Serious Eats: Drinks
Espresso Profiles: Blends vs. Single Origins
Espresso is many things to many people: To some, it's simply an every-morning wake-me-up, while others view it as the caffeinated equivalent of a fine, aged Scotch. Beyond that, there's the question of flavor. Do you like yours dark roasted, with a bittersweet, smoky-chocolate taste? Or perhaps you prefer a lighter, brighter shot, with a citrusy snap and a clean finish?
Asking whether someone prefers an espresso made from a blend of coffees or a single-origin bean is kind of like asking whether they prefer a romantic symphony or a blazing sax solo. They both have their time and place, but they're certainly very different music. So what's the difference between a blend and a single-origin coffee? And what are the benefits of each? Let's take a look.
While a blend of coffees with different characteristics might play off one another harmoniously, a single-origin bean can stand alone and let its best (or at least, most prominent) features shine.
The nature of the espresso extraction itself—high-temperature water forced at high pressure through finely ground coffee—acts as a kind of magnifying glass on a coffee. Because of the extreme elements you're exposing the beans' delicate aromatics to, whatever their natural essences are tend to be somewhat exaggerated when brewed in this manner.
Got a coffee with a super lemony zip to it in the cup? It might be a mouth-puckeringly, eye-poppingly sour shot in the end. (Or it might not be—that's the beauty of the thing, that you have to taste it and taste it and taste it to know as you go). A blend of coffees with different inherent characteristics, however, might balance each other out. Add a little chocolaty flavor from this bean, a little citrus from another, a heavy body from a third, and what do you get? Hopefully something basically consistent and definitely delicious when made by a competent barista.
Espresso "blends" have long been proprietary information: Closely guarded secret recipes that roasters would lock away, providing only the vaguest of clues as to what might be in the bag. Thankfully, many roasters are moving away from this tact and being more open about a blend's components, but it can still be hard to pinpoint what notes on your tongue come from which beans in the bag. One of the great advantages to a single-origin coffee is knowing more precisely where the flavor comes from, which can allow a barista more control over the variables at hand when making each shot (so they can adjust the amount of coffee per dose, water temperature, and length of extraction).
Roast level and style obviously play a role in the result, but there's no specific "espresso" roast recognized and adhered to by roasters worldwide. Some roasters will brown the beans with a longer process at a lower temperature, which can mute more acidic flavors and mellow out particularly bright coffees. But often that brightness or fruit-like effervescence is what draws a single-origin espresso apart from its balanced, blended counterparts.
Like everything else coffee-related, it all comes down to taste and preference. So tell us: Do you typically prefer a blend, or are you a single-originaholic? And what's the best example of either you've ever drunk?