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Defining "Single Origin" Coffee | A Response to Several Questions

Posted on May 7, 2012 by Venia Coffee Roasters | Keith There have been 0 comments

Single Origin Coffee | What Is It Exactly?

I have received several questions over the past few weeks about what "Single Origin Coffee" is exactly.  I also just read a post from the Barista Exchange asking the same. Is it strictly coffee from a single farm, co-op, township, region, or country?  I have always held my specific conventions as to what a Single Origin (SO) coffee should be, but over the years this has more and more become a grey area.


Regardless, this is an interesting question, and as far as I am aware there is no authoritative keeper of this vocabulary (ask 10 people get 10 different answers). So here goes my attempt to answer briefly tackle the SO question, and to no doubt start a broader conversation.


"Single Origin today...what does it mean? It should be as simple as a single varietal from a single farm...."(from


The heart of the question seems to highlight the underpinning desire to trace each coffee we drink back down to the farm/farmer.  But, I think the response to this idea needs to be grounded on how coffee is grown, processed and sourced around the world (which could easily take volumes of books to give the topic justice).  Geography, politics, culture, environment, war, poverty, corruption, etc, all pose challenges to the traceability of a coffee.


For example, it is fairly easy for a hypothetical company to "travel to origin" (kind of a catch-phrase these days) to partner with a farmer in Guatemala; to invest in infrastructure, farming, education, processing...essentially forming a symbiotic partnership of sorts that improves both the quality of the final coffee and the community at origin.  A single origin coffee from this area of the world could easily be traceable down to the farm, plant varietal, processing type, fertilizer used...


Move focus to Ethiopia, and tracing a coffee to an individual farmer is near impossible under their nationalized industry.  The Ethiopia Commodity Exchange (ECX) seems to constantly be changing the rules and have quashed most "direct trade" style traceability models requiring farmers to supply their beans to the exchange to be blended and sold in larger regional lots.  Traceability of most Ethiopian coffees is now limited intelligently down to the region (Yirgacheffe, Harar, Sidamo...), and sometimes specific exchange.   Coffee is then sold to importers by these regional trade names.  There are a few loopholes allowing a few coffees to be more traceable, but in general finding anything more specific than processing information can be quite speculative. Despite this model, Ethiopia continues to produce some of the most exceptional coffees on the market, in my humble opinion.


So from these two overly-simplified examples, a "Single Origin" coffee from Ethiopia is likely to be much less specific than a "Single Origin" coffee from Guatemala.


Each country that produces coffee has different rules and traceability hurdles.  In general, the move towards traceability in the specialty coffee realm is a good thing and indicates a desire by importers, roasters, retailers, and ultimately consumers to be better stewards.


For anyone interested on learning more about the topic, here are some good sources:

PoorFarmer ECX Watchthe Has Blog  |  Sprudge BladderGate  |  ECX

This post was posted in Coffee Review, News, Coffee Education and was tagged with Single Origin, Coffee, Yirgacheffe,,,, SO, Traceability, Ethiopia Commodity Exchange, ECX


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