You’re in your local coffee shop about to place your order when your eye is drawn to a chalkboard on the counter.
“Single-origin coffee of the week,” reads the heading.
You hesitate. You’ve heard of single-origin before, but it’s so expensive. What are you paying for? And what if you splash out then find you don’t like it?
“The usual, please,” you say.
A moment later you’re back on the sidewalk, takeaway cup in hand. But you can’t help feeling you’ve missed out on something special…
Read on! We’re about to de-mystify single-origin coffee: what you need to know, and how to choose one to suit your palate.
What does “single-origin” mean?
You’ll probably have heard of single malt whiskies, where the whiskey is the product of a single distillery. The term is often considered to mean “high quality” and has a price tag to match.
Much the same principle applies in relation to single-origin coffee. It simply means that the coffee has come from the same geographical area.
But can you spot the difference to the whiskey example?
Rather than the precise definition of a single distillery, “single-origin” coffee can have a multitude of different meanings (1).
The “origin” in question could be a single farm or a group of farms in a single place. And sometimes that place can be huge.
There are a lot of Sumatran Fair Trade coffees on the market, for example, which call themselves a single origin. In some cases, the beans are sourced from a huge area of land, with many different suppliers.
In cases like these, the idea that you’re buying specific beans grown in particular conditions seems quite a stretch. And any coffee calling itself “single-origin” where the origin is no more precise than a country is going to face similar issues.
So does this mean that single-origin is nothing more than a marketing term?
In a word, no. Single origins are usually much more specific about the geographical location from which the beans have been sourced.
In some cases, that will mean that the beans have been grown in the same region. The coffee maker Stumptown, for example, offers a single origin coffee from Costa Rica. Its name is Valle de los Santos, meaning “Valley of the Saints”, the nickname for the Tarrazu Valley.
The coffee is a blend of beans from two micro-mills – i.e. farm-specific coffee producers – in the area. Stumptown says it’s chosen the combination carefully to reflect the characteristics of the region (2).
But if you’re looking for an even more precise definition, read on…
Estate, tablon and micro-lot coffee
It’s possible to find coffees that are from a single farm, often known as “single estate” coffees. It’s the same principle here as with wine. Just as the character of wine reflects the vineyard where the grapes were grown, so single estate coffee reflects conditions on the farm.
Of course, not all farms consist of a few acres and a picturesque farmhouse! The Daterra farm in Brazil, for example, consists of 216 “mini-farms”, each of 5 to 15 hectares. The altitudes range from just over 3,000 to 4,000 feet.
In such vast areas, even “single estate” can mean different beans grown in very different conditions.
Some farmers have sub-divided their land into smaller parcels. In El Salvador, farmers split their land into sections known as tablones. Then they plant, harvest and process the beans separately in each tablon.
This allows the same farm to produce coffees with different characteristics. These will vary depending on the coffee bean variety, altitude, amount of sun or shade and so on. As the customer, you’ll be able to tell not just which country or farm your coffee originated in, but which parcel of land.
Stumptown’s La Cima coffee provides an example of this approach. It’s produced by the same Guatemalan farm that makes one of the firm’s most popular coffees, Finca el Injerto. For La Cima, however, the coffee beans are taken from an older plot of trees in the north-west of the farm.
Here, the altitude is higher. The beans are also processed slightly differently to those from the rest of the farm. Drinking a cup allows you to experience the different flavors created by the landscape and the change in farming techniques.
This is similar to the approach known as micro-lot coffee. Most manufacturers describe micro-lot as the “cream of the crop” – the very best coffee from an individual farm. Because of this, it is of course in short supply, adding to its desirability – and price tag.
But just how scarce is scarce? At Invalsa Coffee, they say that the amount harvested from one farm can vary from five to 100 bags. The average amount is just 40 bags. Hardly surprising then, that micro-lot coffee is their most expensive product.
A huge amount of effort goes into ensuring these premium beans remain in peak condition until they reach your cup. They are vacuum packed or stored in special bags and kept in warehouses at carefully controlled temperature and humidity levels.
Single-origin or blend?
So now you know what single-origin coffee is and why it’s usually more expensive than blends. But does that mean you should be giving up on blended coffee?
The answer is: it depends on what you’re looking for from your drink.
The beauty of blends is that they can balance out different flavors in your cup. And if the harvest in a particular area isn’t up to scratch one year, the recipe can be tweaked as necessary.
The big chains put huge amounts of resources into creating blends that are consistent from year to year. So you know that if you enjoy a Starbucks espresso this year in Seattle, you’ll enjoy it just as much in two years’ time in Washington.
In short, if consistency is your priority, go for blended coffee.
If, on the other hand, you’re ready to experiment, single-origin offers up a whole new world of flavors. You’ll also have the opportunity to learn about your beverage and the story it tells. That can add a whole new dimension to your coffee-drinking experience.
