Single Origin: What Does It Mean and Why Does It Matter?

Costa-Rica Single Origin

So…where’s this from again?

A line of foreign-sounding place names on a bag of coffee can often feel overwhelming and confusing to someone just getting into specialty coffee.  For example, on a bag of a recent Cafeciteaux coffee, you will first and foremost see the words “COSTA RICA” in large letters.  That’s simple enough, right?  Pretty much everyone knows what that means: that these beans were sourced from the country of Costa Rica.  After that is where it seems to get tricky.


In smaller letters below “COSTA RICA,” you’ll see the words “Helsar Señor Rojas.”  What’s that all about?  And then in even smaller letters below that, you’ll find the word “Naranjo.”  Sheesh, isn’t it enough to just know what country it’s from? Are those the names of cities?  Farms?  Doesn’t “Señor” mean “Mister”?  So who the heck is he???


I have bad news and good news.  The bad news:  there’s not one standardized way amongst all coffee roasters for listing the origin.  Thus, there’s no “key” to definitively decoding it all.


The good news:  there’s lots of great resources, like books and websites, that can easily guide you on what it all means.  And if you’re anything like me, you’ll find that using those resources adds so much to the experience of drinking single origin coffees.  It’s a lot like when you’re a big fan of a sports team, and through TV shows or websites you learn about some of the players, and you become even more invested in the team.  Single origin coffees give you the opportunity to not just drink a beverage but to learn a story.


In keeping with the Costa Rican coffee as our example, I can take you through the process of what I did when I first tried it, and what I learned as a result.  First off, it helps that I have in my possession a book called The World Atlas of Coffee by James Hoffman.

The World Atlas of Coffee
Next to good brewing equipment, this is one of the best investments you can make.

I cannot recommend this book more highly.  It contains a wealth of information about brewing and tasting, and then a 2 to 4 page spread for every major coffee-growing country in the world (with beautiful color photos to boot).

So the first thing I did when I brought this coffee home was I opened the book up to the Costa Rica section, of course.  In doing so, I saw that in one of the major growing regions of the country, the West Valley, there is a city called Naranjo.  And within or around the city, there is a sub-region of coffee farms, and this sub-region takes the same name as the city.  Additionally, Hoffman makes the note that, “The highest altitudes in the region are found around Naranjo, and some stunning coffees can be found throughout this area.”

The World Atlas of Coffee
Great info!

Cool!  So now, with a little research, I went from Naranjo being an unfamiliar word on my bag of coffee, to knowing that it is a city and coffee-growing sub-region in the West Valley region of Costa Rica.  Not only that, but it seems that within this entire West Valley region, Naranjo seems to be the most renowned for producing exceptional coffee.  So now I’m even more excited to brew a cup and taste it!


Reading on through the rest of the Costa Rica section, I don’t see any mention of Helsar or Señor Rojas, so now I know I will have to turn to my old friend Google.


I throw Helsar Señor Rojas into the search box, and true to Google form, it’s looking like the first result might be exactly what I’m looking for.  I see a link that says, “Costa Rica Helsar – Señor Rojas – Archived Review – Sweet Maria’s”.  I happen to know that Sweet Maria’s is often the buyer through whom Cafeciteaux sources their beans, so this site will probably tell me whatever I want to know.


I click the link to find two full paragraphs telling the story of this coffee.  I learn that it comes from the Helsar de Zarcero micromill, which was “one of the first in the region to break up lots by individual producer instead of bulking coffees together.”  Aha, so now I know why there’s a specific name of a person on the bag.  This coffee comes from a single farm, that of a man named Señor Leo Rojas.  And it is processed at a mill known as the Helsar micromill, which is near the city of Naranjo, Costa Rica.  Thus:  Costa Rica Helsar Señor Rojas, Naranjo.


And the more I read, the more I am certain, before even tasting it, that I have a truly remarkable coffee in my possession.  Of course, all of this says very little about how much I will personally enjoy it.  There’s only one way to know that:  brewing a cup.  And that will all depend on my personal preferences, the quality of the roast, how I brew it, etc.  But at least I know that it comes from a place where tremendous care went into growing and processing the coffee.

That’s why single origin matters.  Not because there’s anything wrong with blends (blends can be great, too).  Not because it’s an absolute guarantor of quality.  Single origin simply offers us the opportunity to know the story of the coffee:  how it was grown, where precisely it was grown, how it got from there to us, and why it tastes the way that it does.  When you know that story, no matter to what extent you end up enjoying the taste of the coffee, it will enhance your appreciation for that particular coffee, as well as the people who made it possible for you to hold that mug of delicious comfort in your hands and drink.

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