If you’ve been within a throw of an espresso shot to any hip coffee shop in the last 5 years you will no doubt have heard of Single Origin coffee.
So, what is Single Origin coffee? Single Origin refers to coffee beans that have all been grown in the same country or region. It is the opposite of blends which are a mix of coffee beans from many regions. Single Origin coffees are coveted for their pronounced flavors whereas blends offer more balanced, smoother tastes.
There’s a good reason SO’s (as we call them for short) are hot right now. I’m gonna give you the full scoop and some tips on making sure your next bag is unlike any coffee you’ve ever tried before. I’ll even tell you my favorite right now (notes of Blueberry, Cream and Lime Zest mmm….)
What is Single Origin coffee?
The Single Origin phenomenon is one of the hallmarks of the third wave of coffee. Shaking up the coffee world with the promise of unique and distinctive flavors. You can hear seasoned baristas coo at the mere mention of it. But for most of us, it’s just a term used to make average coffee sound exciting.
Make a trip to that cute little artisanal coffee place round the corner and you might see the likes of a single origin Guatemalan on offer. Sounds nice, right? But what is it…?
(If you’re interested in what a Guatemalan coffee plantation looks like, take a look at this photo.)
Single Origin coffee is a type of bean that has comes from just one location. Either one farm or, more commonly, a few farms in the same area.
So when you’re eyeing up that bag of Costa Rican single origin blonde roast, you know that the coffee beans in that bag have all been grown in the same small location in Costa Rica. Same weather, same climate, same general growing conditions. At the furthest extreme, you can get a batch of coffee beans that were grown in the same field or paddock – a microlot.
If the coffee is grown in more than one area or more than one farm then the coffee is not Single Origin. The different conditions will create coffee beans with a slightly (or greatly) contrasting taste and/or mouthfeel which will not produce the trademark amplified flavors of a Single Origin.
That said, such is the buzz surrounding the term single origin that you need to be careful you’re not falling for fancy marketing where the words are an empty embellishment.
How is Single Origin coffee different? (And what are blends?)
To understand what makes a Single Origin coffee unique we need to briefly explain the alternative – blends.
Coffee blends are, by contrast, batches of coffee beans where the beans have been sourced from a few or even many farms or locations. These different batches of beans may be from the same country but not always. The famous Mocha-Java blend mixes beans from Yemen and Indonesia, for example.
Coffee roasters use the freedom of being able to pick and choose beans to create the best coffee roast they can. An established coffee blend will usually have an established flavor profile. A certain level of acidity, a certain aroma and so on. So the roasters may have to change what beans to put into their blend depending on how the coffee beans they are using turn out that year!
Single Origin coffees tend to have more pronounced flavors whereas coffee blends tend to taste smoother and have less pronounced notes.
You might be able to recognize strong notes of cocoa in your Central American single origin or a distinct overtone of berries in your Kenyan single origin. As you can imagine, this can make tasting and discovering Single Origin coffee quite exciting. On the other hand, as these notes are quite strong you may find them overpowering and offputting.
Typically, Single Origin coffees will be lightly roasted. The natural flavors of the bean are retained more when the coffee hasn’t been roasted for very long so roasters tend to stick to lighter roasts to keep the single origin’s unique taste. If you only drink balls-to-the-wall dark roasts like a French roast or a Verona then you’re going to have to stick to blends.
Those are some coffee cherries ripe for picking, there’s two (or sometimes one) coffee beans in each of those ‘fruits’.
Is Single Origin coffee better?
The quality of Single Origin coffee is a contentious point in the world of coffee. Let me tell you, there’s been some pretty heated forum threads on the topic! I’ll highlight the supposed advantages.
One farm and one farmer means a much more highly defined set of characteristics. The same farm will receive the same amount of rainfall, the same sunlight, the same growing methods and so on. For this reason, the subtle flavors of the coffee become much more pronounced. When coffee beans are gathered from a number of farms – and not Single Origin – those flavors get lost in the mix.
There are people who will point out the kind of coffee roasters that select Single Origin coffee beans are the high-end ones. The coffee produced will be made with the best care and this is the reason why Single Origin coffee tastes better. This is compounded by the fact that coffee shops that serve Single Origin are likely to be high-end places that will place a premium on the quality of coffee as well.
It’s also worth noting that the single origin coffees tend to dominate at the World Barista Championships. Again, this might be a result of the biases I mentioned above.
Single Origin vs Blend
Purists will argue that the best Single Origin coffees are impossible to beat. Creating a single roast of a single batch of the best beans in the world gives a uniqueness and quality that can’t be matched.
On the other hand, the majority of the world’s coffee that is sold comes from a blend. A proponent would say that being able to pick and choose between beans gives a roaster the chance to perfect a recipe for the perfect blend. A lot like a chef making a great dish out of many ingredients.
Honestly, if it sounds interesting to you then give it a try. Holding and smelling and tasting a well-brewed cup of single origin coffee is going to teach you more than any internet article. Even the kind of fantastic articles you get over at making nice coffee.
Criticism of single origin
One major criticism of Single Origin coffee is its use in lazy and dishonest marketing.
It’s a nice sounding phrase that implies organic farming, fair trade production and a transparent sourcing process. In reality, the farmers who produce Single Origin are not necessarily treated any better or worse. They certainly receive no protection from the name ‘single origin’. And there is many a roaster who like to throw the name ‘Single Origin’ in front of any old batch of beans because it sells better.
Another criticism is that this is one of a long list of ‘crazes’ that will burn fast then die out. People like to get excited about things and this is the current ‘du jour’ of the coffee world. Just look at the recent craze for Chemex coffee makers which actually have been around since the 1950s!
