By Catherine Franks
Single origin is a term we use often at Steampunk and we have had so many conversations over the years about it with people but we have not yet written a blog post about why this matters to us and the reason behind us roasting only single origin coffees. So here it is.
First, a definition. We define single origin as a single coffee lot which is traceable to a specific grower or, in the case of small holder farmers, a specific washing station or cooperative. Traceability to a farm is possible with medium to larger scale farms but gets harder the smaller you go. Once you get to smallholders who may be producing coffee alongside other crops (like much ‘garden coffee’ in Ethiopia) then there is just not enough produced for the coffee we purchase and roast to come from just that single individual. That is when you will get coffees which are identified as from a cooperative or a washing station where they are sorted into a ‘lot’.
As we have developed relationships over the years with importers who have themselves developed relationships with producers, and as traceability has become more sought after and transparency has improved, we have increasingly been able to bring you lots from specific farmers. Through our relationships with Kamba coffee, for example, we have been able to roast for you Ethiopian coffees like Bale Mountain and now Debeka Farm which are vertically integrated. This means the producer (Israel Degfai) is involved in the supply chain from farm through washing station, dry mill and importer right to us. Other smaller producers like Flor Penna and Herminio Ramirez have gotten their micro lots to us via projects with Mercanta and Falcon Specialty respectively. In these instances we can give coffee drinkers loads of information about who has produced the coffee and the conditions under which it has been produced. Not only that, these coffees taste incredibly different from each other. So not only are coffee lovers getting to learn the story about where the coffee comes from you are also getting a different flavour experience with every coffee.
Difference matters to us and we think it should be celebrated. It adds interest to life and reminds us of its rich and varied tapestry. This is something that is reflected in our whole ethos at Steampunk which centres around the idea of inclusivity and celebrating difference. Inclusivity is about recognising that difference exists - whether it is differences between people, differences in thoughts and ideas or cultural differences - inclusivity is about holding space for all of those variations and acknowledging that they all have a right to shine. It is not about setting a ‘correct’ or standard default and trying to squish everyone and everything to fit into that shape. Mutual respect is of course at the heart of this idea where differences can be shared in a way that is kind and respectful and not used to exclude or hurt.
The opposite of difference is similarity. There is something about human nature that leans towards sameness and craves the comfort of the known. It is our tendency to look towards repeating things that we have known and enjoyed mixed with a fear of the unknown. This is not in itself a bad thing and we will look at the positive aspects of consistency in a moment. But is can also be a bad thing in that it can be bland, unchallenging and boring and it can let us get into a rut. Sometimes we need to be challenged, definitely we need to be surprised. Human nature is such that we gravitate towards the known and familiar and can end up in a repetitive pattern. This can lead to dullness of the senses and boredom.
Translate that idea of uniformity into coffee and we have the idea behind the blend. Now a lot of folk just always refer to a coffee as a blend. It seems to be a term that is used interchangeably with coffee - just a cultural hangup - as in “What blend are you serving today?” But a blend is a very specific thing. It is a mixture of different coffees that are put together for some very specific purposes. There are many reasons behind the blending of coffee.
One of them is familiarity - getting that same coffee taste every single cup, every single day throughout the year. To wake up, reach for your coffee, and know exactly what you are getting can be a comfort and it certainly sells. Illy (for just one well known example) have made a virtue out of this and aim to keep a consistent flavour profile throughout the year by blending a constantly changing selection of proportions of different coffees together. This is by no means a small task - coffee changes dramatically due to season, variety, terroir and year to year even if these factors all seem the same. As an agricultural product, that is just how it is. So changing the components to keep the flavour constant is highly skilled and very clever. The benefit to the consumer is you always know what you are getting and you know that you (presumably) like it.
Another reason for the blend is financial. You can use a relatively cheap coffee as the base for your blend - maybe one from a large farm in Brazil for example to get the smoothness, then add a wee dollop of a (more expensive) tastier or fruitier coffee - say a bit of Ethiopian or Rwandan and you can even put in a touch of a robusta to give your been a kick and the rich creamy crema, sought after on your espresso. Hopefully the other beans would mask the bitterness of the robusta and the blend altogether would be a consistent and flavourful one for espresso which was also pretty cheap to produce. Overall, you can get the consistency your customers need and you can get a nice profit margin too as you are using only smaller quantities of expensive coffee and padding it out with the cheaper stuff.
