drip Brewing: the Mokha-Java Blend

It is provocative to contemplate the fact that blending is as old as domesticated coffee production itself. The full body, low-toned Java from Dutch estates was combined with the medium-bodied, enzymatic (floral-fruity), more acidic Mokha coffees from day one it seems. Was it only done by habit? Or was it done to improve taste, the fact that the two complimented each other and resulted in a more complex cup than either provided by itself? With the crude roasting and brewing devices of the time, isn't it amazing that they could taste the improved complexity of the Mokha-Java blend! It's not difficult to take 2 excellent coffees and make a decent blend from them. Much commercial blending occurs to improve the "cup quality" of a coffee made from soft, uninspiring coffees or defective coffees.

Mocha-Java can be interpreted literally, with Yemen Mokha and estate Java as the constituents. Or, as is usually the case, it is a blend of some Indonesian coffee (Sumatra or Sulawesi) with either a Ethiopian or Yemeni coffee. They are commonly blended in equal parts 50-50, or with a little bias like 40-45 African, 55-60 Indonesian.

  • Harar (or other Dry Processed Ethiopian) 50%, Java 50% brought to a City Roast (last dry stage before oil appears): Excellent delicate version of the Mokha-Java blend, with a wonderful floral aroma, fruity acidity, and a medium-full body. Java is the cleanest Indonesian coffee we offer, and the most nuanced. This is a superbly complex cup, that alternates between its low tones and the fragrant high notes.
  • Harar (or other Dry Processed Ethiopian) 50%, Sumatra 50% brought to a deep Full City roast: A more aggressive Mokha-Java, with a deeper, fuller body, and more earthiness in the bass notes. The roast's bittersweet adds to the complexity, and reduces the lovely Harar acidity somewhat.
  • Harar (or other Dry Processed Ethiopian) 50%, Sulawesi Toraja 50% : The cleaner taste of the Sulawesi vs. the more aggressive Mandheling results in a better, more focused blend. Sulawesi provides a better backdrop to the Hair's enzymatic flowery aromatics.
  • Yemen 25%, Sulawesi Toraja 75%: By far the best Mokha-Java blend, the Mattari is a great coffee to use almost as a spice ...it is so powerful that straight roasts of it can be a little "too much" for me. The Sulawesi provides a syrupy body and deep tones, the Yemen just sits atop that and adds berry-like fruitiness and intense aromatics.
  • Ethiopian Djimma 15%/Harar 35% (basically two dry-processed Ethiopians blended), Sumatra 50%: Less acidy and bright and more chocolate and earth. It swings the blend in that direction...

    *** In early 2009 we retired our Puro Scuro blend - and short of giving away the recipe - the Puro Scuro was essentially a modified Mocha Java blend. Follow the comments above for the Harar/Sumatra approach to Mocha Java.

Espresso Blends

In general, the goal of espresso blending differs from the goal of filter coffee blends (and some may argue that there are blends specific for French Press brewing or for serving with cream/milk). Filter coffees may be blended for complexity or for balance, but an espresso blend usually must be blended for balance or particular varietal qualities that would be favorable in a filter coffee brew might overwhelm the espresso extract.

Most espresso blends are based on one or several high quality Brazil arabicas, some washed, some dry-processed. They often involve some African coffees for winey acidity or enzymatic flowery /fruitiness, or a high grown Central American for a cleaner acidity.

Dry processed coffees are responsible for the attractive crema on the cup, among other mechanical factors in the extraction process. Wet-processed Central Americans add positive aromatic qualities. Robustas, or coffea canephora, are used in cheaper blends to increase body and produce crema and in a few decent blends. They add crema and a particular bite to the cup. The notion that true "continental"espresso blends have Robusta. Nonsense! In fact the coffee samples from small Italian roasters I have (in green form) appear to be very mild, sweet blends with about 40% Brazil Dry-process, 40% Colombian and 20%+ Centrals, like Guatemalan. For bite and earthiness you can use a DP Ethiopian like Sidamo or Djimma. Its fun to play with Robusta but I personally don't like it too much beyond experimentation and I personally don't enjoy having more caffeine in my coffee than is necessary,

A Colombian-based espresso blend offers a sharper, sweeter flavor but won't result in as much crema production. Here are a couple interesting espresso blends we have fooled around with.

Either you can blend by the seat of your pants (not recommended) or make your process of establishing the coffees and the percentages logical. Start by developing the base, the backdrop in terms of flavor and a coffee that provides the kind of body, roast flavor and crema you like. I suggest Brazils, although Colombian or Mexican are viable options.

Practice roasting this base coffee to different degrees of roast, and pulling straight shots of espresso. Get familiar with this cup and imagine what you would like to improve in it (because if you find it just fine as is, then you have no need to continue!)

