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Terminology and the Conceptualisation of Flavour - Blends

May 29, 2013

Flavour topics – part 3

In essence, these three posts have all been about the way we think of flavour; the way we consider it and turn it into concepts in our head, which are then discussed and exchanged. In the first post I wanted to touch on the fascinating nature of taste, that we can not only interpret flavour differently from a conscious point of view, but that we can have different sensory input altogether even from the same physical tasting object. As we moved in to the second post I wanted to look at the allocation of flavour, i.e., the expectation that something may be bitter or acidic, and that therefore the labelling may not be correct but just fits easily within what appears to be logical or within specific reference points.

This post will focus more specifically on language. How terminology can mean different things in different contexts, how it can be misused and how some of it seems to make sense, but then, after a little pondering, it doesn't. I am going to use blends and blending as the case study for the article. It is not an anti-blend post. On that note what even is a blend? I will look at this definition shortly.

I would also like to clarify the difference between challenging the rationalisation of preferences and challenging preferences themselves. I have stated in many posts before that I don’t think everybody should like the same thing and that thought processes that don’t allow for different tastes are prejudiced and exclusive, as well as snobby and just plain stupid. First of all we need to identify what we are talking about - our goals, and even then we may disagree, but at this point it’s a more useful disagreement. This boils down to the fact that we are all entitled to like different things. However, it is worth questioning the way we explain these preferences, and more specifically, the reasons we give for thinking one thing is better than something else; and by this I mean reasons beyond, “I just prefer the way it tastes.”

Back to that question, what is a blend?

A blend is a mixture of component parts, but how exactly does this relate to coffee? Commonly, espresso blends are comprised of coffees from many parts of the world, from different origins. The term Origin in coffee is often very broad, as single origin only means country of origin, i.e. Ethiopian coffee or a Brazilian coffee. The coffees can easily be blended within that country. To make a comparison with wine: it would be the equivalent of saying a single origin wine is from France or Chile, nothing more. So let’s pick an instance in which there is more traceability and specificity: a single estate farm. Do we now have something that is definitely not a blend? Most single estate farms comprise of various Arabica varieties. What we happily call “not a blend” in coffee would in wine be deemed a blend (a blend of grape varieties – here a blend of Arabica varieties). More than anything, this just shows the lack of provenance and specificity in coffee’s history and the way it’s been traded.

To take this thought process further, even a plot made up of 100% Catuai is a blend, a blend of individual beans grown on different plants, each from their own coffee fruit, each with a slightly different origin, even if the differences in that origin are only 100 meters. Is this now a pedantic discussion? How discernible would this actually be to flavour? It’s hard to tell, because it’s not often done, but a few farms do, a good example is Hacienda Esmeralda, they grow the same variety (geisha) on the same “farm” but in different plots/lots, and the difference is amazing. There is a thread of similarity in flavour, but distinct differences in character. It’s rare (although becoming more common) that coffee is divided up and monitored in a way that allows these differences to really be highlighted. It’s arguable therefore that all coffee is in some ways always a blend. This is obviously not useful when describing coffees, but it is at the same time an interesting consideration, especially when the discussion of blends and single origins can descend into over-simplicity. What is the most useful conceptual line to draw when using the term blend in coffee?

A few pieces of terminology that accompany the term blend and are used in citing why a blend may be a superior approach to espresso are those of complexity and balance. To be honest, this kind of thinking has diminished greatly but it’s still worth considering the concepts themselves and the repercussion of this thought process. The terms balance and complexity have a wider reach that goes beyond blends.  I am not assuming that everybody feels and thinks about Blends in the same way but an often touted assumption is that blends are inherently more complex and balanced.

So, complexity. What does this mean as a taste descriptor? Well, from a physical standpoint, complexity denotes “something with many parts in intricate arrangement”

From a flavour point of view it is slightly different. A wine definition quotes it as follows: “many, different well merged flavours adding interest and personality to a wine to the point of being fascinating.”

