Whether you’re new to specialty coffee or consider yourself a connoisseur, you are likely to hear the term “single origin” quite a bit. Why does a coffee’s origin matter?
Single-origin for most is another marketing attributes that people take to be interchangeable with “higher quality” or “specialty” coffee. Most single origin coffees are higher quality, but not for the reasons one might expect.
Commercial coffees blends beans from different growers, regions, altitudes and soil conditions for economic and historical reasons.
Centuries ago, coffee was grown primarily in north-east Africa, where the coffee plant arose natively, as well as the south-eastern top of the Arabian peninsula. While locals enjoyed coffee only from their “origin,” inventing ways to prepare and enjoy the dark elixir based on the unique characteristics of their beans, consumers in other regions such as Europe or South Asia, where coffee did not grow naturally, had a very different experience owing to generally slow pace of trade which meant that coffee beans ended up aging quite a bit before arriving in certain ports. Supply was not consistent either, with the quality varying considerably from year to year. Early roasters learned to blend different grades of coffee in order to achieve a balance of flavor and limit waste of low quality beans. Darker roasting masks defects and impurities since coffee beans’ flavor taste more and more the same as the roast becomes longer and darker.
In Europe, coffee beans and the coffee beverage appeared toward the end of the 17th century. The introduction was made primarily by interactions with the Ottoman empire which ruled over Yemen and its famous coffee regions. The Turks preferred heavily roasted coffees and used the immersion method, leaving the grinds in the cup (hence the name, “Turkish Coffee.”). This contrasted with coffee preparation in Ethiopia or Kenya, at the time, which enjoyed lighter roasts or even entirely unroasted green beans. Some speculate that this difference is related to coffee’s connection in the muslim world with mysticism and Sufism, both of which relied on the stimulating effects of caffeine to proffer greater focus and alertness. However, the reality is that the darker the roast, the lower the caffeine content (despite the “stronger” flavor).
More likely, the reasons that Europeans and by guilt of association, Americans have come to prefer darker roasts are twofold. First, there is the manner of preparation that Europeans became acquainted with when they first learned about coffee from Ottomans at the siege of Malta in the mid 17th century. Second, the previous point – the longer duration that coffee traveled in that time period on trade routes, whether packed on camels or into ships, as well as the likely longer times it was stored, meant that coffee entering European ports would be older, duskier or “rustier” in color, and sour tasting if not roasted darkly. Roasting dark is an elegant solution that Europeans turned to partly as a result of tradition, partly as a matter of personal preference, and partly to cover the unpleasantness of poor quality coffee.
Bitter and sour coffees are still a problem today, but for different reasons. In the modern world, coffee beans are shipped from point A to point B in less than two months. However, the explosion of consumer demand has at times led to unstable supply when demand has outstripped supply. Growers responded through the 20th century by mass producing coffee in locations where it may not be as suited; as well, by introducing mass production techniques such as growing in lowland areas with considerable fertilizer, or the wet process of depulping coffee. Needless to say, this yields lower quality coffee beans referred to variously as “commercial grade” or even “filler” beans. Roasters resort to these beans from different regions so as not to rely too much on any one source (e.g. because of the impact of fluctuating weather). This is true even of some coffees that purport to be single origin (e.g., coffees labeled “Central American Blend”, as well as many coffees from Brazil, Columbia and other regions)
By themselves, these beans do not yield a good tasting cup of coffee, but if they are roasted very darkly enough and blended with better coffees, the imperfections disappear. Indeed, a skilled roaster is an alchemist – transforming the sourness and weird notes in lower quality beans to something more palatable; enhancing the flavor by blending in small proportions of higher quality beans. The resulting concoction is a cup of coffee that is deceptively acceptable and costs much less than a pure, unblended single origin coffee. Longer, darker roasting and blending works hand in hand with blending of different types of coffee to essentially fool coffee drinker’s palates.
This is why single origin coffees break the modern paradigm of blending and heavy roasting. Single origin beans that are not blended yield a coffee true to its unique regional flavors; the beans’ characteristic aroma and flavor are quite distinct. The authenticity of these coffees – both good and bad – shine through. Single origin coffees will typically present a less muddled flavor profile than a blended coffee which combines beans and by extension flavors typical in those regions. In essence, single original coffee must be good in quality because where quality is concerned, there is quite simply nowhere to hide. This is partly why single origin coffees tend to be more expensive as well.
None of this means that any one single origin coffee will be the best coffee that you try. You may find that you prefer the flavor of particular single origins for their special characteristics – the brightness of Ethiopian and Kenya, the smooth, nutty and fruity Latin American coffee (like our Tarrazu coffee), the deep syrupy Sumatrans. Regardless, you will at least know what you are drinking, how it was grown, and the history behind the bean. The story of coffee, after all, is a large part of wny it captivates us to this day.