What is Single Origin Coffee?
Single origin coffee is coffee that's from one place - rather than a blend of coffee from several places.
Historically, it has referred to coffee from a single country, but as our expectations of quality and traceability have grown, it has also come to mean coffee from a single region, farm, producer or washing station.
Coffee growing at high altitude in Tolima, Colombia
The Value of single Origin Coffee
Different coffees are blended together to balance flavours, mouthfeel, sweetness, bitterness and acidity or to achieve consistency and cost effectiveness.
Single origin coffee, on the other hand, is about letting the flavours and characteristics of that single coffee shine through.
Flavours and characteristics that are shaped by the environment in which they are grown.
For this reason, single origin coffee has been influential in developing our relationship with the drink, allowing coffee lovers to explore distinctly different flavour profiles and develop a more direct relationship with the countries, cultures and individuals that produce them.
Knowing a coffee’s origin allows us to discover our own coffee taste preferences - as we can taste coffee from different origins and make a note of our favourites.
In the world of the producer, the interest in single origin coffees has encouraged many to aim for higher quality coffee production, or to experiment with growing and processing techniques to create more unique flavours profiles. All of this resulting in a better price for their coffee.
Single Origin: a definition
So how do we define the ‘origin’ in single origin?
First, it’s useful to talk about ‘terroir’, a French term to describe the environmental factors that affect a crop.
In coffee growing, it’s these unique micro-geographic factors - such as altitude, temperature, rainfall and soil composition - that affect quality and flavour and define the origin in question.
Single origin vs single estate
A visit to Finca La Esperanza in Huila, Colombia. The farm's coffee goes into our single origin, Silvio & Luz
In its strictest sense, single origin coffee should be defined by a single terroir, but the closeness of this link depends on the country and its production methods.
In North, Central and South America, and in Asia, single origin might mean a single coffee estate, or a single farm within an estate, or even a particular area of that farm.
Quite often, it also refers to a ‘lot’ – a batch of coffee picked at a particular time, or from a particular area within the farm.
A lot of single origin coffee from Africa is often from a single washing station – a processing centre that might receive coffee from hundreds or thousands of smallholder farmers from the surrounding area, all with very similar growing conditions.
A specially produced microlot from Colombian producer Mauricio Shattah
Lots, microlots and nanolots
So a single origin is a rough measure that could be as broad as a country, or as specific as a single smallholder producer.
A single ‘lot’ is a particular batch of coffee that could be defined by its time of picking, or the area that it grew on the farm. At the most specific end, there are microlots and nanolots.
Again, these terms are loosely defined and interchangeably used, but in our experience they refer to smaller lots, that are separately grown and processed with extra attention to achieve a small amount of high quality, distinctive coffee.
However geographically focused its origin is, a coffee may or may not be made up of a single varietal. A varietal being a genetic variety of coffee, often with distinct flavour characteristics - such as Bourbon, Caturra, Catuai or SL28.
You might compare this to distinct varieties of apple, such as Granny Smiths or Cox’s, that also taste different. Or grapes in wine – such as Sauvignon or Pinot Noir.
As well as having different taste characteristics in the cup, varietals interact with their growing environments in various ways, and have varying levels of resistance to different diseases and pests. For this reason, farmers often grow a mixture of varietals to help protect their crop, so you’re just as likely to see a single origin coffee contain two or more types.
Single origin coffee beans and flavour
Cupping coffee samples in the Taylors tasting room
We’ve talked about what single origin means for the producer, the supply chain and our own expectations of transparency, but what does that mean for the flavour in your cup? For a start off, the difference in terroirs around the world means that there’s masses of diversity in single origin coffee flavour.
You might prefer the black tea and citrus notes of a washed Ethiopian Yirgacheffe, or the chocolate and hazelnut flavours of a pulped natural Brazilian coffee. Single origin coffee lets you explore these differences, which are developed at 3 key parts of the production process – growing, processing and roasting.
Alongside the species and varietal of the coffee, one of the key reasons for flavour differences is a complex interweaving of climactic and environmental factors. Coffee grows in temperate climates, rather than tropical ones, and the amount of sunshine, rain, heat and humidity has a major effect on plant growth - as does soil.
Volcanic soils in particular are known to produce incredibly flavoursome coffees, in countries as diverse as Kenya, Guatemala and Mexico.
Altitude really matters too. The higher up you go, the more the plants are put under stress and divert sugar to their seeds, and the slower the coffee grows because of cooler temperatures.
Grown well, high altitude coffees produce harder and denser beans, and more acidic and aromatic flavour profiles when roasted, ground, and tasted.
Shade growing makes a similar difference, and can produce vastly different results even within a single field.
Naturally processed coffee being dried on raised beds
But while the care, attention and conditions the coffee experiences during growing has a dramatic effect on quality and flavour, the way it’s processed – the step in the chain that takes coffee from a ripe fruit to a dried green bean – adds another layer of influence.
Naturally processed coffees where the fruit is left on the seed to ferment longer tend to have strong fruit and fermented notes.
Washed coffees where the fruit is removed from the seed with a depulping machine have cleaner, citrussy notes. And honey processed coffee - where a degree of fruit pulp is left to ferment on the seed - are somewhere in between.
While a small number of forward thinking producers are experimenting with specific methods to aim for new and different flavour profiles, most often the choice of processing method is linked to countries or regions purely for practical reasons like cost, consistency and the availability of water.
Roasting each coffee individually to bring out its unique characteristics is an important part of the process
When we talk about the varietal, growing conditions and processing of a single origin coffee defining its flavour, we’re talking about the flavour of that coffee once it’s been roasted. It’s only through the roast that the potential flavours of the hard, green, unroasted bean are released.