One other thing to bear in mind when choosing between a blend and single-origin coffee is how you prepare your drink. If you’re going to be adding a lot of milk, blends can be preferable. They provide a solid base of flavor to complement the milk.
So if you love your latte, cappuccino or flat white, you may find that sticking with a blend is the better option. But if you enjoy an espresso or other black coffee, the distinctive flavors of single-origin beans will shine through.
How do you choose a single-origin coffee?
So you’ve decided to give single-origin coffee a try. How do you go about choosing one you might enjoy? After all, you don’t want to spend a lot of money on a coffee that doesn’t suit your palate.
Unfortunately, there are no easy answers here. After all, the point of single-origin coffee is that its flavors are a product of the precise conditions in the area where it was grown. So looking at the country or region on the bag isn’t a shortcut to knowing exactly how it will taste.
Having said that, there are some general characteristics shared by coffees from different parts of the world. Going back to our wine analogy, we know we can expect something different from Californian wines than French ones. So if you’re looking for a place to start, here are some tips.
If you enjoy fruity and floral flavors, try starting with an African coffee. Ethiopian beans often have berry and wine-like aromas, while Kenyan coffees are reminiscent of plums or cherries (3).
For sweeter coffees with a less pronounced fruit flavor, look to South America. Brazil is renowned for the heavy body of its coffees, which often have a peanut flavor. Columbian coffee, on the other hand, is often mellower, with flavors of toffee and caramel.
Indian and Indonesian coffees tend to divide opinion. They have a heavy body and often combine syrup and herbal flavors.
Another factor to bear in mind is altitude. The higher the altitude at which the coffee was grown, the sweeter and smoother it usually is. For a sweet coffee with pronounced acidity look for beans grown at altitudes above 4,000 feet.
Beans grown between 4,000 and 5,000 feet above sea level will typically exhibit flavors of citrus, vanilla, chocolate and nut. Go even higher and you’ll be rewarded with fruit, spice, floral, berry and wine-like flavors (4).
Bean varieties and processing
It’s not just the characteristics of the landscape, though, that will affect the flavor of your single-origin coffee. The variety of coffee beans and the way in which it is processed will also have a big impact.
Bourbon, Caturra and Typica are three commonly grown varieties of coffee bean. Chances are that if you like one coffee made from one of these varieties, you’ll like others. Different countries tend to favor one or other varieties, but there are no hard and fast rules about what’s grown where.
If you’re looking for a really exclusive coffee, though, the Geisha variety of bean is the one to look for. One of the most sought-after coffees on the planet is the Hacienda La Esmeralda from Panama, made from Geisha beans. It’s won multiple awards and achieved record-breaking prices at auction (5).
As for processing, your beans will have been either washed or naturally processed.
Washed coffee is where the outer pulp of the coffee fruit is removed first. The beans are placed in tanks to ferment, then finally washed and spread out to dry. The result should be a coffee with clean, bright acidity and sweet flavors.
In natural processing, the coffee fruit is left whole while it is dried. This allows the pulp to impart its fruit and sugary flavor to the bean. In this case, you’d expect to get a coffee with strong fruit and wine flavors. This style of processing tends to work better for espressos.
Roast levels and your single-origin coffee
The received wisdom is that lighter roasts work better with single-origin coffees. That’s because the longer coffee beans are roasted, the more they will take on flavors from the roasting process. It will become ever more difficult to pick out the unique flavors of your single-origin beans.
However, that’s not all there is to consider. Different coffees have different flavor characteristics and these can be enhanced in different ways by roasting.
If you’re buying a single-origin coffee from an artisan supplier, put your trust in the roaster. He or she will have spent a long time working on the right roast profile to complement its flavors.
And to really understand the relationship between the coffee bean and the roasting technique, try buying the same beans at different roast levels.
This YouTube video explores the difference in roasting single-origin versus blended coffees.
Be brave and experiment!
No matter how much theory you read, the only way to really learn what single origin coffees you like is to taste them. As we’ve noted, this can be an expensive business – but there are some ways to cut the cost.
Subscription coffee companies like angelscup.com allow you to sample small quantities of new, fresh coffee every month. That way you can try lots of new flavors without spending a fortune. And you won’t be left with whole bags of expensive beans you don’t like very much.
We hope we’ve helped you navigate the sometimes confusing world of single-origin coffee. Now you know the difference between single origin and single estate, and your micro-lots from your tablones!
Use our tips on the flavors you can expect from different areas, altitudes and processing techniques to pick a coffee you might enjoy. But don’t worry if it’s not quite right! Keep experimenting and we’re sure you’ll love the great variety of flavors that single-origin coffee can offer.
If you have any questions, please comment and let us know.