If you’ve never heard of single origin coffee, that’s not surprising. It’s a fairly new development in the world of coffee, and has only existed for about fifteen years. However, it’s a style of coffee production that’s gaining a lot of recognition inside the industry, and with coffee aficionados the world over.
The name “single origin coffee” seems very self-explanatory, but even among the people producing it, its precise meaning is not always the same. There is some contention as to what exactly it is. This post is intended to provide a basic overview of the history of single origin coffee, a few examples of what the people producing and drinking it think it is and what exactly makes it so unique.
As the name suggests, single origin coffee is coffee that is grown in a single geographical region. Some growers and marketers demand a more stringent definition. For them, single origin coffee must come not only from a specific region, but a specific farm, or even a part of a farm. The coffee beans must also remain unmixed with beans from anywhere else. Furthermore, all coffee beans must all be roasted in the same way, in the same batch.
In the world of coffee, single origin coffee is somewhat equivalent to a cut of Kobe beef, a paragon diamond or an Olympic athlete. Because of the highly particular requirements for its production, each batch of single origin coffee is completely unique. Like a diamond, the more unique a flavor of coffee, the more prized it is.
The idea of single origin coffee, as we understand it, started around 1999 by several groups of people who began growing specific flavors of coffee which were unique to their geographical region. (These are called “micro lots” by single origin coffee growers.) By 2004, the idea of micro lots and single origin coffee was more or less accepted by the coffee industry. However, differences in opinion about what exactly it was, were still common.
Although single origin coffee is only around fifteen years old, the idea behind it has its roots in the late 19th century. Coffee was becoming one of Europe’s biggest import items from colonized countries. At that point, it was exclusively single origin because all the coffee was imported from one region or another. Toward the end of the 19th century though, coffee drinkers became interested in a blend of flavors, resulting in mixtures like Mohka Java. This is a flavor blend that is actually still common today.
After a few decades, blending imported coffee beans became the norm. As most coffee is still imported from third world countries to first, nothing ever changed. The relatively dominant control of corporate-owned coffee farms, ensured that smaller farms didn’t really take off until coffee drinkers in the West became interested in the unique flavors of single origin coffee.
The wholly defining trait of single origin coffee, whatever definition you happen to use, is its uniqueness. The idea that you are drinking something that can only be produced in one place in the entire world, is appealing to many people. The taste is distinct from coffee of any other type. As stated previously, most coffee sold commercially is a blend of some kind. This could mean that it is more than one kind of roast, or made up of beans from several regions.
Although taste-wise, blends are just fine, it is harder to detect the subtleties of each region’s flavor. Even two batches of single origin coffee from the same micro lot can taste different. The taste is dependent on the shade, sun and altitude. Farmers who grow single origin coffee are artists in their own way – using the natural soil quality and climate, in addition to variable qualities such as sun and shade. Micro lot farmers can craft a flavor entirely unique to that lot.
Why they’re interesting to drink
Many of these coffees have hints of flavors like banana, chocolate, vanilla, and lemon. It’s easy to lose these subtle undertones in blends. Additionally, blending allows for producers to cover up inadequacies of sub-par beans, which has the result of diluting the flavor of a particular region. The uniqueness of single origin coffee, makes it easy for customers to familiarize themselves with the distinction between the flavors. As a result, they can decide what kind of coffee suits them best.
There is also a social consciousness element to drinking single origin coffee. Since micro lots are very small, single origin coffee growers often go hand-in-hand with fair trade co-ops. Additionally, they are usually (but not always) certified as organic growers. Many micro lot farmers are interested in efforts to grow coffee in an environmentally sustainable fashion, while the majority of large corporate coffee farms aren’t necessarily interested.
The exclusive nature of single origin coffee, makes it easier for farmers to get a premium price for their produce. They do so by selling to coffee shops that cater to coffee aficionados who are willing to pay a higher price for a unique product. Single origin coffee also appeals to people looking for the closest thing to “buying local” when it comes to coffee. Because of the temperate climate in the United States, it isn’t actually possible to grow coffee, which means that all coffee in the US is imported from somewhere. Knowing where exactly that might be, is a big reason some people are interested in single origin coffee.
Ultimately, the definition of single origin coffee will probably change. As a developing movement in a huge industry, that change is inevitable. Will it become the norm, just like blended coffee did in the 19th century? Will it remain a niche market for coffee aficionados and people interested in micro farms? The answer to these questions isn’t readily clear at this point, and probably won’t be until single origin coffee gets a little more mainstream. Either way, it’s something that will be interesting to watch in the coming years and is a unique and enjoyable choice of coffee.