Once And For All: What Is A Single Origin Coffee

BY BORIS POVOLOTSKY - 06 Jan 2024

If you’re a home brewing enthusiast or a proud owner of an espresso machine, the term ‘single origin coffee’ might have piqued your curiosity. This term has gained traction alongside the rise of specialty coffee and the third wave coffee movement, resonating with home baristas and local cafes alike. But what is single origin coffee, and why does it matter? This article aims to clarify the concept and provide you with all the essential information about single origin coffee in an accessible manner. By the end, you’ll have a deeper understanding of the coffee you choose and perhaps consider the story behind each bean before placing your next order with a roaster.

In the past, people often gravitated towards espresso that was made from a blend. A blend means the coffee consists of various coffee beans, not from a single source of origin. For example, a blend can consist of 80% Arabica and 20% Robusta, and even 80% of Arabica can consist of several Arabica beans, from different sources. The focus was less on the beans’ origins and more on the overall taste. I think the coffee experience has expanded, fostering a curiosity about the origins and narratives behind their coffee. This extends beyond just the type of bean to the entire lifecycle of the coffee, including the processing methods, the journey from decaffeination to ethical sourcing, and more.

Thus, single origin coffee isn’t just about the beans coming from a single location; it’s about the entire experience and story it brings to your cup. Let’s dive in and start with the basics of what single origin coffee is all about.

What is Single Origin Coffee?

Simply put, from Wikipedia:

“Single-origin coffee is coffee grown within a single known geographic origin.”

Single origin coffee is all about purity and a deep connection to the place of its origin. It refers to coffee beans harvested from one specific location—be it a single farm, a collection of farms within the same region, or even a particular country. Unlike blends that mix beans from various origins, single origin coffee stands out for its unique flavor profile that reflects the distinct soil, climate, and cultivation methods of its geographic area.

Here’s what sets single origin coffee apart:

  • Unique Flavor Profiles: The beauty of single origin coffee lies in its ability to showcase the distinctive flavors and characteristics inherent to its growing region. This can range from floral notes in Ethiopian Yirgacheffe to the earthy undertones of Sumatran coffee.
  • Traceability and Transparency: When you buy single origin coffee, you’re often provided with detailed information about where the beans came from. This might include the farm’s name, the altitude at which the coffee was grown, and the processes used to wash and dry the beans. This level of detail supports transparency in the coffee industry and helps ensure fair practices.
  • Seasonal Variations: Just like any agricultural product, coffee is subject to the rhythms of the seasons. Single origin coffees can offer a diverse array of flavors throughout the year, reflecting the seasonal changes in the environment where they were produced.

By choosing single origin coffee, you’re not just getting a cup of coffee; you’re experiencing the essence of a particular place and time. It’s a way to travel the world through your senses and appreciate the diversity of coffee cultivation across the globe.

Credit: yirgacheffeunion, Yirga Cheffe Farmers

Single Origin Coffee vs Blend

Now that we’ve touched on the essence of single origin coffee, let’s compare it with another popular choice among coffee drinkers: the blend. Understanding the differences between these two can help you make a more informed decision about your coffee preferences.

When you buy a house blend from your local roaster, you’re buying a mix of various coffees, from various origins. This is the main difference. Some blends consist of various Arabica single origin coffee beans, so let’s say your roaster has some single origin Columbian coffee and a Brazilian as well, he makes a blend, mixing those two. Typically, a blend would include more than two, but less than five coffees.

Good high-quality roasters follow a recipe and a methodology to achieve a blend that creates a pleasant and harmonious flavor profile in your cup. A roaster may decide to change a single coffee in his blend due to harvest seasonal changes, he’ll identify the best coffee that can replace the one that’s gone for a consistent flavor profile.

Personally, I favor blends with 10-30% Robusta. Perhaps, I’m too unsophisticated to like many of the popular light roast fruity coffees. For some reason, I liked light roasts more when prepared as a filter coffee, rather than espresso.

Exploring Single Origin Coffee Regions

Now that we understand what single origin coffee is and its distinctions from other types of coffee, let’s take a virtual journey through some popular single origin coffee regions:

  1. Ethiopia: Known as the birthplace of coffee, Ethiopia offers an array of flavor profiles ranging from fruity and floral to wine-like acidity.
  2. Colombia: Colombian coffee is often associated with balanced flavors and medium acidity. However, there is so much diversity between region to region.
  3. Sumatra: The Indonesian island of Sumatra produces unique coffee with earthy, full-bodied, spicy flavors. Some of my favorite coffees are from Sumatra. That being said, some of my least favorites also came from Sumatra.
  4. Kenya: Kenyan coffee is renowned for its bright and clear flavors. Look out for tasting notes of black currant, and red berries.

