Fair trade is a term that is often tossed around…
Single-origin coffees are to coffee drinkers what single AVA or appellation wines are to wine lovers. Appellations, known as American Viticultural Areas here in the US, are specific geographical areas in which grapes are grown. It is a general rule to say that the smaller the area in which a wine is grown, the more distinctive and the more expensive it will be. You will be tasting the “terroir” of that particular area – and if it didn’t have a unique terroir to begin with, it wouldn’t have made it to an appellation classification in the first place.
Coffee-growing regions are not as strictly defined as wine-growing regions are, but the same idea applies. Different soils, different elevations and different orientations all effect the flavor of the finished coffee in just as distinct a way as they do for wine. The larger the region noted on the package, the more the coffee is blended with beans from various areas to create a particular flavor. In poor quality coffees, this flavor could be described as “coffee flavored.” The smaller the region, the more likely you are to identify unique flavor characteristics of that area because they will be much more prominent. The coffee beans will still be blended with other beans, but they will all come from growers in that area and the coffee roasters will likely be trying to highlight their unique flavors. In short, the coffee tasting notes on the coffee packaging will start to make a lot more sense because you will be able to pick them out easily as you sip your coffee.
To give an example of a single Origin coffee, we could start with a region like Sumatra, which is known for its deep, earth coffees. If you take a small slice of that region – Lake Toba, for instance, you will see aromatic spices that are distinct to that area start to come through, where they might be lost in a blend. This particular region is made up of many small growers, but since the coffee beans are grown at the same elevation in very similar conditions, they will exhibit the same primary flavors.
“Single origin” is not usually used to describe single plantation coffees (which would be the equivalent of single estate or single vineyard wines), as those coffees are so specialized that distributors and retailers always call direct attention to it. These coffees typically offer even more intense flavors