A “Varietal” Espresso Revolution

The Case for Single Origin Shots

Traditionally, espresso has been made from a blend of different coffees. To many, this is simply the way espresso is. Recently, we have seen the beginning of a sort of “sea change” in the coffee world. For various possible reasons, a small, but growing, segment of coffee professionals and aficionados have begun to experiment with espresso made from single origin beans. These experiments have been so successful that, in some cases, they have resulted in a re-evaluation of the assumed importance of blending for espresso.

The arguments for the value of blends for espresso have ranged from commercial in nature, to aesthetic to cultural.

There are a lot of roasters who feel that a consistent flavour profile, year in and year out, is critical not only for their sales, but for consumer acceptance of espresso. For them to achieve this consistent flavour profile, a blend is obviously the best option. In fact, in most cases they’ll need to specifically blend in a manner that minimizes the flavour contributions of any one bean in order to reduce the risk of either a change in that bean in a subsequent harvest or a supply problem with that bean. In many cases, this results in blends that have what could be described as a “generic” espresso flavour with, at best, a single accent note that is simple and can be achieved through the use of a wide range of beans from various sources.

There are also a lot of roasters who prefer the more round and polished flavour profile of a blended espresso. A blended espresso can be “tuned” for a very balanced flavour profile by counter-balancing the unique contributions of each bean. Blending in the manner can produce the above described “generic” espresso profile in many cases, though it can also produce unique and interesting espresso flavours in the hands of a great blender. Single origin espresso will almost always have a less “complete” profile than a blend, and will be more likely to have individual flavour notes that are either dominant or could be seen as objectionable to some palates.

Finally, there is a significant cultural tradition of espresso blending that cannot be discounted. For roasters who are committed to the tradition of Italian espresso, a non-blended espresso is as heretical as drinking a cappuccino after noon. This cultural resistance to change has been seen in other areas of the espresso industry in the past. You still hear many coffee “experts” claim that tamping is stupid and un-needed. The argument always goes “the Italians never tamp – they invented espresso – espresso in Italy is amazing;” end of story. This same argument is used to support not cleaning the espresso machine and the use of Robusta in espresso blends, among other controversial decisions. For many, drinking espresso is a statement of cultural and lifestyle identity, and change is thus undesirable.

There is no denying that all of the above arguments for blended espresso have merit. At the same time, they are all based upon subjective and often purely aesthetic and personal decisions and goals. None alone, and in fact not even all taken as a whole are a compelling argument against the use of single origin coffees as espresso.

Selling single origin espresso requires education – but this is true with any higher end culinary experience. Obviously, it’s easier to sell espresso that tastes like all other espresso, and which tastes exactly the same as the espresso that was sold to you the previous day. In this case, you’re actually not selling – you’re merely meeting the lowest common denominator of demand. In any higher-end coffee bar, the staff is more than capable of discussing, at length, the flavours and merits of any of the origin coffees being sold. Hand-selling bulk coffee in this manner is an accepted requirement of the job, in fact. There is little to no difference between this process and selling a single origin espresso.

Changing flavour profiles for an espresso blend is, in fact, a risky decision. People have expectations and become accustomed to a specific experience associated with a specific item. This, however, is not the case with single origin espresso. With proper hand selling, no customer is going to expect that a Guatemala Antigua Latte is going to taste like a Uganda Bugisu Latte. In fact, if handled correctly, an ever-changing “blackboard” style of espresso menu can be a differentiator rather than a risk – where customers look forward to the 2004 Uganda Bugisu, hoping to compare it to their memories of the previous harvest.

While it is true that there will single-origin espressos that are not palatable for each individual, this too can be managed. In a “blackboard” style espresso menu as mentioned above, one would always have a selection of espresso options. With proper management, this would allow a customer to choose from a comprehensive, but always new and fresh, selection of espressos. With proper hand selling, this would result in customers always being steered towards an espresso that met their tastes. By carrying no more than three different beans at any one time, one could argue that a more complete coverage of the espresso palate could be achieved that we see with current, “one espresso blend for all drinks,” model.

As part of a migration strategy, it may well be desirable to start by offering an espresso blend in addition to the changing single-origin menu. This does, however, present some risks. Staff may be unwilling to put the time and energy into selling the single-origin shots. This would also require either decreasing the number of single origin options on the menu, resulting in artificially lowering the odds of satisfying an individual customer, or would require purchasing even more grinders. Finally, this decreases the marketing and competitive differentiation opportunities of a move to single origin espresso.

