Single origin vs blend are two keywords you might have seen on a regular basis if you frequent specialty coffee cafes. You might have even been asked to choose between the two when you ordered your coffee. How can you tell the barista which beans you want when you don’t even have a proper idea of what they are? It may seem a little confusing, but fear not. It’s actually a super simple and fun choice!
A Quick Overview
What Are Blends?
Blends have been around since forever – they are the most commonly consumed worldwide. A blend is exactly what its name suggests: a blend of beans, a mix of different beans from different locations across the globe.
Blends are a mixture of different beans, sourced from different locations.
For example, a roaster might pick a handful of fruity Ethiopia coffee beans, and roast it together with some earthy Indonesian beans. Or, a handful of delicate Arabica beans mixed with a small portion of bold, Robusta beans. Heck, blends can even be from different parts of the same country! Different altitudes, weather conditions and soil nutrients can produce different tasting beans. As long as there is a mix of more than one type of beans, it’s considered a blend.
The result is a gentle, final taste that is well-balanced and can be enjoyed by a wide group of people, from coffee newbies to seasoned veterans. A cafe will have a blend they primarily use and are known for, and this is called a “house blend” or “signature blend”. Some offer an “organic blend” too.
Blends are also the most commonly found in supermarkets, because they are produced in bulk and are generally cheaper.
What Are Single Origin Beans?
Single origin, on the other hand, are beans that strictly come from one source only. Whether that’s the same country, or even down to the same lot of land on a farm. One origin, one type of bean. It’s pure and stands on its own. Easy!
Single origin means beans that are sourced only from one specific location.
Single origin beans (often nicknamed “Single O” by baristas) are the new kids on the block. Now, more and more cafes offer two or three types of beans you can choose for your coffee. More often than not, these other beans that aren’t the house blend will be a single origin. This is the cafe’s chance to offer more exotic, specific and unique flavours for those brave enough to try it, while still having a well-known favorite blend for the regular customers.
Many cafes also frequently change their single origin monthly or at the start of a new season. They don’t do this willy nilly or just for fun. Because there is only one source, single origin beans are harder to come by consistently. They are subject to availability depending on the time of year. Hence why you need to find what’s available and what’s the best during that time.
Single origin coffee beans are also usually more expensive than blends, but they are well worth it, as you’ll discover below.
Single Origin vs Blend: Taste Comparison?
Here’s how I would describe a good blend:
Quality blends have smooth, complex flavours that are well-balanced and well-rounded. There is a mellow note to it, which comes from a satisfying harmony between bright, popping acidity and rich, dark bitterness.
Expert roasters can choose to blend different types of beans that either complement each other’s taste, or opt to blend two very different tasting beans that create a sharp contrast. The latter might sound surprising, but the end goal is still more or less the same: to enhance and bring out the flavours of each bean in the best possible way. Have a look at a couple of examples:
- Let’s go back to the example we used earlier with Ethiopian and Indonesian (Sumatran) beans. Ethiopian beans are famed for their bright, fruity tastes, such as the sweetness and aroma of apples. Indonesian beans, on the other hand, are known for their earthy, deep chocolate notes. The sharp acidity of the Ethiopian beans are toned down by the Indonesian beans, and the Indonesian beans in turn have their bitterness and bold strength dialled back to something more people will enjoy.
- Or, a roaster could opt to combine Ethiopian beans with coffee beans from Honduras and Guatemala (two neighbouring countries). These beans share a fruity sweetness and floral notes, and when combined, heighten and build up upon each other’s best tastes. The final result will be a tangy, sweet and fruit-scented cup.
However, a poorly roasted or cheap blend can taste dull. It’ll taste very plain and flat, almost as though it’s been washed out or diluted. Be careful in selecting a blend – or any coffee for that matter.
And for comparison, here’s my take on the taste of single origin coffee:
With single origin coffee, you’ll get to taste a wide variety of unique, exotic flavours that are bright and vibrant. But, they can sometimes be sharp and acidic.