Earlier we touched on the differences between a black tea and citrus-like washed Ethiopian coffee, and the chocolate and hazelnut flavours of a pulped natural Brazilian coffee.
These differences in flavour should be coaxed out by roasting these coffees in different ways. Typically a citrussy, washed coffee like this would be roasted lightly to maximise acidity and floral notes, while a Brazilian natural would be roasted a little darker than that (medium-light or medium) to emphasise its natural sweetness and body.
Again, this is a big topic on its own and we’d suggest reading our beginners guide to coffee roasting if you’re interested in learning more.
What to look for in different origins
So if you like nut and chocolate notes, you could try Brazilian, Mexican, Guatemalan or Hawaiian coffee. If you want something floral you might try a washed Ethiopian or a Panamanian Gesha.
You’ll find berry notes in Kenyan, Burundian or Rwandan coffee and a diverse mix of fruity and balanced profiles throughout Colombia and Central America.
Generally speaking, as there are many coffees that don’t fit these stereotypes, here’s an overview of some common specialty coffee flavour notes and the origins you may find them in.
- Chocolate, nuts and low acidity: Brazil, Hawaii, Mexico, sometimes Guatemala, sometimes Colombia
- Complex fruity coffees with balanced acidity: Colombia, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, China, Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, Thailand
- Unusual floral and tropical fruit flavours: Panama, Yemen, Ethiopia (natural)
- Black tea, citrus, bergamot and peach: Ethiopia (washed)
- Berry notes and lively acidity: Rwanda, Burundi, Kenya, Tanzania
- Blueberry or strawberry: Ethiopian Natural
- Spices and nuts: India, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea
Single origin coffee and quality
Single origin means many things, but it doesn’t guarantee quality. A poorly grown and processed single origin coffee will not taste good. Neither will top quality single origin beans that have been roasted badly.
At Taylors, quality is at the heart of everything we do, and it starts with sourcing the right quality coffee from the right producers at origin.
Developing long-term partnerships with our suppliers and working closely with them (through regular farm visits, phone and video calls) allows us to create a shared understanding of quality and to make sure each batch of coffee we buy is as consistently good as the last.
We do this through calibration - by exchanging the quality data we collect in our tasting rooms and through face to face visits where we taste side by side, like moisture readings, water activity levels, green grading for size and defects, and cupping scores with tasting notes.
Knowing our suppliers and understanding their needs in this way also allows us to invest in their development and quality improvement directly. You can find out more about how we invest in our producers at origin on our impact site.
For our producers, maintaining quality coffee production is becoming more and more difficult in the face of climate change.
That’s why, as well as investing in climate smart agriculture at origin, we also help fund the work of World Coffee Research, a non-profit with a mission to empower producers and ensure coffee’s future through scientific research and development.
All the coffee we buy for our Discovery range is 100% Arabica (the sweeter, more delicate of the two cultivated coffee species) and scores 85 points or more on the Speciality Coffee Association’s quality scale of 1-100 – a grading system that assesses everything from the coffee’s flavour, to its body, balance and defects.
All coffees scored above 80 points are considered speciality grade – with 80-84.99 considered ‘very good’, 85-89.99 considered ‘excellent’ and 90-94.99 considered ‘outstanding’. We have 6 professionally trained Q graders who make sure that every bag of coffee we buy, and every batch we roast, meets these standards.
Single origin and direct trade
Coffee drinkers’ love for single origin coffee has helped some farmers achieve higher prices, and the increase in transparency has allowed these producers to market their coffee to the highest bidder. But, there’s a misconception that single origin means a direct trading relationship between roaster and farmer.
Mostly, coffees are sourced by specialist green coffee trading companies who can do the best job of matching producers and roasters. For many roasters this makes the most sense, as they don’t have the time or knowledge to manage these relationships directly themselves.
In reality, whether a roaster visits the farm or not, it’s rare that an importer or an exporter isn’t involved in managing the relationship and trading the coffee.
The notion of small specialty roasters travelling the world and doing face to face business with coffee farmers alone is a bit of a myth, but it’s true to say that you can still form a direct, supportive, collaborative relationship with a producer at the same time as using an exporter to do business.
And there are times when a green coffee trading partner isn’t needed at all.
We like to think that our sourcing approach goes beyond these basic notions of direct trade.
- We have a global supply chain, sourcing coffee from over 80 suppliers across 16 countries. This supply chain is 100% transparent too – we’re the first UK based tea & coffee company to publicly share their whole supply chain and you find out more at Our suppliers | Taylors Impact)
- We have a values-based approach to sourcing coffee. It’s founded on strong relationships built through regular visits to the estates, farms cooperatives we source from.
- Our approach to buying coffee is based on collaboration. We work in close partnership with our suppliers to build long term contracts, improve their quality and find solutions to sustainability issues and other challenges that impact them.
- We run annual business reviews with our key suppliers, where we review the previous season’s performance (including quality) and develop joint business plans for the coming seasons.
- We invest time and money in projects that improve our producers’ lives, landscapes and livelihoods. That could be anything from funding farmer field and business training for smallholders, to funding fresh water and schooling for local farming communities.
Single Origin Coffee vs Blends
As we’ve talked about throughout, one of the joys of a single origin coffee is that it connects you to the people and environment that created the drink in your cup. You can experience bold and beautiful flavours that are unique to a particular place in the world.
The value of blends, that mix coffee from several different places, it’s totally different. Although historically blends were created to reduce cost for roasters, these days they’re created for all sorts of more positive reasons too.
Blending two or more coffees together is one of the best ways of achieving the balance of acidity, sweetness, bitterness and body needed for a versatile espresso shot that works well as a base for milk drinks.
And in the world of black coffee, creative blending can uncover flavour combinations in the cup that would be difficult to find within a single origin lot.