Now what I would like to look at here is the easy confusion between physical notions of complexity and sensory complexity. It makes sense to suggest that a blend of multiple coffees is a more complex ingredient as it contains more parts, but does this naturally result in a more complex flavour? If this was the case, lets follow this path of logic and see where it takes us. It would suggest that more stuff equals more complexity, right? So then surely cramming the most coffees possible into a blend would result in the most complexity. How about 20 cup of excellence coffees – that would be twentyfold the goodness, right? No. I’m having a bit of fun here; no one thinks this. It makes no sense because of that wine definition of complexity – personality!

Complexity of flavour does not exist without character of flavour. Each of those cup of excellence coffees was judged on its character, its personality – importantly, on its own. What that means is that 100 percent of the available space in the cup was given to that one coffee and its personality – Its character and its complexity. This isn't to say blends can’t have character and that therefore single estates are superior, but rather to establish that the character of each coffee in a blend will be affected by the other coffees in the blend. Each coffee no longer has 100 percent of the available space. You will no longer see their individual characteristics but something unique to their combination – that something will not and can not be the coffees sharing the stage equally, i.e. it’s not like you can see all the separate characters in the cup at the same time. They affect each other. Their acidities combine and alter each other, as do their sweetness’s and their bitterness’s etc. Your perception of flavour also changes.

This conclusion questions the logic of the commonly cited explanations of blend building. Often it may be stated that one coffee brings body, another coffee sweetness and this other coffee acidity. But the coffees are more complex than this aren't they? Yes, this may be a way of describing a blending process, but at the same time each of the coffees has acidity, body, etc. So some of the acidity in the cup will be influenced by the other coffees, not just the one which was put there for acidity. Simply put, they all affect each other, and as regards complexity, it is arguable that a blend of many, many parts could very easily compromise complexity by compromising character. This may not be the case, but it’s also definitely not the case that more parts equals more complexity of flavour.

Now, at this point, it’s useful to consider that other word, the one that often sits next to complexity, and that is balance.

How much can these two really sit side by side? Well it depends on your definition of balance. Does it represent a set evenness or does it represent things working together to create something harmonious? These two may sound strikingly similar, but they are different and importantly so. Evenness is problematic, because it is in danger of flattening things out and homogenizing character. And without character we don’t have complexity because personality is lost. So we could very easily have something that is a balance of flavour parts but that displays very little complexity. Equally we could have something that has balance of sweet, acid and bitter and still has character, But if applied across the board it limits the complexity we can have coffee to coffee.  By trying to achieve the same balance of flavour components continuously we are always in danger of compromising the character of the individual coffees, the very personalities that give us complexity. But an even balance definitely doesn’t, by virtue of its being even, then equal complexity. The only balance that equals complexity is the kind of balance which allows for character and therefore complexity to shine, which is the second definition of balance – Harmony. It’s when something works.

Harmony can be more applicable to character. It can be applied to the way the coffee’s flavour components work together to create something with a positive balance. Going back to the last post – if the individual’s desired balance in espresso is chocolaty and very low on acidity, then it requires a different balance to something sugary, floral and citrus. Balance, as a throw away comment, is not particularly useful, neither is complexity. A positive balance is debatable.

Both of these words can have value, but maybe just not as much as they have been imbued with. And especially not without framing and context.

So, here we have established why blends don’t simply equal an achievement of complexity and balance simply by being a blend, by consisting of many parts. As well as why the simple notions that single estate or co-op coffee (more specific origin coffee) are destined to be simpler, is also illogical.

Now, this really concludes the main reason I wanted to explore blends, in order to challenge the simple links made between things like component parts and flavour complexity. While I am here I should also touch on blends full stop, and apply some of these thought processes to the blend topic. As explored at the beginning, notions of blends and non-blends are really too simplistic. I am not against blends or averse to trying some, but in reality I'm also not particularly interested in them. It will be no shock to anyone reading this blog that my reasons for adoring coffee are rooted in provenance and character of flavour, and the variety and complexity this affords by treating coffee as a broad culinary product with many flavour and character possibilities. It’s useful to look at the current speciality coffee scene. There has been more and more of a focus on provenance, on considering how things like variety, terroir and process affect the cup. These qualities are easier to see by not blending heavily in a traditional way.

