Is Blending Good or Bad?
There's a bit of controversy around 'blending' coffee beans. Is it some kind of mystical high-point of coffee craft that involves a finely tuned palate and a deep concept of flavor aesthetics? Or is blending only for cheap, low quality coffees as many single origin, single estate, and single variety proponents claim? Maybe this sounds weird, but in order to understand why this stout debate exists, it is helpful to go back and think about some basic Socratic Greek philosophy.
Plato and Aristotle Get Coffee
For fun, lets imagine that Plato and Aristotle are going to get some beans at a local Athenian roastery. Let's see how their convictions about the universe influence what they buy and why they enjoy it.
We know Plato is really into this idea he calls 'Forms.' Basically, the idea is that there's a sort of perfect version of everything existing outside of our reality. The reason coffee tastes good, to Plato, is because the 'Form' of coffee tastes so good. A coffee craftsperson is, therefore, always attempting to get closer and closer to this wholly other transcendent bean and cup. He grabs a bag of 'Philosopher's Blend' (obviously we made that up).
Aristotle has another idea. He considers Plato's ideas to be a bit too out there, and instead insists that we find our value in contemplating what he calls the 'particulars' that make up what we experience. Coffee to him has value not because it is approaching an intangible perfection, but because inherent details have been painstakingly preserved, ordered, and presented through craft. He grabs a bag of 'Socrates Estate Microlot' (this doesn't really exist either).
Plato loves blends. To him, the way a blending purveyor combines beans from all over the world is like alchemy. There is a mystery in combining beans properly that brings a value greater than the sum of its parts. The real goal, to Plato, is to source the best beans from the best places, and then combine them into an ultimate masterpiece. He sees blending as a timeless craft, much like that of a chef or a great oil painter, where humanity reaches out into the ether searching for truth.
Aristotle, of course, thinks blends are old-school and a way of compromising a coffee's true integrity. Instead, the more the industry isolates variables, the more excited he gets. He is tired of folks muddying up details with bean blending. He believes roasters should only ever source exclusive microlots made of single varieties and keep them all separated.
Who is Right?
It should be pretty obvious that these are both really cool (albeit polarized) approaches that have very interesting points of intersection. It's also fun to think about how we might agree with Plato in some ways and Aristotle in others. There is room for the full spectrum in the specialty coffee industry and it is exciting to see both of these theories being tested over and over again.
One thing to avoid is arrogance in this vibrant dialogue. Unwillingness to see another's perspective is just another way of missing out on the full coffee experience. Make no mistake, however, having strong and well developed convictions is just as important as humility. So, decide what you believe and join the conversation. And watch for Plato and Aristotle next time you visit your local roastery.