Single Origin Coffee — What It Is, And What You Should Know

Coffee Cherries

Single Origin Coffee is increasingly popular and seen everywhere. Whether you’re shopping for coffee online or on a store aisle, or if you’re at a specialty coffee shop, the words single origin won’t fail to pop up. 

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Pervasive as the name is, what does it really mean for the coffee, and for the consumer? Should it matter to the consumer, or is it a marketing label?

It has become a big part of modern coffee culture. And it has some specific coffee qualities that are worth learning. Coffee aficionados certainly will love knowing more about their brew and what taste to expect. Yes, single source coffee may tell you a lot about the coffee you’re drinking. You just have to know what to look for!

What Is Single-Origin Coffee And What Does It Mean?

In a sense, the term defines itself. Coffee beans from a single location get a single-origin classification. But that’s also where it gets more complicated. Single-origin as a term can apply to coffee sourced from a specific country, region, estate, or farm. 

Let’s consider the major divisions or categorizations made for single-origin.

A Nation As Single-Origin

That’s a pretty diverse classification. It narrows things down a bit, but there’s still a lot to consider. Coffee flavors can vary by the region of growth. Even in countries or smaller regions therein, coffee flavors can have a large diversity. 

Kenya coffee, for example, has ample variation in flavors depending on the region of growth within the country. Even smaller countries can have variations, for example, Costa Rica coffee doesn’t have to be all of the same flavor. 

Smaller regions within a location can have variations depending on the local climate and elevation. A great example here is Kona Coffee, which essentially grows in Hualalai and Mauna Loa in the Kona district of Hawaii. In that way, it’s distinct from other Hawaiian coffees, which too can differ from one another.

Given the coffee flavor diversity in these smaller nations, imagine the coffee flavor changes you could see in large countries like Brazil, India, and Indonesia. 

Even so, it is possible to ascribe some general characteristics to Hawaiian Coffee, Kenyan Coffee, and coffee from other nations. But single-origin can get a lot more specific to account for all these changes and variations. 

Coffee From A Single Farm, Plantation, Or Estate

This is where single-origin gets really specific. It’s also where third wave coffee culture shows its most pronounced effect. Country-specific origins have been around for a while now, but going down to the farm gets a lot more specific.

This is one step in knowing what is single origin coffee. The coffee beans for this category could be sourced from a single farm and plantation. Sometimes, smaller regions with similar coffee-taste characteristics or cooperatives find a place in this category too. 

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And sometimes, it gets way more specific with microlots that include particular varietals from a farm. Some of the more specific or best single origin coffee producers can include the batch, farm, varietal, or even the plant or paddock where the coffee grew! So you’d know whether your coffee beans arrived from a (relatively larger) region or a small 2-3 acre family farm!

A Single Region As The Coffee Source

Wider coffee flavor characteristics can be very similar for a specific region. Our previously mentioned example of Kona Coffee is relevant here. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a single farm – the region itself is home to a distinct coffee flavor profile. Ethiopian Yirgacheffe region is another fine example. 

The aforementioned are famed coffee growing regions, but the same idea applies to other countries and regions too. Other regions like Acatenango for Guatemalan Coffee and Tarrazu for Costa Rica are relevant too.

Focusing on a smaller region ensures that the coffee flavor is more consistent. However, it also has a downside where beans from several farms can introduce some inconsistency to the flavor. Besides, it loses some of the authenticity and exclusivity of single-origin coffee sourced from a small farm.

Defining Single-Origin Coffee

There is no clear, completely accepted definition of single-origin. This is why produce from entire nations and small two acre farms each can qualify as single-origin coffees. 

However, roasters and sellers like to make the origins of their coffee known. So reading the label usually helps to narrow things down. Roasters or sellers who make the effort to bring in their beans from a single farm obviously want to let consumers know. 

Coffee Blends vs Single-Origin

Sourcing Of The Coffee Beans

Most of the commercially available coffee is a blend. This means they include coffee beans from around the world. Coffee companies and roasters use blends to create their own distinct flavor profiles. 

Single-origin, as we know, must come from a specific geographic location. As a result, it also gets a distinct flavor profile. 

The Price Equation

Many gourmet coffees flaunt their status as single-origin coffees. This creates an illusion that single-origin is inherently superior to blends. The fact that single-origin tends to be expensive, while blends often represent cheap store-bought coffee also pushes this belief.

Truth is, blends vary greatly and go from those cheap store-bought coffees to very intricate and expensive combinations. Even so, blends are generally cheaper and more widely used. 

