Blends are a staple on most coffee shop menus, and something every roaster should master. However, designing and roasting one presents several unique challenges, from knowing which coffees to mix to roasting beans of different origins, varieties, densities, and more.
To discover how to create consistently high-quality blends, I spoke to Jen Apodaca, the Director of Roasting of The Crown: Royal Coffee Lab & Tasting Room, Royal’s forthcoming tasting room, educational facility & event space coming to Oakland, California. Read on to discover what I learned.
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Jen Apodaca inspects coffee during production roasting. Credit: Evan Gilman
Blending has a bad reputation: Jen tells me that people often assume roasters do it to use up leftover and past-crop coffees, with the aim of obscuring undesirable flavours with other profiles.
“This does not mean that this never happens,” she says, “but the reason why most roasters create blends is because consumers demand a flavour profile that is repeatable and consistent… year-round.”
And the best way to create that is with a blend. In other words, blends allow you to meet a specific consumer demand. What’s more, if you create a signature blend, you have a product that will come to define your brand and draw customers back again and again.
Of course, single origin coffees will always be popular. However, with their seasonality and unique profiles, they are a different type of consumer experience. What they don’t offer consumers is a familiar favourite that they know will always be available. Most third wave coffee shops serve both single origins and blends for this reason.
Moreover, there can be benefits for the product itself. “One of them that seems the most obvious,” Jen says, “is to create a more dynamic flavour profile than a single coffee can offer on its own.” The golden rule of coffee blends is that they should be better than the coffees were individually. Often, combining them adds greater balance and complexity, while highlighting the best notes of each component coffee.
Finishing a roast. Credit: Bearded Bella
What Are The Challenges of Blending Coffees?
Balancing different coffees, both for flavour and ideal roast profile, isn’t easy. Jen tells me that it takes a lot of practice before you know what coffees to blend, what percentages will work best, and what roast levels to use.
Even then, after you’ve created a delicious, balanced, and distinctive blend, your work isn’t done. Sometimes, you’ll be forced to replace one of the component coffees. This might be because it’s run out – careful purchasing decisions can help to limit this – or it might simply be because the coffee isn’t roasting in the same way that it did three or four months ago. “This can happen to anyone,” Jen emphasises.
Don’t expect to master the skill of blending coffee overnight. However, the more you do it, the more you will grow to understand what works well – and the more it will push you to become a better roaster.
How Many Coffees Should You Blend?
Jen recommends no more than five coffees per blend, each of which should make up at least 8% of the final product. “When you make an espresso, you grind 17g of coffee and this amount, on average, is just over a hundred coffee beans,” she says, “so if I have a blend component that is 5% or 3% of my blend, it just seems like a waste of time.”
After all, would a 3% component even make it into every single espresso shot?
No rule is set in stone, however: Jen’s mindful that some coffees will be brewed in larger batches, say 200g at a time. This may make it more worthwhile including smaller components. As she says, it’s important to think about the purpose of the blend and how it will be served.
And as for selecting the best blend ratio – well, that will depend on the coffees you’re putting together.
Priscilla Fisher (aka Cill) and Kristi Mujana (aka Kmac) weighing some Peruvian beans from Daysi Paz Cubas Credit: Floozy Coffee
How to Choose Component Coffees for Blends
Your final product should be distinctive, especially if it’s your signature blend. Yet, at the same time, one of the key reasons to create a blend is balance. For that reason, Jen recommends the following:
- A sweet base note: For this, she tells me that you need a coffee that takes on browning flavours well. A lot of people use Brazilians, Mexicans, or Peruvians.
- Mid-palate satisfaction: The mid-palate is the moment between the first sip and the swallow – in other words, the majority of the consumer’s coffee-drinking experience. Beverages that are dissatisfying during the mid-palate are often called “hollow”. To avoid this in your blend, Jen recommends having something juicy with plenty of malic acid; think flavour notes of green apple, peach, or stone fruit. She would begin by looking towards origins such as Costa Rica, Colombia, Guatemala, and Burundi.
- High notes: This comes from the kinds of coffees that can be roasted light, even though you don’t have to be crafting a light blend. We’re talking citric acidity and floral notes, such as what you might find in a Kenyan or Ethiopian.
Yet you don’t need to combine wildly different origins to achieve these three elements. In fact, Jen tells me that you can blend coffees from the same origin or even differently processed lots from the same farm, providing it improves the product. Be open-minded. “I like to see people trying new, cool things,” she says.
How to Select Your Blend Ratio
Let’s say that you have a three-coffee blend based on the model above. Jen tells me she would start by using 40% sweet base note, 40% mid-palate, and 20% high notes. Then, she would slowly tweak the ratios until she was satisfied with the flavour profile.
Of course, when trialling different ratios, there will be some waste. To minimise this, Jen roasts the component coffees separately in small batches. Then she brews them and combines the liquid coffee at different ratios – say 40:40:20, 30:30:40, and even 60:20:20.
She also recommends trying the coffee as it will be served in the café. “You can do as much work as possible,” she says, “but if you pull a shot of espresso and it doesn’t taste like the flavour profile that you are trying to create, you have to start over.”
Ready for roasting. Credit: Tired Eyes Coffee
Pre- vs Post-Blending: Which Is Best for You?
Once you’ve decided on your components and blend ratio, the next big question is when you should blend them: before or after roasting. Let’s look at the pros and cons.
This is when you roast each component individually and blend them afterwards. Jen tells me that a lot of small roasters use their cooling tray or cement mixers to do this.
Pros: You can roast all the components exactly the way that you want to and so achieve excellent results.
One big consideration is the bean density (which normally correlates with the temperature at which the coffee was grown and also its quality) and moisture content. As Jen explains, beans with different densities and moisture contents will roast differently. For that reason, she suggests post-blending if one of the component coffees is dramatically different from the others.
Cons: Batch size consistency. Jen tells me, “Maybe today you need to roast 10 pounds of your high note and tomorrow you need to roast 25 pounds of the same high note and the next day maybe you only need 3 pounds of that high note.” You would need to know how to get exactly the same roast profile with different-sized batches, which can be a challenge.
Green beans from Colombia, Papua New Guinea, Ethiopia, and Costa Rica ready to be turned into a signature blend. Credit: Social Espresso
This is when you mix all the green components together and roast them as one batch.
Pros: You’ll have greater batch size consistency and so it will be easier to ensure consistency in the roast. You won’t have to adjust your profile for different batch sizes. “Consistency is super important for quality control,” Jen tells me.
Cons: You may face different screen sizes, moisture levels, and densities. “All of these things would impact the flavour of that coffee,” Jen stresses. “Some of the beans will become over-roasted and some under-roasted, if you’re roasting them the same way at the same time.”
As a roaster, you need to figure out the best option for your company and your coffee. “If you pay attention and you cup your coffees and you take excellent notes, either way can be very delicious,” Jen emphasises. “It’s achievable, but it takes effort.”
You can also combine the two methods, especially if some components have a similar density but others don’t. Jen sometimes pre-blends two components and post-blends the third, to excellent results.
Coffee blends can be a great challenge for a roaster but also a great opportunity. Not only do they push you to improve your roasting skills, but you can also create a brand-defining signature coffee that’s in demand all year round. Mastering this skill will take time, practice, and a little creativity – but it will be worth the investment.
Enjoyed this? Check out Coffee Roasting Essentials: A Guide to Rate of Rise (RoR)
Written by Angie Molina.
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