A true metaphysical puzzle for any coffee roaster is how to name a signature blend. The challenge is that the components of any blend change, both seasonally and from year to year (I’m not even considering variation from roast to roast). With single origins, the challenge is easy. This year’s Esmeralda Geisha is simply different than last year’s crop. But a signature blend conveys a kind of platonic form – one often identified almost as readily as the roaster that produced it.
Some roasters, such as Ritual, have sought to get around this challenge by simply throwing uniformity to the wind, letting their signature espresso vary each season and naming each one accordingly. Others, such as Intelligentsia, still strive for a principled uniformity but acknowledge the change. Black Cat includes an “ingredient label” so that the consumer can note how the formula changes over time. Other blends, like the Hair Bender are stalwart companions which may change and shift under the hood, but retain a solidity to their external appearance by clinging tightly to their god given name. While I tend to prefer the more transparent and Heraclitian approach of the former, it’s still nice to once and a while fall back upon the tried and true.
I can’t tell if it’s the lack of transparency or simply my personal sense of taste, but I’ve never swooned over Hair Bender even when I’ve been served some pretty spectacular shots. Of course, I’m also not exactly certain how Hair Bender may have been different in the past. The bag I purchased (now that full disclosure will soon be required) on my recent trip to the Manhattan Stumptown in the Ace Hotel, however, got me better acquainted with the stuff. Even if I never swooned, I found the Hair Bender to produced consistently top-rate espresso.
My tasting notes for Hair Bender included chocolate, fall leaves, earth, light black tea, caramel and a hint of fruit – maybe cherry? I found it to be a bit mercurial as espresso, changing often, but never temperamental. I almost always got, at minimum, a good shot that was well-balanced with mild lemon acidity and solid, earthy bottom notes. The shots were clean and slightly clingy, complex without being challenging. They also worked extremely well in milk, which brought out the more chocolaty and caramel notes of the blend.
While I personally wouldn’t jump at the chance to drink it as a drip coffee, I found it worked reasonably well as a french press. It was certainly better than many espresso blends, which are usually too dark when brewed as coffee. The Hair Bender brews up mellow with a bit of personality, but nothing overly compelling. If you are inclined towards purchasing a multi-purpose bean, then Hair Bender is a good bet, even though I’d encourage you to think of it first and foremost as an espresso blend.