  • Do you want it to be sharper and sweeter, with more aromatics: perhaps you will want to add Central American coffees. Watch out with percentages above 25%, particularly if you like a lighter espresso roast. You will be losing some crema and body.
  • Do you want more body and sweetness: use a clean Indonesian like a Sulawesi or a premium Sumatra. You will be losing some sharpness. You can go up to 50% with one of these ...heck, they are nice at 100%!
  • Do you want an earthy aggressive bite and more pungency: try a dry-processed Ethiopian. Harar is brighter and more aromatic with fruitiness and ferment. Sidamo has great pungency in the darker roasts, fruitier in the lighter roasts. Djimma is not so fruity and less bright but adds earthiness. These produce great crema. I often enjoy straight shots of these coffees, but keep it to 25% or so in most blends.
  • Do you want spicy pungency: try a Yemeni coffee. These add ferment too, and great crema. I keep this to 50% or less (normally 25% or so) in blends.
  • Do you want extreme bite: try an Aged coffee, a Monsooned coffee (Indian or better yet the Sulawesi Rantepao) or Robusta. Aged coffees and Monsooned add certain funky tastes that you will love, or perhaps hate. You just have to give them a try to find out but that is part of the fun. Robusta --- I would not go there unless you have too. I personally do not like the added caffeine they bring. They increase crema, but you also need to keep them below 20% in the blend, I personally never go above 15% with them. The Monsooned Robusta can get up to 25% it seems...

    PLEASE NOTE: We "retired" Classic Italian Espresso Blend in late 2008, as we decided to start our Espresso Workshop limited edition blends. I liked Classic Italian blend, but don't get excited about it the way I do about the new blends. After all, it's a rather didactic premise; to demonstrate what Italian espresso would be like if it was local and freshly roasted. But espresso has changed a lot in the last 5 years, and there are new flavor models for great espresso rather than constantly referring to Italian types. Anyway, this is a very simple blend, as it should be. It is dominated by Brazilian coffee, but which? We chose 50% of a clean dry-process coffee (not fruity, not a Poco Fundo type natural) and 50% of a pulp natural (avoiding ones with too much acidity, like our fine Carmo de Minas coffees). Then there is a Central America component to add structure and some articulation; we greatly prefer a balanced El Salvador coffee of Bourbon cultivar here, such as the Matalapa Estate. Again, avoid acidity and chose a coffee that is balanced. There are balanced Guatemalas that work well too. Finally, there is the Robusta! It MUST be a clean washed type robusta that cups well on it's own. These are NOT easy to find, and are often more expensive than arabicas. We relied on India parchment robustas for this.

    The recipe:
  • 70% Brazil (a blend of a clean dry-processed coffee and a pulped natural one, see notes above)
  • 15% Central America (El Salvador bourbon or balanced Guatemala for instance)
  • 15% Robusta (clean, washed)

There you have it, the "Open Source" code for Classic Italian. Not that complicated, eh? Well, it comes down to a lot of work selecting the right coffees to optimize the cup quality and maintain consistency. That is the hard part my friends. If you want to build this blend yourself, just avoid sharp acidic coffees, avoid fruity coffees, and look for restrained, balanced flavor profiles. It will turn out well if you do ... -Tom

 

Arabica vs. Robusta? Arabica coffees (that means every coffee we sell except those at the VERY end of our list under the Premium Robusta heading) produce a fine crema, with good aromatics, and a lighter brown-yellow color. Robusta coffees (from the species coffea canefora) make a greater volume of crema, but it has larger "bubbles" and dissipates faster. Robusta has about 2x the caffeine of arabica, 2.2 to 2.4% compared to 1.1 to 1.3% in arabica. It can have a very rubbery-medicinal flavor when there is too much in the espresso blend. At a low percentage, 10% to 15%, it delivers a nice bite and it's negative features can be minimized.

What coffees won't I use in espresso? Kenyas are just too much acid for my purposes. Other East Africans don't make any sense to me either. They are really filter-drip or press-pot coffee to me. Washed Indonesians could certainly be used but they are not adding as much to crema, and they are not going to lend the sweet aromatics of a Central American, so what's the point? Island coffees: Why?

There's a lot of ways to achieve great espresso. Its fun to experiment and I don't know if there is some terminal point where you achieve the perfect trans-subjective espresso. These recommendations reflect my biases, of course.


Some Blends I Like

I would recommend you try our Sweet Maria's Espresso Monkey Blend to see what you think. It will definitely give you a basis for comparison. The Malabar Gold blend is a very exotic pre-blended espresso, and if thats what you like you might want to look into Aged coffees and Robustas for your own blends, and obviously you would want to be using Indian Monsooned Malabar. The Moka Kadir is a very fruity-winey North African and Yemen blend. So these three span the gamut of blends and can give youi a good idea what direction to take with your own blend. Many people also buy my Espresso Money blend and modify it by, for example, adding 15% robusta or adding 25% Aged coffee.

