Coffee Blends

Written by Helen Glenn Court
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Once you've made the move from mass-produced grocery store coffee in one-pound and five-pound cans to coffee beans, consensus is correct (for once) that there's almost no going back. Your taste buds are awakened to a new and delightful array of possibilities. On one end of the scale are the Italian roasts and other Robusta varieties. Toward the other are the more mellow Coffea arabica varieties, from Guatemalan Antigua to Tanzanian Peaberry to Monsoon Malabar to organic Sumatran, and countless others.

The Art of Distinguishing Among Coffee Blends

To choose a blend that suits you, you first need to know the basics of your own palate preferences. Do you have a sweet tooth? Are flavored drinks cloying or soothing? Is the robustness of a dark roast invigorating or bitter? Do you sometimes or always add milk or cream to your coffee? Ideally, of course, you'd visit a local coffee shop where the aroma of the beans (ground or unground) can help you decide.

In one category are the whole bean varietals, and in the other the blends--mixes--of different beans. As with fine wines, and cheeses, and so many culinary pleasures, the range of subtle variation is infinite. When it comes to blending coffee, the real problem is not that they're blended, of course, but that reproducing a blend on your own by guesswork is difficult at best. Names mean little. (Think of the vogue in color names that come and go in clothing catalogs: dusty rose at L.L. Bean, for example, is a different color altogether than the dusty rose at Eddie Bauer.)

Marketing language does come into play if you're buying from catalogs or online shops. You might even see similar phrases to describe what turn out to be somewhat different coffees. One lovely phrase "delicate and well-balanced, perfect for a light roast to accentuate the natural citrus fruit flavors of oranges with delicate spicy overtones" might seem the same as "citrus highlights soften quickly into a rounded medium-bodied coffee with hints of chocolate and cinnamon."

You want to develop a baseline to help distinguish among such descriptions. Start by finding a coffee or two you like. Then read how they're described by coffee vendors. Begin with unblended coffees--a couple distinctive varieties is a good idea. Hawaiian Kona and Jamaican Blue Mountain are fine and delicate beans. You can put either of them neatly into perspective by contrasting them with a French roast. I've noted two dramatic ends of the spectrum. The idea is what's important. The more developed your palate grows, the less dramatic the contrast needs to be.


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