Single malt, single vineyard, single origin. The terms are used to signal – or at least market – higher quality, though they’re not necessarily well-understood by consumers. For Scotch, single malt (and single grain, for that matter) refers to the blends of whiskey from a single producer, whereas for wine, single vineyard refers to a certain block of a vineyard or the entire vineyard where all the fruit (or at least 95% of the grapes by US law) is grown. Whether the vineyard is planted with one or multiple varieties, the promise of a single vineyard wine is that the unique character of that location and that vintage will shine through in your glass. For the coffee industry, the equivalent expression is "single origin." Unfortunately, the term lacks an official definition, and baristas seldom proffer explanation, resulting in customer confusion. Yet more often than not single origin represents the pinnacle of quality and character -- and price -- in coffee, and therefore deserves elucidation.
One of the most common ways to experience single origin coffee is by ordering a pour over at a coffee shop, though this option is rarely available during the morning rush (hand brewing requires too much time). And that makes sense – rather than hurriedly guzzle caffeine through the hole of a plastic lid, one should ideally be seated to savor tasting an Ethiopian or Burundi from a ceramic mug. For example, you wouldn’t pour To Kalon into a red solo cup to take on a dog walk, would you? (Well, maybe a Govino.) While a single origin will usually be sold at a higher price, baristas infrequently, unless asked, offer an explanation of the drink's compelling qualities. The blackboard might list a few esoteric tasting notes only a tiny fraction of consumers will relate to. Contrast that with a tasting room experience at a winery, in which customers expect to listen to a well-rehearsed pitch as a barrier to sipping.
Of course, since products labeled “single” can command a higher price, there is incentive to stretch the boundaries of what that simple adjective means leaving the term open to interpretation. While a dictionary-style definition of single origin, if it existed, would refer to a geographic area, in application, that area ranges in extremes. The term can be applied broadly to encompass an entire country with a variety of beans (it’s our Kenyan!) or refer narrowly to one variety of coffee picked on a 3-acre family farm on a specific day of the harvest. In the latter, the rain levels, growing conditions, and level of fruit maturation contribute to a unique product expressive of time and place. It’s akin to the concept of terroir in wine, and with the right care in processing, storing, and roasting, the coffee’s taste profile can be indicative of where it was grown and how it was produced. Like a great Burgundy capable of springing more tears than a viewing of Steel Magnolias, coffee, too, can be transcendent.
Not all consumers may have an interest in paying more for single origins, nor waiting the time it takes to brew separately from the house blend that’s served in a large batch. For those who prefer a consistent experience, delivered quickly in a café, or spending as little time as possible at home without scales and manual brewers, then blends are preferable. Developed for a consistent taste profile which can be maintained year over year, blends tend to be roasted darker, with more traditionally recognizable flavor notes that combine predictably with milk in espresso-based drinks.
Consumers may notice it’s uncommon for the coffee used in espresso, whether offered in shops or sold in retail as bags, to be offered as single origins. In espresso preparation, as the grinds are subjected to more extreme conditions -- nine times the atmospheric pressure, half a minute of brewing time – the flavor profile of a single origin may be amplified to the point where it’s out of balance, or at least seem that way for those accustomed to a more typical shot. Bright citrus notes in a single-origin filtered coffee can become an arresting, overly lemony sensation in an inharmonious espresso. It may take precision and more experimentation, and therefore more time, to adjust the dozen or so factors that contribute to an optimal extraction and a great espresso. The default in many shops, and on the shelves, is to use a darkly roasted “espresso blend” which is largely responsible for leading people to believe that espresso beans are different from filtered coffee beans. It’s the safer route, but if your corner shop can produce a good single origin espresso, that’s a clear sign your barista is paying close attention.
So, what does this mean for you, the coffee drinker? Single origin beans are invariably specialty coffee and picked by hand, usually in small farms in far flung equatorial countries. When buying beans off a shelf, you’ll likely notice that the label may not state single origin, but they should still be fairly easy to identify. The bags will list the country, and most likely, the region and farm or processing center. Prices generally start at $15 for a 12-ounce bag, and can be priced up to the mid-twenties. These offerings are a byproduct of coffee’s third wave which is in part a movement to recognize the value of the farms and the linkage between a coffee’s roots and the taste in the cup. Third wave roasters and coffee shops that have swept through every metropolitan area should have at least a couple examples. Through the mail, customers can find several single origins whole beans from roasters like Stumptown and Blue Bottle. Some of these roasters, such as George Howell, will even offer mostly single origins.
It’s ultimately up to the consumer to determine how much time and money they’re willing to invest to explore single origins. Those who are willing to try something that doesn’t taste like generic java may initially find single origin expressions, usually roasted lighter to bring out subtle aromas and tasting notes, strange. The body may be more tea-like, the flavors fruitier and citric rather than nutty or chocolaty. There may be a slight adjustment, a recalibration of expectation of what coffee tastes like, but like learning to love beets freshly dug from the earth after growing up thinking they came, like Folgers, from a can, it’s worth it.
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