Espresso blending by Stephen Leighton
Espresso Blending Techniques, by Stephen Leighton
Here we have an interesting insight into how he does espresso blending, by Steve Leighton of Hasbean. This article is interesting not only for the insight it provides into basic espresso blending as done by a professional, but also for the passion it reveals in the otherwise diffident author! (Blue long johns and red "Y" fronts are in the post Steve).
Some people may disagree with the odd point or two here and there - but as Steve says, it's what works for you! Enjoy.
Why just espresso blending?
Why not talk about blending in general? Blending for the press pot or filter machine doesnít need to be as precise. For one itís a far weaker part of the cup compared to espresso and there are rules that canít be broken in espresso blending that work really well in the filter blends. Espresso blending is an art.
What makes me the expert?
Well, Iíve been blending for espresso in the commercial setting of a coffee shop for four years and have created well over 200 blends from 60 different origins in search of the perfect blend, and drunk many thousands of cups of espresso not just for enjoyment (itís a tough job) but also in the quest for the better espresso. My Has Bean Espresso blend is one of the best selling coffees I sell, and has received critical acclaim from people in the trade, but more importantly from customers.
So what makes a good blend?
Iíve got to start off by saying "I think I know best" and of course this is true; but these are my rules and not yours. Donít be afraid to break them if you think its going to work. One man's ristretto is another man's poison.
Good espresso comes from blends. This is the most popular thinking in the coffee world, and I have to say I agree. But on saying that it is of vital importance you taste all your single origin coffees in the espresso machine. Tasting single origins and cupping them lets you know what they taste like alone. So when you are looking for a little sweetness, you can refer to your experiences of tasting it at origin and think "Iíll add some...".
Itís also a good idea to keep detailed notes of cupping experiences, and donít be afraid to go back again and try something else. We all know that one day you try a shot and itís awful, and the next itís perfection, so more than one session is important. Also a good idea can be to cup like the professionals. Only here can you really get a feeling for the coffee. Itís all well and good trying it in the espresso machine, but it can be a lazy way of finding tastes. Make your palate work and here you can compare. Only with comparisons will you understand the real differences between the coffees.
Work, work and work. Your blend will not be done in the first mix. It shouldnít be done by the 10th attempt. And when it finally is what youíre after, it will change as soon as the next crops rotate in. Itís an ongoing process of cupping, tasting, adapting and repeat. Your blend will never be finished and if any one tells you theirs is, donít trust them. With so many variables going into the espresso no shot is ever going to be the same and no blend is going to be the same.
What makes a bad blend?
A bad espresso blend is like no other. If the roaster gets this wrong he will be lambasted forever and likely lose his customers. If a filter blend isnít to someoneís taste he will be forgiven and it will be put down to palate, or just not their type of coffee. Also the ratio of coffee to water is much higher so mistakes are highlighted.
Bad espresso blends are over complicated, under complicated, too smooth, too bitter, too fresh, too stale.... I could go on but Iím sure you get the picture. My favourite espresso blend wouldnít make my catalogue. It is too rich, full bodied and expensive for me to sell retail. A roasterís job is to find some middle ground to keep everyone happy, and not to go to far one way or the other.
One rule I always follow whatever is to avoid acidic coffees like Kenyans. As a young and foolish roaster with my love for Kenyan coffee I thought this could be carried over to my love for espresso. Alas it was a waste to see a good Kenyan / Costa Rican blend about to be thrown away, until I found it to be the best filter blend I had ever created, which I have sold from this day on and is my most popular filter blend in the catalogue. So even from mistakes small triumphs can be found.
A pretty important part of good espresso blending. There are two schools of thought on whether to roast as a blend or separately. For the commercial roaster it is easier to post blend (and indeed the most popular) as this cuts down on waste. If he has already roasted some Columbian up for an order, it is easy to add the rest of this to the blend. The thinking behind this too is you can treat each bean as an individual.
However I prefer to pre blend and roast it as a whole. All I can tell you is my experience has shown me that I get the best results this way. You get a more even cup, the blend tastes as if it belongs together. You can get very anal about every part of the process of creating espresso, but I go with what works for me.
I agree or at least can relate to David Schomer on most things in his Espresso Coffee Professional Techniques book (which is a "must read" for the espresso enthusiast) but on roast type we definitely agree. David Schomer calls it a Northern Italian Roast. I call it medium/dark roast. Itís just at the point where the beans look like they want to shine with oils but donít. A deep mahogany brown. If you take it any further you get a bitter cup which contrary to what Starbucks are trying to tell us is not what good espresso is about. If you must vary the above roast then go a little lighter, but avoid the charcoal blend.
So come on then, give us your recipe!
As a commercial Roaster I stopped stocking Yirgacheffe for a whole year. This was due to (in my opinion, not the industries) a poor Yirg crop that lacked the vibrancy I associate with it. I went to Sidamo (not bad, certainly better that 2002 crop Yirgacheffe), Djimma (a real mistake - it was a good cup, but the bean grade was very poor which meant 20 minutes before roasting were spent fishing out the pebbles). However nothing gives my espresso the lift it needs like a good Yirgacheffe. So now itís back, its good and itís in most of my blends for sure. It gives the cup citrus bursts and combines with the other smoother beans to balance the cup.
