This guest post from Taylors Discovery, the experimental micro-roastery from Taylors of Harrogate, explores single origin and what it means for coffee producers, roasters and drinkers.
What is Single Origin?
Single origin coffee is coffee that's from one place - rather than a blend of coffee from several places. Historically, it has referred to coffee from a single country, but as our expectations of quality and traceability have grown, it has also come to mean coffee from a single region, farm, producer or washing station.
Coffee growing at high altitude at experimental farm, La Negrita, in Colombia. Head to the Taylors Discovery stand to taste their latest coffee from this producer, Enzymatic Red Gesha.
The Value of Single Origin
Different coffees are blended together to balance flavours, mouthfeel, sweetness, bitterness and acidity or to achieve consistency and cost effectiveness.
Single origin coffee, on the other hand, is about letting the flavours and characteristics of that single coffee shine through. Flavours and characteristics that are shaped by the environment in which they are grown.
For this reason, single origin coffee has been influential in developing our relationship with the drink, allowing coffee lovers to explore distinctly different flavour profiles and develop a more direct relationship with the countries, cultures and individuals that produce them.
Knowing a coffee’s origin allows us to discover our own coffee taste preferences - as we can taste coffee from different places and make a note of our favourites.
In the world of the producer, the interest in single origin coffees has encouraged many to aim for higher quality coffee production, or to experiment with growing and processing techniques to create more unique flavours profiles. All of this resulting in a better price for their coffee.
Single Origin: a Definition
So how do we define the ‘origin’ in single origin?
First, it’s useful to talk about ‘terroir’, a French term to describe the environmental factors that affect a crop. In coffee growing, it’s these unique micro-geographic factors - such as altitude, temperature, rainfall and soil composition - that affect quality and flavour and define the origin in question.
Single Origin VS Single Estate
A visit to Finca La Esperanza in Huila, Colombia. The farmer is one of two in the region that produce coffee for Silvio & Luz, which is part of LCF’s sustainable coffee flight. Try it at the Taylors Discovery stand.
In its strictest sense, single origin coffee should be defined by a single terroir, but the closeness of this link depends on the country and its production methods.
In North, Central and South America, and in Asia, single origin might mean a single coffee estate, or a single farm within an estate, or even a particular area of that farm.
Quite often, it also refers to a ‘lot’ – a batch of coffee picked at a particular time, or from a particular area within the farm.
A lot of single origin coffee from Africa is often from a single washing station – a processing centre that might receive coffee from hundreds or thousands of smallholder farmers from the surrounding area, all with very similar growing conditions.
Black Moon Gesha, a ‘black honey’ processed microlot from Costa Rican producer Johel Alvarado. Try it at the Taylors Discovery stand.
Lots, Microlots and Nanolots
So a single origin is a rough measure that could be as broad as a country, or as specific as a single smallholder producer.
A single ‘lot’ is a particular batch of coffee that could be defined by its time of picking, or the area that it grew on the farm. At the most specific end, there are microlots and nanolots.
Again, these terms are loosely defined and interchangeably used, but in our experience they refer to smaller lots, that are separately grown and processed with extra attention to achieve a small amount of high quality, distinctive coffee.
However geographically focused its origin is, a coffee may or may not be made up of a single varietal. A varietal being a genetic variety of coffee, often with distinct flavour characteristics - such as Bourbon, Caturra, Catuai or SL28.
You might compare this to distinct varieties of apple, such as Granny Smiths or Cox’s, that also taste different. Or grapes in wine – such as Sauvignon or Pinot Noir.
As well as having different taste characteristics in the cup, varietals interact with their growing environments in various ways, and have varying levels of resistance to different diseases and pests. For this reason, farmers often grow a mixture of varietals to help protect their crop, so you’re just as likely to see a single origin coffee contain two or more types.
Single Origin Coffee Beans and Flavour
Cupping coffee at origin with one of our Rwandan producer partners, the Kopakama Cooperative.
We’ve talked about what single origin means for the producer, the supply chain and our own expectations of transparency, but what does that mean for the flavour in your cup? For a start off, the difference in terroirs around the world means that there’s masses of diversity in single origin coffee flavour.
You might prefer the black tea and citrus notes of a washed Ethiopian Yirgacheffe, or the chocolate and hazelnut flavours of a pulped natural Brazilian coffee. Single origin coffee lets you explore these differences, which are developed at 3 key parts of the production process – growing, processing and roasting.
Alongside the species and varietal of the coffee, one of the key reasons for flavour differences is a complex interweaving of climactic and environmental factors. Coffee grows in temperate climates, rather than tropical ones, and the amount of sunshine, rain, heat and humidity has a major effect on plant growth - as does soil.
Volcanic soils in particular are known to produce incredibly flavoursome coffees, in countries as diverse as Kenya, Guatemala and Mexico.
Altitude really matters too. The higher up you go, the more the plants are put under stress and divert sugar to their seeds, and the slower the coffee grows because of cooler temperatures.
Grown well, high altitude coffees produce harder and denser beans, and more acidic and aromatic flavour profiles when roasted, ground, and tasted.
Shade growing makes a similar difference, and can produce vastly different results even within a single field.
Naturally processed coffee, which is dried with the whole cherry intact.
But while the care, attention and conditions the coffee experiences during growing has a dramatic effect on quality and flavour, the way it’s processed – the step in the chain that takes coffee from a ripe fruit to a dried green bean – adds another layer of influence.
Naturally processed coffees where the fruit is left on the seed to ferment longer tend to have strong fruit and fermented notes.
Washed coffees where the fruit is removed from the seed with a depulping machine have cleaner, citrussy notes. And honey processed coffee - where a degree of fruit pulp is left to ferment on the seed - are somewhere in between.
While a small number of forward thinking producers are experimenting with specific methods to aim for new and different flavour profiles, most often the choice of processing method is linked to countries or regions purely for practical reasons like cost, consistency and the availability of water.
Roasting each coffee individually to bring out its unique characteristics is an important part of the process.
When we talk about the varietal, growing conditions and processing of a single origin coffee defining its flavour, we’re talking about the flavour of that coffee once it’s been roasted. It’s only through the roast that the potential flavours of the hard, green, unroasted bean are released.
Earlier we touched on the differences between a black tea and citrus-like washed Ethiopian coffee, and the chocolate and hazelnut flavours of a pulped natural Brazilian coffee.
These differences in flavour should be coaxed out by roasting these coffees in different ways. Typically a citrussy, washed coffee like this would be roasted lightly to maximise acidity and floral notes, while a Brazilian natural would be roasted a little darker than that (medium-light or medium) to emphasise its natural sweetness and body.
Again, this is a big topic on its own and we’d suggest reading our beginners guide to coffee roasting
if you’re interested in learning more.
Taylors of Harrogate’s Discovery micro-roastery will showcasing 3 incredible single origin coffees, and a yet-to-be released coffee vodka, at London Coffee Festival, so make sure to drop by their stand.