Those are just a few examples of the many astonishing regions that grow and process coffee. The flavor “profile” I provided is so fairly generic and doesn’t describe the whole region’s coffee flavors. Coffee differs from region to region, from farm to farm, and from roaster to roaster, so please, take those with a grain of coffee.

Roasting Single Origin Coffee

Roasting is a transformative process that not only develops the flavors within coffee beans but also reveals the story of their origin. When it comes to single origin coffee, the roasting approach is particularly important because it can either accentuate or mask the distinctive qualities of the beans. Each roast level—light, medium, medium-dark, and dark—alters the coffee’s profile in different ways, and the choice of roast is ultimately a matter of personal preference and intention.

Light Roasts

Light roasts are often recommended for those looking to familiarize themselves with a coffee’s unique flavor profile. Stopping shortly after the first crack, light roasts preserve the bean’s original flavors, which can range from bright, acidic notes to delicate floral and fruity undertones. These roasts are particularly suited for highlighting the subtle differences inherent to beans from specific regions or farms. However, it’s important to note that light roasts are not the only way to enjoy single origin coffee; they are simply a starting point for exploring the coffee’s natural characteristics.

Medium Roasts

Medium roasts reach a point between the first and second crack. The beans take on a more balanced profile, with a reduction in acidity and the emergence of more body. This roast level starts to introduce a fuller flavor while still maintaining some of the unique characteristics of the single origin bean. Medium roasts can bring out the sweetness and chocolatey notes that might be overpowered in a light roast.

Medium-Dark Roasts

As the roast progresses into the medium-dark territory, the beans begin to develop richer, darker flavors with some oil beginning to show on the surface. The coffee’s body becomes more pronounced, and the brightness of a light roast gives way to deeper notes of bittersweet chocolate or spice. This roast level can complement the intrinsic qualities of certain single origin beans, especially those with inherently earthy or nutty profiles.

Dark Roasts

Dark roasts are characterized by their dark brown color and shiny, oily surface. The roasting process has now dominated the flavor, often resulting in a strong, bold cup with diminished acidity and a heavy body. The original flavors of the single origin beans are mostly eclipsed by the intense roasty characteristics. While not typically recommended for single origin coffees if the goal is to highlight the bean’s origin-specific traits, dark roasts can still be enjoyable and offer a different perspective on the beans.

Ultimately, the roasting of single origin coffee is as much an art as it is a science, and there is no “correct” roast level. It’s up to roasters and consumers to decide which roast best suits their palate. While light roasts can serve as an introduction to the distinct flavors of a coffee’s origin, some coffee drinkers may prefer the richer, more intense flavors found in darker roasts. This preference can vary from person to person and can even change over time or depending on the context, such as the time of day or the method of brewing.

The recommendation to start with lighter roasts is simply a suggestion to experience the coffee in its most unadulterated form, where the characteristics imparted by the bean’s origin are most pronounced. However, enjoying coffee is a personal journey, and part of the adventure is experimenting with different roast levels to discover what resonates with your taste preferences.

Whether you’re a fan of the bright acidity of a light roast, the balanced profile of a medium roast, the rich complexity of a medium-dark roast, or the bold intensity of a dark roast, the key is to appreciate the unique journey that single origin coffee offers. Each roast level can provide a different perspective on the same bean, allowing you to explore and enjoy the diversity of flavors that coffee has to offer.

Conclusion

If you’ve been reading along, you can understand better the deeper meaning of single origin coffee and why it has risen in popularity so much in recent years. IMHO, they enhance the whole experience and expand it into what it is today. This has an effect even on local cafes, as well. I much prefer to have a coffee in a cafe that serves fresh coffee from a local roaster, that is much more likely to be a single origin or an interesting blend, instead of an imported bag of Italian blends that god only knows how old they are. And I really like Italian blends, that isn’t the issue.

You can go and order yourself a good bag of single origin coffee. This time, try to read and take interest in the context and background that is provided on each bag of coffee. Where is it from? which farm? google the farm, read about the roasting process. Then, be mindful of the coffee flavors as your make yourself a cup of coffee, be it espresso, filter, moka, whatever.

If there’s some information missing about your coffee, contact the roaster and ask them a question. I believe good roasters are more than happy to discuss their coffee and answer some questions. Not only that, they’ll be thrilled to give you some recommendations on how to prepare their coffee the best you can, in terms of brewing ratios, grind size, etc.

I hope you’re informed by now, on what is single origin coffee and why it matters. If anything is missing in the article that you might want to ask me or suggest that I add to it, then please, contact me.


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