You’ll generally find that single origin coffee costs more than a blend, either buying a beverage from a coffee shop or buying the beans themselves. This has also been criticized as an artificial means of justifying higher coffee prices.
There are also those who claim that it takes a little of the skill out of coffee roasting. Where before the roaster worked to create a delicious blend of coffee that complement each other perfectly wheras with a SO there is less skill involved. What you tend to find though is that most roasters will offer both varieties.
Should I buy Single Origin?
Like most things, whether you like or don’t like Single Origin coffee is going to be a personal matter. The best way to find out? Try some. See if you like it.
As a general rule, if the idea of having exotic but possibly overpowering notes of berry or spices in your coffee sounds awesome – you’ll probably enjoy a Single Origin. In my experience making coffee for other people, they really enjoy trying a good Single Origin. Often they’ll be shocked at how the coffee tastes, it comes as something of a surprise to taste lemony notes in this brown and bitter drink!
Whereas if you prefer a smoother taste of coffee, one that has more dulled specific tastes but a lovely well-rounded coffee taste – getting a blend is probably right for you. These coffees are usually best for those who just want a ‘smooth’ coffee or just aren’t interested in anything too ‘over the top’ (those were actual words said to me by my mom when I made her one particularly flavorful coffee haha.)
If you do choose to buy some – and there’s little harm in picking up a $20 bag – exercise some discrepancy on where and what you buy. That Ethiopian ‘Single Origin’ at Starbuck’s probably isn’t exactly what you’re looking for. The craft coffee roasters you found online that provides a wealth of details about the coffee it makes? That might be just the thing.
Where can I get Single Origin coffee?
The best place to buy Single Origin coffee would be somewhere close to where you live. Keep an eye out for locally owned coffee houses and ask if they have any. Bonus points if they roast their own – you can be drinking the freshest possible coffee! This has the added bonus of supporting independent and local businesses.
Independent coffee shops are often a goldmine for this kind of stuff. When people nerd out about coffee, they seriously nerd out and the kind of dudes and dudettes that own and manage coffee shops are some of the biggest nerds going. If your local coffee haunt doesn’t offer their own Single Origins, I’ll bet they can direct you somewhere that can.
There’s another benefit of doing this, too. In George Orwell’s book Animal Farm he talked about the struggle between different groups of farm animals, with the pigs saying to the other animals:
All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.
Of course the real meaning of that book, in my opinion, was that it was about coffee roasters. And it is definitely true that some are better than others. And what better way to find out the best coffee roaster in your town/village/hamlet than to ask the knowledgeable folks at an independent coffee shop?
It’s also worth bearing in mind that some coffee shops do not feel the need to put ‘Single Origin’ on the label. You can assume that if the bag says something like “Kenya, Kimuni AA” then it’s probably going to be a Single Origin from that region in Kenya. (AA means it’s the largest size of coffee bean in that batch, by the way.)
Now I know not everyone lives in Portland, Oregon or some other coffee capital of the world… But there are many excellent roasters online who do cheap and quick delivery. Here’s a link to get some great Single Origin coffee roasters online that’ll get you started. Please bear in mind these are likely to be on the more expensive side. At the same time, they are also likely to be on the more ‘tastes fucking amazing’ side.
Single Origin and Ethical Sourcing
Single Origins are closely tied to the Third Wave of coffee. This movement that began around 15 years ago or so, has transformed the focus of coffee from big corporate chains selling sugary espresso drinks to independent coffee houses with an artisanal approach to sourcing and brewing coffee.
Wander around the website (or Instagram!) of a typical coffee roaster and you’ll see pages and photos of the farms and conditions including all kinds of details like rainfall and the slope of the hill. (Even I’m not that much of a nerd).
My favorite roasters that I buy from all make regular visits to the coffee plantations they buy from. This obviously helps with quality control and is better for the farmers who grow the coffee rather than having to operate through a middle-man who deals with the exporting and importing.
So in addition to everything else, Single Origin is also seen as the more ethical choice for many coffee buyers.
Some Famous Single Origins (And My Favorite)
Two of the more obvious candidates to suggest for Single Origins are the Ethiopian Yrgacheffe (sometimes spelled differently) and the Costa Rican Tarrazu. They are both relatively widespread and are of a consistently high quality. The Yrgacheffe is a powerful floral and lemon flavor and the Tarrazu has a citrusy, chocolatey flavor. Both are absolutely delicious.
I’m a little hesitant to talk about my favorite coffee bean simply because it changes all the time. This article might be out of date within 4 weeks! But I did promise you after all… So, right now I’m absolutely loving this Ethiopian Guji my local place has. Tasting notes of blueberries, cream, and lime zest and it is an absolute treat to wake up these days because I know I’ve got that little number waiting in my kitchen!
One last advantage to Single Origins…
I was speaking with a friend the other day who made a point that I thought was so good that I just had to include it on this webpage, so this subheading is dedicated to you, Jack. Cherish it 😉
He told me that the reason he liked choosing Single Origins over Blends was that it helped him refine his palate and pick out flavors in the coffee. This is such a good point! Most of us were not born with families with vast wine cellars and it takes a while to amass a cognac collection worthy of being called a connoisseur.
My point being, coffee is an excellent and inexpensive introduction to the world of tasting notes and picking out flavors like vanilla, lemon, blueberry, licorice, jasmine and so many more. Moreover, Single Origin coffee with its pronounced flavors is ideal for those wanting to learn more about flavor dynamics in foods and drinks.
Also, now you’re fully on the Single Origin hype train (presumably) and you’ve got a mind to learn everything you can about tasting notes, here’s my article that might provide a bit of guidance in this area and get you picking out those notes of blackcurrant just a little faster.
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