In Praise of the Coffee Blend

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When it comes to my espresso-based coffee consumption these days, I find myself drinking predominantly blends. There are a few main reasons, largely related to the challenges of consistent home espresso, however to be honest, I cannot say I’ve really missed chasing the next great single origin to any great degree.

I do like the inherent optimism in online dictionary definitions of blend, which go beyond the humble to mix:

to form a harmonious combination; to be an unobtrusive or harmonious part of a greater whole…

Sounds good to me, and that really is the key — while not all blends work, the ones that do result in something greater than the sum of its parts.

With every industry entrenched in social media and the internet these days, as coffee consumers we are often guided down the path of new and different. That’s often chasing a single origin, and increasingly these days it is produced using any number of unusual new processing methods.

While niche and interesting are great, and yes, I drink my fair share of those as well, might I suggest a well crafted specialty blend is equally as good, and in many cases better in certain ways than their component single origin parts. As always, flavour and enjoyment in the cup are paramount regardless, of blend or single origin coffee, however I think blends sometimes have an edge in getting there — particularly when brewing espresso at home.

The challenge of home

Brewing espresso at home is met with inherent challenges around consistency, particularly when the same coffee might only be intermittently consumed throughout any given week. It’s not so much the fact that a blend is necessarily more forgiving to dial in (though that indeed may be the case — even more so in a milk drink), rather the pattern of how I consume them.

As an aside, I thought this was a succinct and accurate definition of “dialling in” from Bean Ground:

Dialing in espresso is the act of calibrating your machine and grinder to follow a particular brew recipe. By manipulating the dose, time, yield, and grind size, you can align the parameters needed to pull the perfect shot of espresso with the coffee beans you’re using.

Sounds pretty straightforward right? Well maybe, maybe not…

So what does my typical coffee-day look like? It starts with one or two traditional cappuccinos before work, a pourover brewed into a Fellow Carter travel mug (for the mid-afternoon pick me up), and a trip to the office cafe mid-morning. Generally that’s a four day a week routine. Espresso? Well, apart from sneaking one in after work very occasionally, that leaves the remaining three days: a work from home day and the weekend when espresso itself is firmly on the menu as well. More below as to why this presents a challenge (though I also refer back to my intermittently consumed comment above).

The crux of the matter

Consistency, less waste, and no sacrifice in flavour or enjoyment. Noble aims in any coffee brewing endeavour. Thinking about my typical day above, being a milk is for morning type of drinker, a blend roasted for espresso lends itself well. The main development over the past year or so being I have increasingly used these blends for straight espresso as well.

Again it comes back to consistency, and the ability to tweak the grind and brew settings incrementally from day to day rather than having to dial in a single origin from scratch again on a Friday when I’d last done so the Sunday before. While aging is mostly the enemy here (the coffee, but ok… me as well I guess), other factors like the weather (I’m looking at you Brisbane humidity), and subtle changes in how the grinder might be behaving are at play. Depending on how those factors combine, that Friday can soon end up in the awkward: I’ve used more dialling in here than I’ve consumed scenario. Particularly when it’s taken three shots to dial in only to consume one, and repeat that over two or three weeks and watch that bag of coffee rapidly empty.

Now, although the espresso brew ratios differ for the morning cappuccino (1:1.8) and afternoon espresso (1:3), as the week progresses and tweaks need to be made with grind settings, by the time the weekend rolls around, I have a fair idea where to start once its time for one of those 1:3 lungos to exit the spouts. It’s an incremental adjustment rather than a baseline beginning from where I was a week before.

Consistency and less waste in brewing is one thing, what about quality and flavour? Well you’ll certainly find no arguments from me here. Of course, it depends on what blends and from whom you purchase them, however most specialty roasters are offering a number of blend flavour profiles, and its as easy as sampling each to find what you are looking for. Now although there is a view that a daily driver blend aimed at milk based beverages may not shine as an espresso on its own, I’ve generally found that not to be the case, and I don’t think specialty roasters really approach them that way either. To be honest I hadn’t really explored as many options as I should have prior to this point. There is something out there you’ll really enjoy, trust me.

Also, to acknowledge blends also can have their downsides (hiding cheaper or lower quality coffee, some may be uninteresting, not all coffees work well together) however I think most can be avoided if you purchase well. You know what? Ultimately it comes down to personal preference and your particular taste, as it always does.

So have I moved exclusively to blends as a result of the high praise above? No, not entirely, but I’m certainly drinking more (and more as espresso) than I ever have in the past, and I’m thoroughly enjoying them.

In wrapping this up, all I’d really like to highlight is that a well balanced, rich and complex blend has a lot going for it. While we all like to explore the tastes and styles of single origins and left field coffee processing methods, often times good and consistent over interesting might be exactly what we are after.

Some recent favourites:

Honourable Mentions:

The Humble Cappuccino

In describing what is far and away my favourite espresso-based milk drink, it would be easy to begin with recipes and numbers, and in beginning this post, is exactly what I did…

Five ounces — maybe six, of dense, textured silk on an espresso base.

I then went back and reviewed a few random notes I’d made upon thinking of writing about what I often find in my cup. Pragmatic and entirely logical they were not:

An angel in a cup guiding you to the bottom without ever letting go.

Unchanged from the first comforting sip to the last. A state of being momentarily removed from the world, or at least resolving any imbalance within it.

At its best, transcendent. An embrace of your very soul which leaves you buoyant, balanced, and with momentum to carry on.

