What is Single-Origin coffee?
The label 'single-origin' was originally meant to indicate a specific country where a specific coffee grew. With our ability to trace coffee, we go beyond labeling a coffee as a country specific single-origin, to more precisely pinpointing a specific lot of coffee, with the focus being on the producers from a particular farm.
Where is Origin?
Where coffee is grown or originates from is also called “origin." It has become a staple definition in the industry when talking about expectations from the final flavor of a coffee, irrespective of its process, roast profile, or brewing method. "Origin” is the anchor of selection for most coffee enthusiasts as much as it is for people looking to discover taste of place.
Coffee primarily grows in three areas of the world; the Central and Southern Americas, Central and Eastern Africa, and the Asia-Pacific. Within each area are distinct regions. Within each region contributing factors such as soil, altitude, sun, wind, rainfall, and temperature, play a significant part in the flavor development.
While there’s a temptation to label a coffee from one country as single-origin, this gets tricky because each country has so many distinct regions within it. For example Brazil is made up of many distinct regions, one of the largest ones is called Minas Gerais. Coffee grown in this region produces flavors that vary from coffee grown in other regions throughout Brazil. To truly experience the benefit of “the taste of place,” single-origin coffees should be identified by region, not just country.
In the same way, Rwanda has many micro-climatic conditions, so much so that a coffee grown in the west will taste completely different than a coffee from the east. At the end of the day, single-origin comes down to taste, and being as specific as possible not just about the origin, but more importantly about the region, will assist the consumer in making a more informed decision about the flavors they should anticipate.
How Did Single-Origin Start?
As people began to appreciate the distinct flavors found in coffees from various countries, single-origin came to be. This began when multiple varietals came out of Ethiopia and spread around the world. As those varietals adapted to other parts of the world, they began evolving, producing different flavors from their original source or parent tree. A tree that came from Ethiopia, adapted to the conditions in Panama, producing coffee cherries that developed different flavors, never before tasted from that varietal.
Producers began to process coffees separately and create distinction, so they could actually fetch a higher price for this differentiation. Because of this, producers began wearing entrepreneur hats, now able to market their own coffee for its unique attributes. This was the beginning of the specialty coffee movement and demand for single-origin coffee.
Why Single-Origin Relies on Lot Numbers
A lot number is the identification mark that a producers’s product receives when it is delivered to a mill or cooperative. The stamp identifies the quantity, location, and owner of the coffee. It provides an economic value, ensuring the farmer is fairly paid for the coffee they produced. Once assigned lot number, the coffee beans are kept together, to ensure the chain of custody.
Lot numbers are important because they identify where coffee came from, down to the farmer, and sometimes even the specific set of trees. It’s the historical ledger of the evolution of your coffee. It helps ensure both quality and equity throughout the coffee supply chain.
80% of the world's coffee comes from smallholder producers. This means that mills may group smaller lots of coffee together. In order to maintain the transparency and single-origin label, the lots must come from a specific geographical area grown within a certain proximity of each other. If the lots do not meet these expectations, then they will be processed individually in order to maintain transparency.
How Granular Does the Label Single-Origin Get?
As you can see, single-origin gets very granular. And in fact, people are fighting to define it as micro as possible. They say the highest resolution of the term single-origin is a nano lot. A nano lot is either a 60 kilo bag or less. A micro lot is probably half a container, or if you want to push it, a container, depending on if it's coming from single estate or a single farm. It has become common for a producer to say, "If I get you a nano lot, that will cost 10 times the amount, because I had to produce this tiny batch of coffee in a controlled environment, carefully managing every bean in order to preserve its integrity, and it is so exclusive, that you're the only one who will have it."
When it comes to taste, is a nano lot better than a single-origin that comes from a cooperative, like Hingakawa? The way I answer that question is, “A Nano lot isn’t necessarily always better when it comes to taste because, taste is subjective. Smaller doesn’t always mean better, although it does mean extensive care went into the production and processing of it."
When it comes to economic transparency, and the rewards that go back to a smallholder producers, yes, smaller is better. The producer is paid a great deal more. There's higher resolution of economic transparency ensuring specific individuals are paid fairly. Additionally, there’s a huge opportunity for producers to begin to build their own brand around their nano lots of coffee.
How has Single-Origin Changed Coffee?
Single-origin has brought about the need for traceability and certification, because of the importance to prove that a coffee actually comes from the named place. Traceability and certification has created an insurmountable demand to capture all this data so that companies can prove their claims. And when this data is captured from producers, it translates into tangible information disclosing details about the authentication of claims and the ethical practices of business. This data can provide transparent reports regarding how producers are being paid and if it's fair, taking measures to ensuring child labor is not transpiring, and making sure there's gender equity amongst the producers. The Single-origin label has benefited the producers because of the demand it's created to provide a detailed road map of traceability, authenticity, and certification.