The previous segment, part two, left off with us inhaling the aroma from the freshly roasted coffee beans. Yes that might be enough to satisfy some, but most of us also want to drink the coffee too. Grinding the beans and brewing a cup will complete the process. A bright winy cup of Kenyan or a smooth, sonorous mug of Java will be sure to satisfy. There are many single varietals that will suit your mood at any occasion, but what about a coffee that is a little more spicy than the Colombian you had for breakfast, or a little sweeter than your regular Guatemalan? This is where the 'art' of blending comes in.
'Art', that is an unusual word to come from one who claims to be a craftsman. If coffee roasting is a craft, that is it attempts to bring out the best qualities of the materials it works with (the coffee beans), then where does art, or the creation of new and unique things, enter into it? Well blending is the area where those who have the artists temperament can use their skills. They can carefully mix coffees to create a new taste that is so singularly distinctive that it truly represents the artist who has created it.
Unfortunately, having absolutely no artistic abilities myself, it has been necessary to blend as a craftsman, trying to recreate tastes from the past or playing 'matchmaker' for coffee beans, introducing them to each other and seeing if they 'get along'. I fully realise that I will probably never create a coffee taste that no one has experienced before, and that any combination of beans that I may intentionally or accidentally mix together will have already been done previously by someone else. Blending has occurred from the earliest times that various coffees were available, at one time the only two areas that cultivated coffee were Yemen and the Dutch colonies in what is now Indonesia. These coffees were mixed to create the original Mocha - Java blend, the taste of which many coffee blenders still attempt to reproduce. It is my hope that by blending together various coffees I will be able to find those that compliment each other in a way that will produce a cup which is pleasing.
There are different reasons to blend coffee. A 'brand name' blend produced by a large company needs to taste the same each time it is brewed. Each 'lot' of green beans might have varying qualities and in an attempt to keep both the taste and the price constant it can be necessary to make appropriate changes in the 'recipe' of the blend.
Another use of blending is to take beans which have 'incomplete' taste profiles and mix them with other beans to achieve a more balanced coffee, few coffees by themselves have a well balanced profile. A coffee that is perceived as having a lot of acidity and a light body might be blended with a bean having poor acidity and a heavier body. The result can be, if it is done right, to take average quality beans and use them to produce a good blended coffee.
Blend and taste, then blend and taste again, it may take weeks or months of work, keeping careful notes, to achieve what is desired. It is not just a matter of mixing together all the left over odds and ends and naming it House Blend. The biggest problem with the 'mystery blend' approach would not be just the random inconsistency of it but the danger that, if by accident it happened to produce something very excellent, it could have the potential to become a great source of frustration in never being able to reproduce the same 'perfect' taste.
Through a process of frequent 'cupping' of coffees from the original samples and through the roasting process, the roastmaster becomes very familiar with the various beans that he has selected to work with. This knowledge of taste and aroma is the foundation upon which the blends are built. It is possible to blend to try and achieve a desired taste. If a sample of a coffee is available the blender might try to reproduce it.
However if the desired taste exists only in the mind of the blender or the customer, the task becomes very difficult. Ones imagination might translate well into visual images, and for composers of music there are those who 'hear' the music inside their heads and can write it down, but the sense of taste has a hard time travelling from the brain to the cup (at least in my experience). Fortunately the sense of smell is remembered well and the slightest whiff of a pleasant coffee can trigger the tastebuds.
Most coffees respond differently to roasting, different beans are often roasted first and blended after (post-blending). Post-blended coffees allow the particular tastes of each type of bean to remain somewhat distinct in the final blend. Coffees that respond well to similar roast profiles are sometimes pre-blended before roasting This seems to meld the tastes of the individual beans (this will be discussed in greater detail in a later article on 'Roasting and Blending Espresso').
Blends can be 'straights' composed of the same bean at different roasts, they can be different beans at the same degree of roast or a combination of both. Frequently coffees that seem to embody the desired tastes are selected and after blending these qualities cancel each other out or a blend that is successful at one colour of roast can be a disappointment when roasted a bit darker or lighter. Sip and spit, sip and spit, test again as a vac-pot, press, drip, or espresso, then finally sit and have a mug when it is right.