What is so bad about coffee blending?
Well, first of all, I want to make clear that, plain and simple, blending is done to make a bag of coffee more profitable. Fortunately for marketers, and unfortunately for you, excellent quality beans can positively impact the flavor of a blend in a very low percentage, sometimes as low as 10% to 20%, and make it the $13 bag of coffee that you have in your kitchen.
Now, what are the consequences of commercial coffee blends?
First of all, you get a higher caffeine content. Low cost fillers are produced in low altitude plantations, picked under less strict standards than gourmet coffee and most likely come from the Robusta tree.
All of these conditions brew a higher caffeine content in your cup. A ripe coffee bean that has reached its perfect stage of maturity has 50% less caffeine than 4 weeks earlier when it was green; highly commercial coffee operations do not make an effort to pick only the ripe coffee beans and also harvest beans that are still green, therefore bringing in more caffeine to your cup.
The Robusta tree, purposely used to produce low cost fillers, has a higher caffeine content than the Arabica beans and it is heavily used in blends, with some low end brands exclusively using 100% Robusta beans. The Robusta beans, four and five times cheaper than the gourmet Arabica beans, are mainly the product of Brazil, Vietnam and Honduras, and prohibited by law in Costa Rica.
How about taste?
The effect of blending in the taste of your cup ranges from a feeling of watered down elements of aroma and flavor to a harsh, bitter aftertaste.
If the fillers used are decent, they will take up space in the bag and will not bring in any specific characteristics to the cup, they will immediately dilute the excellent taste of the good beans at one fourth the price; if they are used in a great percentage, they will simply neutralize the elements of aroma and flavor of the good beans and produce an unattractive run of the mill cup of coffee. Either way you are in the losing end of a proposition that has been created to allow the brand name to cash in big time.
Now, if the fillers are very low quality beans, the fine aroma of the original beans is overtaken by the imperfections of the low end fillers. That is when your brand name coffee needs to be sprayed with chemically produced coffee aroma in order to be appealing. Also, coffee this bad will generate a harsh feeling in your throat and will leave a lingering bad aftertaste that ranges between bitter and metallic. Generally, makers of this coffee will resort to a very dark roast in order to create the perception of "richness" in the cup while narrowing the range of aroma & flavor and hiding the low quality.
All in all, a blend simply destroys the distinctive characteristics of a Single Origin coffee and spoils what should be a very rewarding coffee experience. If you want to further explore this subject, search the web for an article by the Wall Street Journal called "Why does coffee taste so bad in the USA". It is as shocking as informative.
So, what can be done to avoid the pitfalls of coffee blending? A couple of things come to mind. The simplest is to avoid buying ground coffee. Grinding coffee is the best way to hide the telling characteristics of a low quality blend.
A harder approach is to enact changes in the law, like forcing brands to list the types of beans used in the blend and in what percentages. That would empower you by allowing you to better decide on the coffee you buy. Now, how do we achieve a change like this? I sincerely do not know. Should you write your congressman about it? Well, he has more important things on his desk right now but for sure something must be done.
Meanwhile, put your money in the Single Origin coffees and enjoy your cup.