The phrase “coffee blend” typically refers to a coffee bean mixture that is made up of different roasts, styles, or tastes of coffee, though it can also sometimes refer to coffee drinks that contain flavoring syrups or other additives designed to change their overall taste profile. When coffee purists talk about blends, they are almost always discussing the actual bean mixture that gives rise to the brew in the first place. Mixtures can be made up of beans of different roasts, different varieties, or different flavor profiles.
Basics of Bean Blending
There are two kinds of coffee bean, each with its own distinct characteristics. Arabica beans are grown at high altitudes and are widely believed to be of the highest quality, even though they span quite a range of taste profiles and growing areas. They tend to have a smooth caramel aftertaste and a rich aroma. Robusta beans, by comparison, are grown at lower altitudes and usually have a much stronger flavor. This bean is generally used in making instant coffee and lower grade commercial brews.
The most straightforward blends make use of both kinds of beans, either as a way of adding some complexity to a standard Robusta brew or making an Arabica-derived drink go farther and last longer. It is also common to mix different kinds of beans from either category together, whether to create a unique taste or to maximize different roasting techniques.
Looking for Consistency
Large-scale coffee companies and cafes often market “signature” coffee blends that are the same in any shop anywhere in the world. Most of these are blends for the simple reason that consistency is often difficult to achieve from place to place and over a span of time. Like most agricultural products, coffee beans tend to vary by season. Years that are wet and fertile produce different tastes than those that are dry or unusually cold, for instance. Creating a proprietary blend rather than relying on variable crops gives manufacturers a relatively easy way to ensure a coffee that tastes the same no matter when or where it was purchased.
A coffee blend may also be a way to create unique flavor combinations and taste profiles. While much of a coffee’s taste depends on where the bean comes from, the roasting process also matters. Roasting can be very light, which yields mellow “blonde”-style drinks, or longer to create more complex smoky flavors. Beans from Ethiopia roasted in the darker Italian style will taste very different from Sumatran beans that barely touch the heat, and brewers often take advantage of these differences when creating blends with certain flavors or undertones.
When to Blend
One of the biggest questions facing coffee brewers is when blending should happen. Mixing beans from different sources before roasting produces a drink that has a uniform strength but more complex depth, while mixing them after roasting can directly impact the mouth feel and may have a more pronounced effect on the overall taste composite. A lot depends on the brewer’s goals and is usually a matter of trial and error.
Sometimes, coffees are mixed in order to make them ideal for a specific purpose: espresso blends are a good example. Espresso is a style of coffee that is generally quite strong and bitter. There are no specific espresso beans that grow, though; coffee that is sold under the “espresso” name is almost always a blend of the darkest, strongest beans and roasts available.
Specialty shops and gourmet brands may also create blends that are optimized for filter drips, for a French press, or for instant coffee machines. These are usually specially formulated to release the best taste under certain known conditions, like brew time and temperature.
In some cases, coffee beans are blended with “outside” flavors like hazelnut, almond, or vanilla in order to create a sort of flavor blend that can be popular with consumers. Most of the time, these sorts of beans are marketed simply as flavored coffees, but may also be sold as blends. The main difference between this sort of “blend” and one based solely on bean quality or roast has to do with how the ultimate taste is achieved.
Brewers typically add spices, nuts, and other elements to the beans as they roast in order to cause them to have a different taste. Sometimes, coatings or syrups are also added once roasting is complete. Beans treated this way tend to have an immediately recognizable smell that impacts how the ultimate brew will taste.
Blending at Home
Most coffee blends are made for commercial sale, but there is no reason why adventurous home brewers cannot experiment with their own concoctions as well. Roasting at home is often very hard to do, but mixing pre-roasted beans together is a great place to start. People can create their own flavor mixes by adding spices and syrups to beans before brewing, as well.
The Creamer Controversy
There is some dispute among aficionados when it comes to creamers and other flavors that are made to coffee once it has been brewed. Some people claim that these later additions create unique coffee blends because they alter the taste of the drink and make it unique. The same argument can extend to specialty drinks that are served in coffee shops, like pumpkin spice lattes or caramel coffee beverages. Most experts separate these sorts of drinks out of the “coffee blend” realm, though, reserving that term for something that relates more to how the base coffee drink tastes — not how it is manipulated by the consumer.