Finally, there is no doubt that this move flies in the face of tradition. On the other hand, so did tamping. So did Latte Art and pure Arabica espresso. Life changes, practices change. Obviously, for lovers of all things traditional and/or Italian – single origin espresso is never going to be a big seller. But we are talking about a minority of the marketplace in this case.

So why should we experiment with single origin espresso? Why should we consider offering single origin espressos to customers? And why would we ever think of moving away from blended espresso to single origin espressos only?

When it comes right down to it, there are three good arguments for origin espresso. First – it refocuses attention on the bean. Second – it allows for a more complex and interesting espresso experience. Third – it can be a competitive differentiator.

The range of unique flavour profiles represented by coffee is astonishing. Many people have made the argument that the differences in flavour from coffee bean to coffee bean are more significant than we see in grapes/wine. By blending coffee, we blunt those differences and create a truncated flavour spectrum. This results in attention shifting from the bean and its unique flavour characteristics to the blend and in the end to the drink. The effects of this are profound and the resulting mis-education can be significant. The meaningless phrase “espresso roast” is an example of what can occur. Enthusiastic amateur coffee drinkers can talk at length about the differences between Indonesian and African coffees – but know next to nothing about the beans or their origins when it comes to espresso. By returning attention to the bean, we allow for a more complete and aesthetic appreciation of the coffee.

A single origin espresso is rarely, if ever, as “complete” as a blended espresso. But a blended espresso is rarely, if ever, as interesting as a single origin shot. In addition, by offering a range of different single origin espressos, and by accepting that variance in flavour over time is not only guaranteed by desirable, we create a long-term experience of espresso that is far more complex and engaging and vital. Consumers enjoy going to high-end restaurants and experiencing new and different presentations of a dish. Gourmets love discussing the relative merits of various preparations of a type of ingredient. Each experience presents a different “face” of the dish or ingredient, and ends up deepening the experience and appreciation of that dish or ingredient. The same can be true for espresso.

In the current espresso market, competing for the lowest common denominator is difficult if not impossible. The very large chains have a degree of leverage when it comes to branding and taste/experience identification which any independent business is going to find difficult to overcome (to say the least). At the same time, the market is getting ever more saturated and the niche available to the independent shop is getting ever more fragmented. In this scenario, any competitive differentiator – especially one that allows you to clearly identify yourself as doing something other than what the large brands are doing – is key. Offering single origin espresso has the benefits of creating a signature taste experience that is entirely different than what is available from the large brands. It clearly identifies a business as a gourmet coffee experience. It is difficult to pull off without skill and is thus defensible. Finally, it allows for freedom from price competition, allowing for acceptable higher prices and better margins.

The case for experimentation is even easier to make. Experimentation with single origin shots educates staff (roast staff as well as barista staff). It creates a culture of culinary experience and knowledge. It allows for more skilled and predictable blending.

Many older and more traditional coffee roasting professionals are depressed and/or angry about the rise of espresso. In some cases, they have a good case for their concerns. Too many baristi know little to nothing about the realities, flavours, market, experiences, history or processes behind the espresso blend that they stick in the hopper of their grinder. And far too many of those baristi are uninterested in learning about coffee. Experimentation with single origin espresso has the potential to change this.

In the current environment, a lot of people working in coffee businesses are doing so for lifestyle reasons. They like being able to play music they enjoy. They like not wearing a suit or pantyhose. They like having a flexible, bohemian life. They feel cool. This culture of dilettantes and lifestylists does not lend itself to the creation of great espresso. The creation of a culture of culinary espresso would address this. By educating employees in the flavours of coffee and by attracting employees who are interested in such a culture, we could see a dramatically increased commitment to the quality of taste.

Finally, even if a business sticks with blended espresso, by tasting the component beans as single origin shots – staff (baristi as well as roasters) would have an increased appreciation for the flavours of the blend and would be able to sell it better to customers and tune it better when blending and extracting.

When it comes right down to it – there are no good rational arguments for not at least playing around with single origin espresso. The benefits are real – and could be significant. Of course, this is a subversive statement – because the truth is that I’m convinced that any committed, professional gourmet coffee business that begins to experiment with single origin shots will discover the value of the experience and will discover a love for the resulting espresso. And thus… you too will join the revolution.

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