Coffee culture has a long history with coffee alternatives and additives. It seems that nearly since it’s discovery, people have been trying to replace, alter and enhance it. In Mark Pendergrast’s book Uncommon Grounds, he names more than 65 things that have been used for coffee additives. Some of my favorites are brewery waste, burnt rags, and dog biscuits.
“The list of coffee adulterants indeed is amazing: almonds, arrowhead, asparagus seeds and stalks, baked horse liver, barberries, barley, beechmast, beetroot, box seeds, bracken, bran, bread crusts, brewery waste, brick dust, burnt rags, burrs, carob beans, carrot, chickpeas, chicory, chrysanthemum seeds, coal ashes, cocoa shells, comfrey roots, cranberries, currants, dahlia tubers…” (Uncommon Grounds, 60) You get the picture.
Of all the things that have been added to coffee over the years, chicory, a blue flowered plant native to Europe, is probably the most familiar and successful. The leaves of the plant are sometimes use as salad greens. The root is roasted, ground and used to produce a bitter “coffee substitute.” It is probably most well known in New Orleans style coffee which can be up to 40 percent chicory.
Once you understand some of the basics of how a coffee’s origin and processing impact a roasted coffee’s flavor, you are ready to explore the final frontiers of purposefully selecting a roasted coffee: understanding the basic roasting process and finding good coffee that you enjoy.
(If you are looking to maximize your understanding of what coffee is and factors affecting it’s flavor, I recommend starting with coffee processing, then reading about origins before proceeding with this article. If you are simply looking to decode roasting terminology a bit and learn strategies for finding great roasted coffee, read on and backfill your knowledge as needed.)
Single Origin and Blends
Before I go any further, I’d like to explain a little bit about single origin and blended coffees.
A single origin coffee is one that comes from a single source. These coffees are often labelled by their country of origin and a subregion, farm or trade name within that country. It is not unusual to find single origin coffees that do not have any indication on the packaging of the degree of roast. You can usually find out an approximate degree of roast in these situations by asking the roaster or inspecting the roasted bean itself (more on visual roast degree cues later).
A blended coffee is exactly what it sounds like, two of more coffees that are mixed together. These coffees can be from different origins, roast levels, crop years. varietals or any combination. Blends will typically say the roast level on the packaging or give an indication in the title. A Breakfast blend, for example, would usually be a medium roast with milder flavors. A French roast blend would be a very dark roast.
When choosing a roasted coffee to sample, don’t overlook blended coffee. Single origin coffees sound more exotic, glamorous and tend to get a lot more attention, but a roaster who is skilled at blending can elevate and enhance coffee in ways single origins can’t always do.