Another great reason to blend is marketing. You can invest in getting a name known and loved over time - whether its a vibe like Lazy Sunday or a brand like Illy you can grow a market for it and people can grow to love it or just reach for it unthinkingly as park of their shop. It becomes a habit and after all, as coffee is a drug, its a nice profitable habit for the roaster. Keep it the same and your market can build over time.
I don’t want to talk down blending here. Within specialty coffee, many great roasters offer a blend. This is often for similar reasons listed above - it provides consistency for consumers (domestic customers or for wholesale partners), it can be a way of keeping prices down and it can be incredibly popular to have a signature blend too. None of these motivations are bad. So why doesn’t Steampunk offer a blend?
Long ago in a faraway land…
When we first started roasting at Steampunk we did offer a blend. We made Velos which was a mixture of a Brazil and Monsooned Malabar from India. It was actually very popular with customers and cafes. We stopped roasting it after we opened our cafe and we began to focus much more on traceability. At that point we realised the Malabar could not be sourced in a traceable manner and we began focussing on smaller coffee lots and higher quality beans. We decided we would specialise in only single origin coffees from then and shine the spotlight on their individuality and differences. We loved having a constantly changing offering - it kept life interesting both for our baristas and our customers. Like I mentioned, it also keeps in line with our punk attitude of celebrating difference and our ethos of constant change, innovation and reinvention. It just fits with us.
Don’t get me wrong, this is not an easy option. But Steampunk has almost never selected the easy route. In fact if there is a choice between the popular option, the easy option and the monumentally awkward and almost impossible option we will invariably choose the latter. Different coffees require different dial ins, single origins especially on lighter roasts can taste more acidic on espresso and can be trickier to work with. They can lack body or crema. They take work and skill to get right. But… And this is a big but, when done right they can take espresso to a whole different level. Most importantly, your daily coffee can be a daily discovery and can push the boundaries of how you think espresso can taste. A brilliant example is our recent micro lot from Colombia Flor Penna. I think I have probably never had an espresso I have enjoyed so much. It was sweet and syrupy with a raspberry jammy acidicy. Incredible. Compare that with our current Brazil Caxambu which is like a creamy nut butter. What an incredible choice! How awesome to have those possibilities before you rather than House Espresso vs House Espresso?
Ring the changes with Seasonality
As well as the differences between the coffees themselves, single origins bring a joy similar to that of fresh produce. The pleasure of seasonality. Who doesn’t relish the prospect of rhubarb season at the end of a cold dreary winter? Isn’t one of the best things about strawberries the fact that we gorge ourselves on them in June and July until we can’t bear the sight of them and then go without for the next 10 months until they come back in season again. It is the same with coffee and the joy of looking towards the return of a favourite in future harvests. If we drank an Ethiopian natural with its berry juiciness all year round we might get bored but if we have that for only a few months followed by a citrus burst from Kenya, some floral loveliness from Costa Rica, a nutty El Salvador, a bright Colombian and then a fruit salad from Peru, by the time our Ethiopian comes round again we are ready to welcome it back with open arms.
As we try micro lots and get to know producers, we look forward to trying their harvest again each year. Revisiting origins and producers we have loved in previous years is fantastic as customers anticipate the return of a beloved favourite (I think there were tears of joy when Bale Mountain returned this year). It is also great for producers who can build markets with roasters and their customers over time.
A final (single) thought
This is where it is worth reminding ourselves that coffee is in fact not a bean (though they too have varieties) but a fruit - the seed of a fruit to be exact. When thought of as a fruit, the differences in taste in different coffees is unsurprising. You can easily understand how a Granny Smith is not a Pink Lady and would never be confused as such even if the granny and the lady were tasted blind. Imagine if for consistency, money savings and marketing purposes all apples were distilled into a single superapple. For arguments sake we will call our superapple a Golden Delicious. It is even in shape, colour, texture. It is easy to transport, stores well. It tastes good and is generally pretty popular. We eat it every day. It keeps the doctor away and is part of our 5 a day and it is all just fine.
It is just fine. But it isn’t the rare Bardsey Island apple which is striped pink and has the scent of lemon or the Pink Pearl or the Winter Banana… Did you know there are 7,500 types of apples in the world? They can’t possibly be replaced by the Golden Delicious. Check out Around the World in Rare and Delicious Apples to venture further down this delightful fruity rabbit hole.
Returning to thoughts of coffee, as we sold the very last bag this week, I know I am already looking forward to tasting Flor Penna’s harvest next year!
Want to try all of the single origins we are currently roasting? Our Variety Pack has them all.