A Symphony of Coffee: Creating Your Own House Blend



You have it: that signature, four-star dish you've made your own, to the delight of friends, family, and acquaintances. Early on, you followed some recipe to the letter, not daring to stray an eighth of a teaspoon either way. It turned out fine. But over time, something wonderful happened. Your confidence grew, and with it, your willingness to experiment. You freelanced your way to a masterpiece.

It's really the same for specialty coffee, now firmly and rightly entrenched in the realm of fine cuisine. Home baristas I meet everywhere are getting more and more adventurous, inventing house cappuccinos and coffee cocktails, investing in professional-caliber equipment.

Imagine a coffee that literally can be had at only your place, synthesizing the best single-origin coffees' already melodic notes into a rich symphony.

How about taking a next, logical step: creating your own, signature blend? Imagine a coffee that can be had only at your place, melding the best single-origin coffees' already melodic notes into a rich symphony, conductor's baton firmly in your grasp. You can do it, and the rehearsals will be a blast. I love experimenting with my favorite Arabica single-origins, creating blends not present in nature yet entirely natural.

Creating a cafe-worthy home blend takes some basic, working knowledge of coffee biology, chemistry, and geography. Understand what characterizes each bean—those single notes, and how they play together—and you'll have what it takes to start blending at home.

The only caveat: be patient. Give yourself time to experiment, knowing that some factors are tough to control at the micro level, like lot-to-lot variations—no two harvests are ever the same—and roasting and freshness dynamics. Consistency is going to be your biggest challenge: something that larger-scale blend makers work endlessly to perfect.

Let's start by looking at single-origin dynamics, where wine offers so many rich and relevant analogs. Grapes like Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon mature into beautiful wines all their own, while melding with other grapes to weave rich tapestries like Bordeaux. My homeland's Sangiovese and Canaiolo grapes are wonderful as their own wines, and lend distinct characteristics along with other vine-ripened cousins to Chianti. The list goes on. Each grape has signature characteristics born of genotype and growing environment. That's why a top Pinot Noir from Oregon offers a decidedly different tasting experience from one produced in France. Oregon's volcanic soil imbues Pinot Noir grapes with more sweetness and fruity notes than their Burgundy-grown cousins.

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So it is with Arabica coffee. A Bourbon bean, for example, grown in Brazil yields aromatic and flavor characteristics different from of its cousins grown in East Africa, El Salvadora, or Guatemala. Key environmental factors contributing to regional variations include soil type (pH and mineral content); climate (temperature, humidity, and rainfall); altitude; and latitude. Root depth, water depth, drainage, and other crop types planted nearby are just a few of the other variables.

All that said, there's nothing like poor processing to undo most or all the great effects of good breeding and favorable growing conditions on coffee. (More about this below.)

Okay, science and geography lessons over! Let's develop a basic blend well suited to espresso preparation. We'll need to ensure three key characteristics: good body; the right balance of bitter, acid (not the sourness of an unripe fruit but the pleasant sourness of, for example, a perfectly ripe orange), and sweet; and not least, lots of aromas.

Presented by

Giorgio Milos, Master Barista for Trieste, Italy-based illycaffè, travels throughout the U.S., hosting illy Master Barista Series events at leading cafes and gourmet retailers, and training staff at top restaurants and hotels. More

Giorgio Milos is Master Barista for Trieste, Italy-based illycaffè. With barista training dating to his teens, Milos, 36, is one of the world's foremost experts on coffee. He is a past winner of the Italian Barista Championship, a Specialty Coffee Association of Europe-certified Master Barista, and on faculty at illy's Universita del Caffè (UDC), where leading restaurants and cafes come for master coffee training.

Now U.S.-based, Milos travels the country leading the illy Master Barista Series—classes and events for passionate coffee lovers—and bringing UDC's principles and practices to America's leading restaurants, hotels, cooking schools, and top independent cafes. Visit www.illy.com for more information.

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