Eighteen small porcelain vessels lined the table. Each contained a seemingly identical brown liquid. Next to me stood an experienced food critic. She was stumped.
“When I see a tomato, or an egg,” she said, “I know how they’re supposed to taste. But these are all the same thing.”
In a sense, she was right. The eighteen different glasses all looked like they contained the same liquid: brown, silt clinging to the glass from the initial steep, slightly steaming. But to a practiced coffee taster, they were dramatically different—each was a single origin, from a different farm and farmer. For someone like me, each cup had its own distinct aroma and taste that revealed subtle cues about harvest, region, altitude, processing method, and age. In a sense, each cup had its own story.
And like any good story, single origin coffees are best understood if we start at the beginning. Their name, after all, demands it.
In the simplest terms, a single origin is coffee defined by its provenance. We can trace the coffee back to one farm, farmer, season, harvest, or processing method. The opposite of a single origin is a blend, which we also love—we couldn’t imagine our cafe menus without them. But while blends combine beans from different places to achieve a desired profile, a single origin is always rooted to a specific place and is as unadulterated as coffee can be.
Given the all-too-easy tendency to think of all coffee as "just" coffee, we look to single origins to celebrate individuality and to turn our attention to the infinite range of possibilities within just one drink. Coffee is a fruit, after all. And like any fruit, how and where it grows matters. Below, I’ve shared a few simple (and not-so-simple) explanations of what makes a single origin cup.
Single Origin Means Single Source
The coffee-producing world is large. Each country, and region therein, has different cultivation practices and favored cultivars. The term “single origin” is a category that gives focus to one distinct area or region in which a coffee grows.
For me, drinking a single origin is a way to experience the imprint of that particular place. Most of the time, a single origin comes from just one farm, or even designated acreage on that farm. But, in countries like Ethiopia and Kenya, where many farmers work tiny parcels of land, it can come from cooperatives too, as long as the coffee is processed in one centralized place.
I search out single origins because growing conditions—soil, weather, and cultivation practices—are the very things that give coffee its unique character. Microclimates abound in the high elevation geographies that are suited to coffee, and the shifts in climate guide pruning and processing techniques. Coffee cherry from one side of a mountain versus the other may drastically differ in rates of maturation and sugar concentrations.
When I compare single origins even from within one country (or region) side-by-side, like at the cupping, there are always differences, whether subtle or glaringly loud. Our recent slate of Burundi coffees comes to mind. Our Burundi Kayanza Nkonge achieves an exceptionally clean and consistent sugary sweetness, while the Kayanza Karusi bursts with darker notes of caramel and the tartness of an apple picked in early fall.
Single Origin Means Single Growing Season or Harvest
Single origin coffees are grown and picked within one growing season, but some single origins go beyond this, isolating the picking to a specific harvest within that season. Take our recently released Honduras Cristobal Fernandez Last Picks as an example. On Cristobal’s Santa Barbara Mountain farm, the microclimate is marked by incessant rain and cold nights, slowing fruit maturation and extending the harvest well into the summer. His first coffee of the season is less sweet but more intensely aromatic than the coffee picked in the harvest’s final two months, which comprise his mellow, more richly sugared Last Picks.
Just as honing in on a defined growing region shows up in the coffee’s actual taste, so too can the moment of harvest. I can’t help but think of how fruit picked at different times from the same tree becomes an altogether new fruit, like fall’s first apples versus those picked just before winter’s frost when cold nights heighten sweetness.
Single Origin Can Mean Singular Cultivar, Mutation, or Processing Method
While more rare and specialized, some single origins are further defined by cultivars or specific processing methods. Farmers are as much artists as they are growers. Many of the farmers we work with possess such knowledge and vision for their coffee that they enjoy experimenting with microlots.
Colombian brothers Rigoberto and Luis Herrera grow the ancient cultivar Sudan Rume on their Las Margaritas Farm. It is rarely sold as a standalone cup, but they decided to showcase this rarity without adornment of any kind. Their single origin not only reflects their farm’s unique environment, but also highlights the nuances of this esoteric cultivar.
You may have seen the word “peaberry” attached to coffees and felt a specialness implied. A peaberry refers to a naturally occurring mutation, where the coffee cherry produces one plump, round bean instead of two. The flavor is said to be more intense and the bean easier to roast. When farms or washing stations separate out their peaberry coffee, this becomes one more level of particularity that defines some single origins.
Lastly, the limitless variation in processing methods has great influence on a coffee’s final profile. Farmers sometimes intentionally manipulate techniques to achieve specific results.
A rockstar coffee producer in El Salvador, Aida Batlle, does this and more. Her Kilimanjaro Cascara Soaked is an example of an innovative processing method defining a particular batch. When coffee cherry ferments, it is always in fresh, clean water. Batlle decided to ferment this batch in freshly brewed cascara tea (a byproduct made from dried coffee cherry husks). The complex and juicy result, exploding with mandarin and melon, was our favorite among her late-harvest lots.
Benefits of Single Origins
Taste alone can justify our obsession with single origins. But the value these coffees bring to farmers is no less important. Single origin sourcing can spur a positive feedback loop. As we nurture long-lasting relationships with farmers and provide reliable income, they can in turn reinvest in sustainable cultivation practices. With increased financial security, farmers are able to produce higher quality beans that can be sold as single origins. As our relationships grow, we can actually taste their hard work and artistry, witnessing how their coffees differ season after season.
Drinking a single origin sheds light on coffee’s story, revealing the person or farm behind each cup. A far cry from the time of anonymous ground coffee sold in a can, guests can easily discover the place from which their morning coffee comes. By reorienting our sense that coffee must taste just one way, we’re able to showcase its uniqueness, rather than hide its distinctions.
On a more poetic note, I find that drinking a new single origin is a way to mark time. By their very nature, single origins are ephemeral, limited to just one harvest. Each is a time capsule that begs to be relished until it is gone. If we were just producing the same coffee year in and year out, we would get bored. And so might you.
Coffee should taste like what it is: a tropical fruit seed, separated and cleaned of the flesh, dried, roasted until caramelized, and then crushed and extracted into water. The beauty of single origins is that they are the purest possible articulations of this seed. If we’re doing our job the way we intend to do it, then after drinking a few different single origins at home or in our cafes, you will naturally start to piece together a more cohesive understanding of what coffee is and the many ways that it is delicious. We want it to become clear that despite each cup looking nearly the same, endless variables contribute to each unique coffee. Elemental yet orchestrated, single origin coffees are windows into the nuances of time and place.
Learn more about single origin coffee by subscribing to Blue Bottle At Home and signing up to receive single origin coffee from our favorite regions.