In other words, if it’s sweet, it’s sweet. If it’s sour, it’s sour. If it’s spicy, it’s spicy. If it’s…you get the idea. Because single origins don’t have anything else to be paired with it, the true colours and flavours are fully exposed. There’s nothing to hide behind.
This is an amazing chance for you to taste some crazy, wild flavours. Single origin beans are the best at showcasing the brave and original flavours. But, it’s less forgiving. They can sometimes come across as too sharp and harsh, especially in terms of acidity. Single origin beans are almost always light roasted too, so that acidity level is through the roof.
For example, I once tried a single origin coffee that had the amazing zest and sweetness of lemon and honey. It was absolutely incredible – it would have been darn near impossible to get that brightness in a blend. But, I also tried a single origin from Vanuatu once, which promised a stewed apple taste. But the only thing I could taste was a mouthful of sourness that masked everything else. The taste was bright, but it wasn’t very pleasant.
That’s the downside when it comes to tasting single origin coffee. There is always a risk of inconsistency in flavours. But hey, that’s all part of the fun of it!
Recommendation: Who Should Drink It?
I would recommend a blend to those who are brand new to coffee. For those who haven’t drunk much coffee before, and don’t know which to pick, a blend provides that great starting platform.
The mellow, well-balanced tastes of blends are easier on the tongue, and will help warm you up and ease you into enjoying the taste of coffee. You won’t be shocked or put off by any unexpected sourness or punch. Take your time to develop your taste buds. There is absolutely no rush – don’t let the third wave specialty coffee hype pressure you into thinking you must drink a specific origin coffee.
One last note, if you’re the type who takes comfort in having the same, consistent flavours in each cup, time after time again, blends are definitely your top pick. Single origins don’t have that consistency guarantee.
I recommend single origin for those who are interested in exotic, unique tasting experiences. If you are really keen on trying the true flavour of different types of beans, single origin is the way to go. There’s no masking the raw, wonderful flavours here – get ready for an adventurous taste sensation. Just keep the potential brightness and sharpness of the flavour in mind so you’re not caught too off-guard. Some can be exceptionally acidic!
You can branch out into single origin coffee at any time along your coffee journey. There’s no threshold or level you have to reach before you are “qualified” for single origin. If anyone tells you otherwise, call BS on them. If you come across a bag of single origin beans with flavours that really appeal to you, go for it.
A little fun fact to consider about single origin coffee: you can buy two bags that are from exactly the same origin, once in January and once in February, and they can taste rather different despite being the same beans! Every batch will have small flavour variations due to the ever-changing seasons, weather, and soil nutrient levels. Be prepared to be surprised all the time with single origin beans.
Recommendation: How Should You Brew It?
Blends are particularly suited to espresso. Especially if you like espresso-based milk drinks. House blends are carefully crafted to withstand the addition of steamed milk for a wide variety of cafe drinks. You’ll still be able to taste the many layers of flavour: from the fruity aroma, to the chocolate in the body, the earthy aftertaste and so on. Blends are complex creatures – rich and confident, ready for you to push to the limit with hard brew methods.
The flavour of a single origin is more easily dulled amongst the overpowering milkiness, so I don’t really recommend using single origin beans for milk coffee.
Clear, clean and crisp flavours are the selling point of single origin beans. Hence, soft brew methods work best, such as the classic pourover using a Hario V60 or Kalita Wave Dripper. An AeroPress is a great coffee maker to bring out the true colours of single origin to a new level, as it makes really clean tasting coffee.
Long blacks and Americanos are espresso-based black coffees, and they too work very well with single origin beans.
P.S. No adding sugar or syrups!
In a Nutshell
Now, may you be armed with the knowledge and confidence to swagger up to your friendly neighbourhood barista and declare your choice! No longer shall you cower in doubt when looking for beans to buy, for you are now imbued with the sacred knowledge of single origin vs blends.
I told you it was really quite simple, didn’t I? The hardest part now is to actually make that final decision when you’re so spoiled for choice. Have fun!