It’s a bit of a chicken and egg question as to the current reasoning for this. You cannot ignore blending’s historical significance. There may be less want to blend now because there is less of a need to, because of improvements in cultivation at a farm level, more value in such a pursuit, increased knowledge and technical advances in brewing espresso, or maybe just a changing marketplace, a keener interest in the culinary aspects of provenance as opposed to the more singular espresso item. It’s probably a culmination of all of these factors.

This is not to say that blends cannot be valuable, but it is important to accurately assess why you may blend. I can see two logically accurate reasons for blending, first is the desire to pursue a more specific flavour profile like say, chocolate, nutty and a hint of fruit. Along with this is the commercial reason for blending: a consistent flavour regardless of seasons, or with cheaper coffee. Although, this consistent flavour, in itself, has to be an average of sorts, of coffee flavour, you couldn't pick say the qualities of a specific farm (say peachy, light and floral)- and try to achieve them with a blend all year round, As there would not be enough coffees to achieve this specific character. So a constant blend limits the type of character displayed, as in some way it relies on average flavours - You have to choose more repeatable characteristics. The second reason for blending is exactly the same as the reason for pursuing provenance, roasting and all the other stuff, and that’s the pursuit of character and interesting flavour personality. This post should not suggest that blends cannot achieve this, but it depends on the blend and the goals of the very blending.  Blends can create something unique to its combination, but does this outweigh that of a singular part? It doesn't need to be a competition. A blend can be more complex than a single estate, single variety and vice versa. Personally I have had more single estate espresso that I see as impressive, complex and exceptional than I have blended espresso.

From my point of view there is so much yet to be explored by stepping back form blending and focusing more on singular provenance that there is little incentive for me to want to pursue blending based on my goals and interest in the flavour of coffee. There are so many amazing coffees for me to explore and taste. If there wasn't all this complexity, balance and character then I may be more interested in blending.

There is also the issue that blends can actually lead to more variable results. The percentage of individual parts in the blend cannot be guaranteed shot to shot. (they sit differently in the hopper and the bag)Meaning that it is harder to create a specific character cup to cup, and without character then complexity and balance are compromised. It, like god shot ideologies tends towards playing the flavour roulette wheel. Again, not my interest. I don’t feel I can fully explore the coffees character it the goal posts are changing like this.

I was thinking the other day that if hypothetically there were only very simple flavours that could be achieved from coffee then blending would make sense by possibly furthering our character potential. But then I start thinking about this article. With flavour products like coffee, it’s not like Lego, simple blocks stacked atop each other. I wonder whether I would even be interested in coffee at all if this were the case.

Anyway, back to reality. As explored at the beginning of this article, the term blend can be applied to nearly all coffee. Maybe we could have spectrum that could start with a single bean from one coffee cherry to represent complete specificity (not a blend). This could then stretch out along a long line finishing up with a blend made up of different coffees from 50 countries (you could keep going), and this could represent the other extreme - heavily blended. Where on this continuum is the line drawn between blend and non-blend? Let’s imagine we draw the distinction between the two right at the beginning of the spectrum (near the single bean) which would mean anything else is then a blend. If this were the case then yes I’m interested in blends, and I would still be really excited by the notion of blends as that line moves along and encompasses a blend of different varieties on the same location/farm. It’s amazing to think that the complexity discussion could ever be simplified to the point of single origin or blends. The difference in complexity and flavour variety to variety in different environments is exciting to explore. One variety may provide more complexity on its own while another may not? It may benefit by being blended with another variety. As the line continues to move along the continuum to the point where the provenance is lost and questions of variety and processing are not even considered at all, then I'm getting less and less interested in the notion of a blend. If your definition of a blend is that of the certified Italian espresso (INEC definition) which states that a blend constitutes between 7 and 21 parts then no, I am not interested in blends(at this point I actually find great character and complexity gets lost, unless of course the coffees aren't great on their own to start with). We are then also moving away form the complexity of speciality coffee as a whole, which by focusing on provenance is allowing many different unique and complex characters to be displayed.

At this point I am just expounding upon my preferences and interests in coffee. More important to consider is the rationalisation of preferences. What is complexity and balance? What equals what? Preferences aside, What exactly are we achieving at each point, and how? It’s not as simple as 1 plus 1.

Thus concludes this little 3 part series on flavour topics. I'm not sure what’s next, but there’s plenty to write about.


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