Ethiopian Longberry Harar
Iím a convert. For years I have refused to stock this bean. Why? Well I put it down to a bad experience and listening to others in the trade. I cupped this way back at the very start of Has Bean online. It was the most rancid cup of coffee I have ever drunk. It was acidic to the max and worse than some robustas Iíd tried. So I stayed away, until 2 months or so ago. When I cupped it I decided to buy some there and then. A great addition to a blend, but only in small amounts; it adds some flavour but avoids overpowering your blend. It has a very distinctive taste similar to that of Yemen coffees.
Brazil Bourbon Fazenda Cachoeira.
Until only less than 12 months ago the best Brazilian I stocked was a generic Santos. Brazilís coffee is boring (so I thought), flat and dull so why bother trying to find a single estate thatís going to taste the same as cheap old Santos? Well that was what I thought until I was convinced by a very good friend to try some of this. This sweet smooth little number is perfect in any espresso blend, and has definitely improved my blends beyond any other factor.
Columbian La Manuela
Smooth again but without fresh sweetness of F. Cachoeira. It has a more silky sweetness and gives the cup more body. A substantial bean that sits well in the blend.
Brazil Santa Terazina
Its smooth subtlety calms down an over-sweet blend and can add substance to one where otherwise you would have "citrus over kill". This is also great when you have a blend that you think is "there" but when in fact there is too much going on in the cup. A "calmer".
A great bean that gives chocolate hints to the blend and roasts like a dream. Its a great quality bean that adds to any blend.
I donít care what any one says to me, Iíve never tasted a better espresso blend than one with Robusta. Now small amounts (less than 10%) are rules of thumb, and its got to be good quality robusta (there is some out there. In fact Iíve tasted robustas better than some arabica beans Iíve been sent). Donít be a snob, it adds a little caffeine kick to a blend, and it gives you great crema and balances out the cup. I have blends without robusta in them that are great, but none are better than those blends which do contain Robusta. Donít let pre-conceptions stop you trying this; with amounts as low as 10% you canít even taste it, but it gives the cup so much more.
This is a brief guide to espresso blending and roasting. I could write a book with recipes and alike in, but Iím wondering how many of you are still awake reading a few pages. Itís all about opinions and taste and of course: mine are right and if you disagree youíre wrong, unless of course you become a customer and then itís "Sorry sir/madam I am a fool".
For me the blend is the most important part of good espresso. I can get around a useless machine or no tamp, and I can go buy some bottled water. I can buy a stove-top moka pot for just over a tenner and Iíve used some unusual tamps in the past. But if the blend is bad: well, you canít make a doppio out of a sowís ear!
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Thanks very much indeed for this - really interesting. I've been "half blending" in the sense I've been adding 2/3 different bean types to your basic Espresso blend as the predominant base amount but after reading the amount of time/effort/knowledge/experience that goes into the basic blend I think in future I'll just keep to that for my espresso and experiment with other beans just for my cafetiere.
Thanks for your info.
I am new to bean roasting, having recently bought a Hottop roaster from hasbean and have been reading up on roasting techniques etc.
I have read your article on blending and was intrigued by the advise on using a small amount of Robusta beans in your blends, especially that it would improve the blend.
As I love to experiment and am adventurous I have blended and roasted some beans already for my daily espresso addiction.
I decided to ask my green bean supplier in The Netherlands for some green Robusta beans to be included in my next delivery.
To my surprise he mailed the following: "Out of principle we don't sell Robusta beans.
We don't believe that Robusta enhances a melange. However, it does make a melange cheaper but in this case we like to point to the cheaper blends that get sold through commercial stores (some get named) where the blends are made up out of mostly Robusta beans."
I had pointed out that I would like to use just a little bit (like 10%) of Robusta in my Arabic beans blend.
They obviously have no interest in selling any green Robusta beans at all.
Since they are to my knowledge the only supplier in The Netherlands for green beans I will have to check and find another source in order to experiment with the addition of some Robusta to my blends.
What counts for me is the best tasting blend and if I have to add some Robusta in order to achieve this then I am not above buying some and trying your advise even if some folks would consider Robusta beans far inferior to Arabica beans. (wich they might be).
Any thoughts on where to buy some good quality Robusta beans/
Thanks and cheers,
Sorry for the delay in my reply, I've only just noticed your post here.
Not all blends will improve from robusta, and robusta needs to be of a good quality in a blend but there just are some occasions that it just works. It is cheaper but when its good quality not that much more. the are occasions I'd use as little as 5% and thatís just not going to save much money at all. I'm a very big fan and I know I'm not alone.
Not sure about suppliers in the Netherlands perhaps a post in the main forum might help.
Couldn't find the entry on Robusta beans in the forum so I'll post here. At www.ongebrand.nl they specialize in Robusta beans, but if you don't wan't to order online and don't live in the surroundings of Lieren, you can also try Museum De Koffietuin in Nieuwerbrug, Wijs en Zonen in the Warmoesstraat in Amsterdam, or Inproc in the Denneweg in The Hague. The owner roasts himself and has some blends with Robusta in them. I know the guy and I'm shure he would be happy to be of service
Top stuff Steve. The "recipe" section is particularly helpful in making sense of blending. An excellent read, thanks.
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