Here's a great starter blend for a sweeter, cleaner espresso. The absence of North African or Yemeni coffee takes out a little bite from the cup and possibly some lurking fruity ferment flavor. this is, as noted above, a sweet blend used at a street level roasterie/caffe in Rome. They use a Guatemala Antigua for the Central:

  • 50% Brazil Dry-process
  • 25% Colombian Wet-process
  • 25% Guatemala or other brighter Central American

I don't think Colombians really pull their weight in a blend (though many people use them as a base or part of their blends), and like using some Sumatra better:

  • 50% Brazil Cerrado Dry-process
  • 25% Guatemala or other bright Central American
  • 25% Sumatra -Premium like Triple-Pick, Lintong ...,

Some sharp sweetness (Central American) hides behind the nutty Brazil flavors and the wonderful Yemeni aromatics. Mandheling adds body and depth. Yemeni coffees are fun for espresso blends, where they can be used like spice to give zest the aromatically or enzymatically flat blends. Roast to Agtron 40 to 35. Good crema production from this blend due to the many dry-processed coffees

  • 40% Brazil Cerrado Dry-process
  • 20% Panama or other bright Central American
  • 20% Yemen
  • 20% Sumatra Mandheling

Ah, too sweet, too boring. You want something more aggressive, chocolatey? Drop the Centrals:

  • 50% Brazil Cerrado Dry-process
  • 25% Ethiopian Sidamo or Yemen
  • 25% Sumatra Mandheling Dry-Process

You can certainly keep going along this route by adding other coffees (monsooned, aged, robusta) to discover what they add and what they subtract from the blend.

For an potent Indian Monsooned-type blend you could do something like this:

  • 60% Indian Monsooned Malabar -this high percentage will cup very musty
  • 20% High Quality Robusta: Wet-processed Indonesian or Indian
  • 20% Wet-processed Arabica, for aroma and balance: perhaps Indian, Timor, Java or Sulawesi.

For an potent Aged coffee blend you could do something like this:

  • 40% Aged Sumatra
  • 30% Sumatra, or Sulawesi
  • 30% Guatemala or other bright Central American for aroma and balance

(Aged Java is very potent and should probably not exceed 1/3 of the blend or so...)


Decaf Espresso? Low-caffeine espresso? That is why we stock the Brazil SWP Decaf as a base. Use it as 50% of your blend to cut the caffeine in half, then add your main "character" coffees as usual. If you wanted an all-decaf blend I would do one of these:

  • 50% Brazil SWP Decaf
  • 50% Sumatra SWP Decaf

Or this:

  • 50% Brazil SWP Decaf
  • 25% Mexican Esmeralda Decaf
  • 25% Sumatra SWP Decaf

We also offer our own Sweet Maria's Decaf Espresso Blend ready to roast, and the Indonesian Komodo Organic SWP Decaf blend works great for espresso too!

  • Decaf Ethiopian is excellent in espresso. Try 50% Sumatra Decaf and 50% Ethiopian Decaf for a fantastic decaf espresso blend!


A New Approach to Blends (from January-February 2009 Tiny Joy)

Something has been bugging me for a long time, something about the way we do things here at Sweet Maria's.
It comes down to this; we hammer on the point over and over that "coffee is a crop, not a can of pop", that it is variable, that each producing region has a peak harvest time, which is variable, that quality is ... you guessed it, ... variable, and that small lots come and go, so it's not like a can of pop on the shelf, always there and unchanging ... availability is variable. Besides being one of the worst run-on sentences ever, you get my point. And we treat each and every lot we offer as a singular moment in this undulating and variable flow of coffee production. So, why have we made one great exception to this approach? Why have we maintained espresso blends that do not vary, that are always on the shelf, modifying their ingredients as the crop cycle rotates along? Good question. Part of it can be chalked up to "received wisdom." Everyone else does it, they always have. It's not a great answer. 
To rewind and explain the logic of invariable blend offerings, I do feel that we have taken the best possible approach. If you kept the same blend ingredients year round, if you bought a year's supply of each lot for a blend, the cup quality would suffer. As the coffees age, baggy flavors would emerge. Coffee does not last that long, and we are very sensitive about the age of our green coffee. We know that once we sell it, someone may have it for 6 months, or even a year, before roasting it. If we haven't vacuum packed or "cellared" it here in our Grainpro bags, we make sure we sell it rapidly. So, the alternative is to be consistently changing the blend, using newer arrivals that are good subsititutes. That means the blend is never exactly what you intended ... Instead one maintains the "spirit of the blend," its flavor theme, using new coffees to express that spirit. In this way, the blend is the best it can be, and is always high quality.
Still, it is never precisely the blend you intended. And these flavor themes can get old, unexciting, rote to the palate.

After a lot of consideration I have decided to take two approaches simultaneously. I decided to change our blend offerings into Standards, blends with the same name we maintain and are consistently offered, and new Espresso Workshop editions. The latter are blends that are only offered for as long as we have the specific lots of coffee we used to design the blend, and then it's gone. It's a coffee-centric idea, and allows for the exploration of newer espresso styles. In a sense, Workshop Espresso editions are pure and uncompromising: specific coffees are found that inspire testing, and a new blend idea is born. Instead of maintaining the blend and making ingredient substitutions down the line, the Workshop editions follow the crop cycle of the coffee; they come and go.  And we already have 2 "editions" on the sheet and have "retired" i.e. discontinued the Classic Italian and Puro Scuro blends which are now listed in the review archive. (Notes on how to mix these blends yourself appear above)

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