Overstating things a little? Completely over the top? More than likely, however I’ve occasionally made reference to the simple philosophy that every day is simply a series of moments strung together. Life. The ultimate long-term project, with successful navigation reliant not upon completing each stage because they’ll fly by regardless — more so doing or being your best in each, and preparing as well as you can for the next.

In preparing for the next, sometimes a moment of escape and recharge is best found in a cup.

The cappuccino.

Humble? Yes. Standard issue — certainly no. I am talking here of the traditional cappuccino, what used to be the competition cap or indeed — as one favourite barista refers to it — the cappuccino Milano.

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A rich, heartwarming cappuccino Milano at Edward Specialty Coffee in the Brisbane CBD

This particular cappuccino you see, has a dusting of nothing other than perhaps something a little magical. No chocolate on top. Espresso. Milk. Perfectly combined. That’s it. The very fabric, character and soul of the traditional cappuccino are in its simplicity. Thicker and creamier than a flat white by all accounts, denser and more compact than a caffè latte.

An Origin Story

The origin of the cappuccino? Here is where things can get a little hazy. The similarity to the hoods of the capuchin monks is probably the most often heard. The most accurate? Well it depends on how far you go back with your origin story. James Hoffmann, writing on the cappuccino (also with a certain fondness), points to the work of Professor Jonathon Morris and his research project The Cappuccino Conquests.

It is here we find the most likely origin of the beverage, which was the Kapuziner — coffee with cream and sugar (and perhaps spices) which existed in Viennese coffee houses in the 1700’s. As far as the modern iteration is concerned, things are well summed up on History of Coffee:

Cappuccino, as is written today, appeared for the first time in northern Italy in the 1930s. At first it was made in “Viennese” style – with a whipped cream which is sprinkled with cinnamon or chocolate. The steamed milk variant appeared later. The real espresso machines became widespread only during the 1950s and people started making cappuccino with espresso instead of standard coffee. In this form, cappuccino is known around the world from that moment on. “Kapuziner” still exists unchanged on the Austrian coffee menu.

So whether you take the view the original cappuccino was the first one made with an espresso base, or something much older (and perhaps closer in form to the chocolate dusted version of today) is up to you. Upon reading the post I’ve quoted above though, it does bring back childhood memories of Vienna coffee being on the menu of many a late 70’s and 80’s cafe I visited with my parents.

So why the love?

Firstly, it isn’t about the caffeine. This is simply my favourite drink to greet the day, of which I’ll consume one each weekday morning and the occasional cappuccino riot on a weekend may be a few more than that, because… well… it’s the weekend. Some of this will be tweaking grind settings or recipes, and/or simply because “that was so good I think I’ll have another”.

I must admit to occasionally utilising another power of the espresso based milk drink — certainly not unique to the cappuccino — which is for the late afternoon snack replacement. A strategy not designed as part of any fad diet (nor am I recommending a cappuccino fast). You know, the workday is nearly over, you’re a little tired, perhaps slightly peckish, and it’s just not worth going out and buying food — and besides I don’t know what I feel like eating anyway… At that particular moment, a good old cappuccino (or similar) will at worst significantly improve your situation, or at best definitively resolve it.

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A One & One with a traditional cappuccino at Strauss in the Brisbane CBD

So is it really any better — or much different you might ask — to a flat white or latte? If either of those drinks is your preference then no, however for me, there is something unique about both the expresso/milk ratio, and the texture offered in a well made cappuccino compared to the others. Mainly the texture. You will find any number of recipe guides and infographics online, however I’d agree with James Hoffmann, in that many of these are perhaps a little misleading and the specifics probably technically incorrect. On this point I’d encourage you to read the post, for only one of us is an expert on these things, and it certainly isn’t me.

Creating one

Ask any barista how they make their cappuccino, and you will likely get subtle variations based on preference, philosophy and the particular coffee being served as the base for the drink. Ask any amateur, and you may get a certain answer, with additional variation in technique consistency and perhaps equipment compromise.

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Any given morning at home

In any event, my personal brewing technique involves an espresso made to approximately a 1:1.8 ratio (18–20 gram dose; 34–36 gram yield), splitting the shot with one side into a demitasse espresso cup and the other into a 4.5 or 6 oz cappuccino cup. I’ll usually consume the espresso as well (yes, my favourite one and one combination), or at a minimum, taste it to assess how the extraction went.

Although I do love great espresso as much as the next coffee nerd, I guess my fondness for the cappuccino is all about what comes next (assuming of course we’ve done a decent job of that initial extraction), with the densest, creamiest, silkiest milk I can muster. This of course, is the key to the kingdom. The doorway that opens up milk beverage nirvana. This is not a flat white with a little more foam. This is a thicker, well mixed crescendo of espresso and milk, the density of which increases towards a good centimetre or so of dense capping with enough thickness and surface tension to provide the hint of a dome on top of the cup. Those hollow frothy mountains were indeed left behind some 15–20 years ago (mostly).

The exact recipe is not really important – what makes it up in its entirety is. I know I’ve been successful if the density and mouthfeel of that creamy espresso and milk mix is carried right through until the last sip.

The Finish

As I’ve mentioned, I love my espresso as much as the next guy at the bar, however I find there is nothing quite as comforting as the humble — yet well made — cappuccino.

Writing here, I share a few things I enjoy and perhaps poke fun at myself a little while doing it. Perhaps I’ve laid it on a bit thick in the early stages of this post, however when all is said and done, there really is something to be said for the simple things we love and why we love them.