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.

An excellent Brazilian natural Santos (two terrific producers: Sul de Minas and Cerrado) makes a great base for a blend, producing good body thanks to high presence of soluble solids, along with a little sweetness and perfect bitterness—if the roast isn't too dark (beware!). Chocolate and caramel are most prevalent among aromas. You can also use a good Indian natural bean, as your base, similar to the Brazilian Santos, with a light spicy note, but less sweetness. Try Indian Natural Cherry.

When buying, be afraid of the dark, because over-roasting produces excessive bitterness that masks coffee's best aromas, throwing off the very balance you're seeking by blending.

For the right amount of sweetness, I like washed Costa Rican Tarrazu and West Valley, and beans from other high-quality Central America coffee-growing areas in Guatemala, El Salvador, Panama, and beyond. Many high-quality coffees from these regions will provide proper sweetness, with a pleasant, wine-like acidity and wonderful fruit and toasted bread notes.

For acidity, look to East Africa. Washed coffees from Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania, and Malawi are maybe the most complex and fully aromatic coffees in the world. For your blend, try a washed Ethiopia Sidamo, adding perfect sourness, along with great floral notes like jasmine and orange flowers and strong fruit aromas and flavors.

Blending is about the right ingredients in the right proportion. Try this formula to start: 50 percent natural Brazilian or similar, 25 percent washed Central American, and 25 percent washed East African. Give it a taste, and then start experimenting, dialing up and down components to find your own, personal blend bliss point. As you get more comfortable, start substituting other beans with similar profiles, adjusting proportions to fine-tune balance.

Bottom line: Before home blending, do some basic research on your favorite beans' aromatic and flavor characteristics. The more science-minded might go the extra step, looking into genotypes and growing environments. Either way, go for a variety of characteristics—the symphony effect—instead of amplification of one favorite note.

If you really get into blending, other factors worth exploring include processing methods, with dry ( "natural") and wet (producing coffee called "washed") the most common. Each method removes the coffee bean from the fruit that surrounds and protects it, but differs in the chemical reactions and resulting characteristics they create. Dry processing produces coffee rich in body, with more soluble solids due to sugar migration during sun-drying, while the wet process produces coffee with more delicate aromas owing to light fermentation in water, containing relatively fewer solids.

Roast level is also critical, and related. When buying, be afraid of the dark, because over-roasting produces excessive bitterness that masks coffee's best aromas, throwing off the very balance you're seeking by blending. Look for medium-to-dark roasted natural coffee, and light-to-medium roasted washed coffee. Read labels carefully, or talk to a barista or counterperson you trust.

Whether you are a single-origin lover or blend devotee, experimenting with home blending can take your coffee knowledge and satisfaction even further. And who knows just where that may lead.