If you walk into coffee shop today, you can’t just order a cup without perusing a long menu and answering a few questions. Which country of origin? Which roast? Latte? Flat white? You can credit this coffee-buying process to what’s known as “third wave,” which emphasizes high-quality, single origin coffee and personalized customer service.
Let’s start with the first and second waves of coffee. The first wave came in the 1960s, when coffee consumption grew exponentially. Most households brewed it at home, and almost every grocery store had it stocked. The second wave came with the increase of quality coffee and coffee shops like Starbucks and Peets. The everyday consumer began to have access to more specialty coffee drinks.
The third wave came as that specialty coffee movement went to the next level. Third wave involves super-high quality, small-batch coffee, brewed by expert baristas with true craftsmanship. It’s about providing a level of service that comes with extremely specialty coffee. With third-wave coffee the barista is an artist, and the customer is able to get a cup that perfectly fits their tastes. And one of the crowning elements of the third wave is single origin.
Single origin is one of those buzzwords that not every consumer fully understands. The meaning is often simplified to a coffee that’s sourced from one single producer, crop, or region in one coffee. It can be as specific as labeling the estate name, the specific lot the coffee was grown on, or even a specific varietal from a specific farm.
Single origin coffees allow roasters to pick varieties with unique character. The differences come from the growing conditions—soil, weather, and cultivation practices, which influence the final flavor.
Single origin coffee is like purchasing a specialty wine. The highest-quality wines come from a specific vineyard, during a specific year, when the growing conditions created a unique blend of flavors. That’s why many baristas will prefer a specific single origin - the weather on one side of the mountain will produce different flavor notes than the other. It’s a 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.
When expert baristas are knowledgeable about their single origin options, they know more precisely where the flavor comes from. This can allow a barista more control over the variables at hand when making each shot (so they can adjust the amount of coffee per dose, water temperature, and length of extraction).
This is not to say that single origin is the only way to enjoy high-quality coffee. For those looking for a consistent coffee experience, blends are just as excellent. Blends get a bad rap, because some roasters use mediocre quality beans for their blends. But today’s third-wave coffee roasters will make a high-quality coffee blend from a variety of single origins.
Because each single origin can vary in flavor depending on the season and location, blends allow roasters to create a coffee with a consistent taste. For the everyday consumer, this is what they’re looking for. It’s a delicious cup of coffee that tastes more or less the same, and can easily be altered with their choice of milks and sweeteners. Single origins can be more finicky, and don’t always pair well with your go-to 2%.
For fans of espresso, blends are actually a better choice. The extraction heightens the flavors found in the espresso beans. When made with a single origin roast, whatever their natural essences are tend to be somewhat exaggerated when brewed in this manner. A blend of different single origin coffees with different inherent characteristics, will better balance out the flavor. A well-blended mix will also work best when making espresso drinks like lattes and cappuccinos.
So which is better - a blend or single origin? It truly depends on your taste and your coffee drinking habits. If you brew a quick cup in the morning, pour it in your travel mug, and hit the road, a high-quality blend will be the perfect choice. It’s consistent, works well with your favorite milk, and can be enjoyed by the entire household. But if you’re very specific about your coffee interests, and like the process of grinding your own using a french press, and savoring every sip, go single origin! It allows you to learn more about the beans and where they come from. Like a wine connoisseur, experiment with different roasts until you find your favorite.