The Craft of Blends
Why we love our comforting blends and how we make them
Our main concern at Blue Bottle is whether or not a coffee is delicious. Single origins are exciting for their transparency—giving us a sensory connection to specific places and people. Blends, on the other hand, are appreciated for providing a consistent and delicious cup everyday.
What Is a Blend?
A blend combines coffee from different countries or regions around the world to achieve a unique expression of flavor, acidity, and body. Some blends are borne out of experimentation, while others are the fulfillment of a desired profile. When done right, they create a kind of harmony that individual coffees cannot often mimic.
Making a blend consistent throughout the year is much harder than it sounds. It's like a puzzle, in which the pieces are always changing, but the overall effect is the same. We select a component coffee for specific characteristics. Because we source from all parts of the coffee-growing world—and coffee ripens at different times of the year—components may change with the season to optimize freshness. Our Quality Control team tests every batch from the roastery to ensure that a blend tastes as it should, remaining constant despite shifting parts.
The reward of such efforts is a coffee that's truly unique to us, offering predictability to our menu and familiarity for our guests. Our three mainstays are Giant Steps, Bella Donovan, and Three Africas. Most of our espressos are blends, too.
History of Blends
Coffee started as a commercial crop, and was "single origin" by default. By the sixteenth century, cafes across the Middle East served coffee from Yemen. As coffee cultivation spread, it became economical to make more predictable, sizable, and distinct blends.
Conventional wisdom tells us that the very first of these was Mocha-Java, in which a bright coffee from Yemen (shipped from the Red Sea port of Al-Makha, or Mocha) was added to the heavy, chocolatey coffees being shipped out of Java by Dutch colonizers.
The earliest European coffeehouses relied on blends to win over fans. Despite critics fearful of “bitter Mohammedan gruel”—and monarchs commanding their subjects to avoid coffee—its allure was unstoppable.
As coffee companies became larger, pre-ground coffees came into vogue and the result was an overall decline in quality. By the twentieth century, everyday drinkers had resigned themselves to cans of pre-ground coffee, which smelled great the first time they were opened (often thanks to sprayed on “coffee” fragrance), but were mediocre at best. One exception was Italian espresso.
Though it was invented in the 1880s, espresso became indispensable after World War II, when quality green coffee was scarce. Roasters would add lower-quality Robusta coffee beans from Africa to slightly better coffees from Brazil. The high-pressure extraction would yield a concentrated coffee that gave the perception of acidity while masking any “off” flavors of the inferior coffee blend. While espresso made with a high-quality blend is all the better for it, the brewing method has proven its ability to transform poor coffee into something that tastes pretty good.
Decades later across the Atlantic, Peet's emerged as a coffee innovator. In the 1960s, their signature blends, which used well-sourced coffee acidic enough to withstand dark roasting, were nothing short of revelatory.
Why We Create Coffee Blends
It's not uncommon that a guest will come into the cafe, look frustratedly at the menu, and then ask a barista if they can "just have a cup of coffee." The array of choices can be confusing—or paralyzing. When this happens, the barista will offer whatever blend is on bar that day. In these moments, we look to our blends to provide comfort, relief, and pleasure. We want to give our guests the most delicious version of their platonic coffee ideal. If we're lucky, we get to start a conversation and find out more about what each guest likes and how to help them find it.
Should You Add Milk or Cream?
We like the versatility of blends and their ability to take milk or cream well. For the most part, when cream is added to a delicate single origin, the unique imprint of that coffee is diminished, so we often recommend drinking them black.
Our blends, on the other hand, are made for such decadence. By nature, they emphasize mouthfeel and body, whereas single origins tend to highlight the clear expression of a few distinct flavor notes.
Mouthfeel and body are achieved by the type of coffee used in the blend (for example, the natural-process Ethiopia in Bella Donovan contributes a syrupy quality) and the way that coffee is roasted.
Blends also take a tighter water-to-coffee ratio than single origins. This means that the total dissolved solubles (TDS)—the amount of coffee dissolved in the water—is greater. So the perception that a blend coffee is “bigger” or “heavier” is actually true—there’s more of it in each sip.
Single Origins or Blends?
The question of whether to drink blends or single origins is entirely a matter of personal taste.
As James once said, “some customers are searching for novelty, excitement, and surprise, while others yearn for routine, perfectly suited to their preferences. Fortunately, we can satisfy both tastes—our guests needn't choose.”
If you’re like us, and you have an affinity for both, here’s a suggestion that might delight you: Enjoy the comfort of a blend in the morning (maybe with a touch of warm milk) and try a vivacious single origin in the afternoon.