What Does 'Single Origin' Coffee Really Mean?


[Photo: Liz Clayton]

By now, most enlightened coffee drinkers know the difference between a single origin coffee and a blend. Or do we? Last week, Starbucks added an Ethiopian coffee to their offerings, billed curiously as a "single origin blend".

As an industry, has coffee got its story straight on how specific it's trying to be when they advertise a coffee as coming from a single origin? Does the more and more sophisticated coffee consumer, thinking they're being clever and selecting coffees whose terroir they believe they know and prefer, really know how precisely they've homed in? The answer—rooted in the quest for transparency—is ironically more opaque than we might think.

"I think everyone will kind of agree in theory as to what single origin means," says Adam McClellan, who purchases green coffee for Stumptown Coffee Roasters and is based out of Portland, Oregon. "We see them as our premier coffees, coming from a single place, whether that be one farmer or a group of farms."

But what if that single place is really big?

"I see a lot of Sumatra Fair Trade Organic coffee being sold as 'single origin,' but Fair Trade Organic Sumatra can come from a giant swath of land, from a huge number of suppliers," said McClellan. And while some companies use single origin coffee to refer to a single origin as a specific farm or cooperative of farms (who may share milling and processing facilities as well as trading arrangements), or coffee from a single region within a country, others yet will use it to refer to coffee simply from one country. And if that country is Sumatra, or, oh, gosh, let's say, Brazil, the idea of 'single origin' standing for some specific kind of particular terroir, or representing the transparency of the sourcing chain, can become lost completely.

20130901starbucksethiopia.jpgTake Starbucks' new coffee. In Ethiopia, traceability of coffee back to the farm level is complicated by governmental control. The five-year-old Ethiopian Commodity Exchange has made it difficult to purchase coffees from a more specific level than "regional"—and though Starbucks has previously offered coffees identified as being from the Sidamo or Harar regions, this coffee is named a "single origin blend" because Starbucks isn't trying to highlight a particular, small example of terroir—but rather because they're using those more variable flavor elements to make up a consistent "Ethiopia" profile they've aimed at, which will stay the same harvest after harvest. Sound like someone trying to build a consistent espresso blend? It's very much that way, only it's called a single origin because it's all from the same origin nation.

"If we're going to create an Ethiopian single origin, quite honestly, we're going to blend it," says Major Cohen, coffee master at Starbucks. "In our effort to be authentic and credible, in this case, we're going to call out those coffees that are single origin blends, as just that. What we know in our business is that some of it may be coming from one region, some of it may be coming from another region. Next year? So long as it's coming from Ethiopia, and is at our high Arabica standards, and the right taste profile, and we roast it the way we've been roasting it, we can continue to sell that Ethiopian coffee [with the same name]," explained Cohen.

And though Starbucks does focus in more tightly with their smaller-quantity reserve offerings, the use of 'single origin' by most of the industry is often more specific, sometimes even superexclusive.

Stumptown's broadest application of single origin is a blend from within one region in Costa Rica. "Our Valle de los Santos, which is from Costa Rica, is a nickname for the Tarrazu valley," said McClellan. "Right now, that's a blend of two micromills in that valley which we think best express the flavor of Tarrazu." They identify the coffee as a single origin, though that usage is much broader than coffees they and other roasters sell that are specific down to a particular section of a particular farm.

Stumptown's La Cima coffee is from a subset of a farm they've worked with for years: Finca El Injerto in Guatemala. "It's from a particular plot of older bourbon trees from a plot on the northwest part of the farm from a higher altitude part of the farm, with a slightly different processing than the rest of El Injerto," says McClellan. What's fun about this zoomed-in definition of single origin can truly celebrate not just specific farmers and their work, but the kind of work they are doing in specific sections of a farm, whose benefits are evident in the cup.

El Salvadorean coffee producer Aida Batlle has been a proponent of a program wherein farmers parcel their land into specific sections (which they call tablones) and pick, process and mill each tablon individually. The coffees are sold as separate tablones which can highlight the differences between varieties, processing techniques, altitudes, sun or shade conditions, and so on. (At this end of the spectrum, the non-supergeek consumer might almost wish things were less specific.)

But if 'single origin', as a marketing term, can really only be defined by what it isn't—which is to say, coffee from more than one country—does it still give us the clues we're looking for in terms of how we decide to select one coffee over another?

The answer, by and large, is on the bag. If you're hoping for a bag labelled only with a country—not even a region—to indicate to you the kind of flavors you might consistently expect, you're looking for a shortcut that isn't really there. What the conversation about the meaning of single origin really does best is reveal the difference in expectations. Some prefer a coffee to provide comfort and consistency, where a country name becomes a shorthand for a flavor name more than a geographical identifier. Others prefer the unique taste captured by nature itself, a seasonal event linked to what's special about a particular region, farm, farmer, part of a farm, and how that differs from area to area, year to year. And as specialty coffee grows and refines its sophistication in both traceability and appellation, this conversation will only continue.

What does single origin coffee mean to you? How much do you want to know, and what do you assume about it?