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Blending In

For truly fabulous coffee, use more than one kind of bean

Sam Gugino
Posted: January 10, 2001

Blending In

For truly fabulous coffee, use more than one kind of bean

By Sam Gugino

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In the past two decades, premium-wine drinkers have been deluged with single-varietal wines such as California Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay, Australian Shiraz, and Argentinean Malbec. Likewise, premium-coffee drinkers have been flooded with comparable single-origin coffees from places such as Sumatra, Kenya and Costa Rica. These stand-alone coffees can be quite satisfying, even thrilling. But blended coffee, like blended wine, is usually more complete and harmonious, and will show greater complexity and depth of flavor. With grapes, a big-boned Cabernet Sauvignon might be mixed with a fleshier Merlot, Cabernet Franc and others to make Meritage. Similarly, for a full-bodied Sumatran coffee bean, the natural partner would be a lighter, more acidic Central American bean, creating a great-tasting blended coffee. The most complex and interesting coffees are blended, said Jerry Baldwin, chairman of Peets Coffee & Tea in Emeryville, Calif. At Peets, their blended coffees are so popular that they represent 75 percent of sales.

Combining coffees in a special or unique way also enables coffee companies to identify themselves with signature blends. Any company can go out and buy a Colombian supremo, but not everyone has a Nantucket Blend, asserted Rick Peyser, spokesman for Green Mountain Coffee Roasters, in Waterbury, Vt. At Green Mountain, blends represent about 40 percent of company sales, up from 30 percent 10 years ago. Its Nantucket Blend, like many blends, is a registered, proprietary name, and as is the case with many coffee roasters, Green Mountain is reluctant to be specific about what beans go into a trademark blend. Peyser will divulge that the Nantucket Blend is made of beans from Central and South America and Indonesia, all of which are given a full city roast (a medium-dark roast akin to a light French roast or Viennese roast). The recipe also calls for some French-roast beans (a dark roast similar to and often darker than espresso). As a result, Green Mountain's Nantucket Blend is pleasantly rich, with a sweet, nutty aroma and good balance.

Whereas premium wines can be derived from many different grape types, premium single-origin coffees all come from the same plant: Coffea arabica. Another coffee plant, Coffea robusta, produces lower quality beans that are used in many supermarket blends. Coffee beans get their distinctive character from the area in which they are grown, much as a wine's character reflects its terroir. Many purists feel that blending mutes the distinctiveness of varieties, but Mary Williams, senior vice president at Starbucks, disagrees. If you are good at blending, each of the characteristics in the coffees will be enhanced. There's a gestalt to blending that creates a finished product that is greater than the sum of its parts, she said.

While Starbucks and other premium roasters blend for higher quality, blends are not always created with improvement in mind. Mass-produced or commercial coffees, like those that come in cans in supermarkets, are blended primarily for consistent taste at lower cost. A large coffee company might normally use, say, 50 percent Brazilian in its blend, said Donald Schoenholt, president of Gillies Coffee Company in Brooklyn, N.Y. But one year that might cost too much to sell at the price they want. So they have to look around for a cheaper coffee [a lesser arabica or a robusta] that will still give them the taste customers expect.

One of the first blends to gain widespread acceptance was Mocha Java, which is one-third Yemen Mocha from the Arabian Peninsula and two-thirds Java Arabica from Indonesia. The Yemen Mocha has wonderful acidity but only medium body. The Java, on the other hand, has plenty of body but very little acidity. Together, they form a more complete coffee.

Achieving a good body/acidity balance is but one of many blending goals. For example, Starbucks Christmas Blend is a dark-roasted, full-bodied combination of Indonesian and Latin American coffees that complement heavier holiday foods. The coffee used in espresso is almost always a blend since the intense nature of the espresso-brewing process can accentuate any beans characteristic, sometimes to a fault. Thus, blending is necessary to get a balanced cup.

Sam Gugino, Wine Spectator's Tastes columnist, is the author of the recently published Low-Fat Cooking to Beat the Clock.

For the complete article, please see the Jan 31, 2001, issue of Wine Spectator magazine, page 21.

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