It is now an old adage I suppose, though not so long ago it seemed like a bleeding edge declaration. To paraphrase, it went something like, “it is the barista’s job not to get in the way of the coffee, you do not want to taste the barista in the cup, nor for that matter do you want to taste the roaster in the cup. Coffee can only be made worse at each step on its journey to cup, and the key objective is to limit the damage done at each step.”
It is a very romantic notion. It also sounds decidedly plausible, at least superficially. It does not, however, stand up to much scrutiny. To believe this notion is to accept that there is only one interpretation of a coffee that can be “best”, it is a notion of absolutes, one that does not align well with my experiences of coffee.
Instead I would suggest that I do want to taste both the roaster and barista in the cup, as well, while we are on the subject, the processing method and even the approach taken at harvesting. So long as all these steps are given equal care. To say you do not want to taste the roaster or barista is to diminish their role and responsibility for the final product, to imply that quality is the result of positive inputs from the farmer and the absence of negative inputs from roaster/barista.
I try to drink a lot of coffee, from as many different roasters and origins as my budget and time will allow. When I get a coffee from a roaster, I not only want to taste the origin, but I also want to taste the roaster’s interpretation. Huge insight can be gained into their palate, their style. I DO want to taste the roaster.
You’ll excuse this rather long-winded introduction to the point I am hoping to make. The genesis of this post lies in chewing the cud with Mr Morrissey over a cup of Otoño, Intelligentsia’s rather lovely Autumn filter blend. I made the observation that filter blends aren’t really a major part of the consciousness of speciality coffee in this part of the world, like they are in the US. Take the triumverate of Square Mile, Hasbean and James Gourmet Coffee. They do not really do filter blends in a serious way (I hope no offence is taken by this comment).
One does not and has not ever (to my knowledge) offered a filter blend, while the other two have a couple of filter blends on their sites, but these seem to get little mention (for instance none of Steve’s blends have ever appeared on the now almost 100 episode strong IMM*).
Filter coffee in itself hasn’t been a major part of speciality coffee (I define speciality in this context as being the niche roasters like the above and similar) in this part of the world until very recently and therein lies the root of the phenomenon. To create a filter blend now might seem anachronistic. Filter blends are only a major feature of the bigger commercial roasters, and even then the aim of the blend seems to be in generating a coffee that lacks distinctive characteristics, creating a consistent product and perhaps more sinisterly finding a home for otherwise less palatable beans.
There is considerable momentum and interest in single origin coffees (rightly). For me, and I suspect for most people passionate about coffee in 2010, the ability to taste unique origins, single estates, micro lots, always chasing that next experience is one of the greatest draws. I cannot help but feeling, however, that we are missing a trick. Blending can offer novel experiences. Unique flavour profiles can be generated. While I would never advocate giving up single estate coffees, the two aren’t mutually exclusive.
I would love to see, for example a Sweet Shop type blend, but for filter, not a blend created to even out characteristics, but a blend to geek-out about, or to juxtapose unlikely flavour combinations, a reinterpretation of “the filter blend” concept. It puts added onus on the roaster and their responsibility to the final product. It offers the possibility for a new experience, a different experience.
If you, like me, also happen to get geeky about beer, you might have heard of a beer called I Hardcore You. It is a blend of two beers, Brew Dog’s (Scotland) Hardcore IPA and Mikkeller’s (Denmark) I Beat You IPA. It is one of the most delicious beers I’ve taste all year, and I would love to see something similar attempted in coffee. Take two of Europe’s or the US’ (or one of each) roasters. Collaborate. Combine some amazing coffees. Make something unique. Do it for charity, do it as a one off, I don’t care, just do it.
Don’t misinterpret my intentions, I really do get the single origin focus, more than that, I champion it. In parallel I also want to taste the abilities of talented individuals and teams of coffee people to create interesting interpretations, delicious combinations. The filter blend has a rather dowdy reputation, it is not seen as cutting edge, but it can be. It can be another new experience to look forward to.
*correction - episode 58 contained his Christmas filter blend - thanks to Dale Harris for correction.