Blending Basics

Blending is done 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 month to month and 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 various (or the least expensive) sources and attain a consistent flavor. 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 it's not likely you can do this with top coffees. 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 say 5 coffees in the blend. Blends with more than 5 coffees I consider fanciful, or indulgent.

Blending Before or After Roasting

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 on Monsooned coffees 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 temperature. 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.

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, a blend of coffees roasted to different degrees. A good reason for a Melange may be perhaps that you 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 roast flavors, good body, and an acidy snap to it:

  • 40% Colombian, Nicaraguan or Brazilian roasted Full City to preserve body
  • 30% Mexican (or other mild Central American) roasted French for sharp, carbony flavors
  • 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, 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 or Nicaraguan roasted Full City +
  • 40% of the same coffee roasted City, just past the finish of first crack.

I have found that our association trade show is 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 SCAA trade show in Philadelphia it was amazing how many Melange blends feature 30%-40% Kenya for acidy snap. 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!

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 (dry-processed) Ethiopian or Yemeni coffee. They are commonly blended in equal parts 50-50, or with a little bias like 40-45 African, 60-55 Indonesian.

  • Harar (or other Dry Processed Ethiopian) 50%, Java 50% brought to a City Roast: 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 typically, 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 Harar'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

Traditionally, most espresso blends are based on one or several high quality Brazil arabicas, some washed, some dry processed (or pulped natural). African coffees are added for winey acidity or enzymatic flowery /fruitiness, or a high grown Central American for a cleaner acidity. The past few years have seen a shift in the approach to espresso blends and even espresso roasts, with brighter coffees and lighter roasts. The Espresso Workshop blends reflect this new thinking (more on this below).

Dry processed coffees are responsible for the attractive crema on the cup (crema is a result of other mechanical factors in the extraction process as well). Wet-processed Central Americans add positive aromatic qualities. Robustas, or coffea canephora, are used in some blends to increase body, produce crema and add a particular bite to the cup. The notion that true "continental"espresso blends have Robusta is 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. It's fun to play with Robusta but I personally don't like it too much beyond experimentation.

A Colombian-based espresso blend offers a sharper, sweeter flavor but won't result in as much crema production.

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, and pulling straight shots of espresso. Get familiar with this cup and imagine what you would like to improve in it (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 or Robusta. Aged and Monsooned coffees add certain funky tastes that you will love, or perhaps hate. Give them a try to find out. 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. 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)
  • 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

 

More Blend Recipes: Some Blends I Like

What coffees won't I use in espresso? A lot of this is changing too and sometimes now it seems that anything goes; people are using just about every origin either in espresso blends or as single origin (SO) espresso. Now it is not uncommon to see Hawaiian Kona as SO espresso, and a few years ago a competitor won the World Barista Championship with a SO Kenya.

There's a lot of ways to achieve great espresso. It's 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.


 

For benchmarks, 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; it is a straight-forward sweet espresso blend. The Malabar Gold blend is a exotic pre-blended espresso, and if that's 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 you a good idea what direction to take with your own blend. Many people also buy my Espresso Monkey 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 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 to 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 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 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

Decaf Espresso? Low-caffeine espresso? It is good to use the same regions in decaf form if possible - we do try to stock Brazil decaf for this reason (when possible). Use this as 50% of your blend to cut the caffeine in half, then add your main "character" coffees as usual. Decaf Ethiopian is excellent in espresso. Try 50% Sumatra Decaf and 50% Ethiopian Decaf for a fantastic decaf espresso blend! If you wanted an all-decaf blend I would do one of these:

  • 50% Brazil Decaf
  • 50% Sumatra Decaf

Or this:

  • 50% Brazil Decaf
  • 25% Mexican or other Central American Decaf
  • 25% Sumatra Decaf

For a half and half blend - just make one part decaf and the rest regular. Decaf coffees can lack some of the potency of their regular counterparts - so you may need to make adjustments to compensate. We also offer our own Sweet Maria's Decaf Espresso Blend ready to roast.


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, Espresso Workshop 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.  The current Espresso Workshop and Standard blends are both listed on the current offerings and the 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)