Since blends gather beans from all over the world, they don’t pay as much attention to bean quality. Depending on the blend, factors like bean quality, size, and a greater encouragement on flavor is ignored. While single-source must focus on bean quality simply because that is the entire value proposition of these coffees.

Availability Of Various Coffee Types

No coffee farm can have a harvest season that lasts throughout the year. Some regions indeed have wider harvesting seasons, but even so, there has to be a break from the harvest season. As a result, single-source coffee cannot be available throughout the year. 

Since coffee blends are sourced from a wider area, their availability is not dependent on seasons. Your favored blend is likely to remain available throughout the year. This is a generalization in some aspects because some blends are more focused on seasonal coffee. 

Traceability Of Your Coffee

How well would you know the authenticity of the single-origin coffee if you couldn’t trace its origin? Therefore, traceability forms a key element of single-origin coffee. Going back to the nation and region is fine. 

But many brands do better and make it possible to pinpoint the origin, batch, the paddock, and sometimes, even the farmers that cultivated the coffee beans. Fascinating stuff!

Better and traceable beans encourage a higher recognition of the coffee varietal, region, and type. Consolidating the reputation of the beans and the farm further encourages their demand.

Quality And Flavor Of The Beans

The entire value proposition of single-source coffee beans is dependent on the quality of the beans. Therefore, farmers take a greater interest in bean quality and performance. This becomes a big factor in the overall quality of the coffee beans.

Greater attention is also paid to other aspects of the coffee beans, like size, specific processing, and flavor notes. Farmers and roasters take more care to experiment with the plants/beans (as the case might be). As a result, the customer gets access to a variety of flavors. 

A greater push towards educating the customer on cupping notes is a usual part of this process. A stronger flavor of cupping notes like fruity flavors, milk chocolate, or honey might be very visible. 

Blends, on the other hand, aren’t so focused on flavors and cupping notes. Their aim is largely to create a combination that provides a balanced and delicious coffee with amazing aroma. The deeper cupping notes or flavor notes of coffee are a secondary consideration. 

Blends go wonderfully with additives and more complex recipes. Adding milk, sugar, or flavorings like vanilla essence and caramel syrup is common practice with these coffees. Or, get a quality milk frother and turn your espresso into latte, cappuccino, mocha, and more.  

Direct Trade And How It’s Changing The Coffee Landscape

The popularity of single-origin coffee has resulted in an interesting phenomenon called Direct Trade. It is the result of a flowing conversation between consumers, roasters, and coffee farmers. This is something that hasn’t happened before and is playing a huge role in changing the coffee landscape. 

Roasters have a conversation directly with coffee farmers. Rather than buying through various companies or middlemen, roasters are making efforts to deal directly with coffee farms and farmers. Specialty roasters convey their expectations and requirements directly to farmers. Similarly, savvy farmers depend on the roaster to keep them informed of market trends.

The greater engagement of the customer with the process enables the farmers and roasters to fine-tune their operation. Cupping parties were unheard of until a few years ago. Now, the coffee landscape is dotted with them. 

Customers, farmers, and roasters gathering together to test various brews, varietals, roasts, and beans and discussing their cupping notes and profiles is a highlight to this setup. Several organizations and publications have sprung up to provide more information. These too play a role in connecting the farmers and roasters.

Direct Trade has become an emblem of the search for higher-quality coffee. Specialty farmers, specialty roasters, and engaged customers all play a role in the push for higher quality. 

This sees farmers willing to experiment with their crops to bring about better, more flavorful beans. Roasters are on the ever-lookout for better beans for a better quality brew. Their will to experiment with various roasts, beans, and flavors, helps bring the best to the consumer.

The buyers are the engine of the entire operation. Their desire for better quality and single-origin coffee is what drives the change at the origin. All said and done, the market is responding to the demand from the customers.

Best Single Origin Coffee – The Characteristics Of Note

As is apparent, it can be difficult to pin-point the coffee you want, simply because of the wider definitions of single-origin coffee. Nevertheless, this doesn’t have to be a problem if you put a greater focus on reading the label. Understanding the various facets of origin as already described makes things easier.

Ascertaining origins becomes less of a problem when you’re buying higher quality coffee. The best single origin coffee sellers and roasters make the origins of their coffee very clear. In most cases, rather than mentioning a nation, they go for specific regions of their sourcing. Many also show off the microlots or nanolots that make it very easy to pinpoint the origin.