What is Specialty Coffee?

Specialty coffee. What makes it special? Is this just a new way to refer to coffee to make customers pay more? Coffee is just coffee after all, right? I disagree. Specialty coffee is so much more, and I hope to show you why with this article.

Tida from Sítio Vargem Grande in Minas Gerais, Brazil. (Photo from the farm’s Facebook)

Put simply, specialty coffee is high-quality coffee.

Starting with the harvest of the coffee cherries from the trees, selecting only the best fruits, to the washing and drying of the beans, storage and transport, and the roast itself… everything was done with extensive care to provide a high-quality coffee. This results in an amazing cup, often with fruity aromas, lovely acidity, and balanced sweetness.

Coffee that tastes and smells like blueberries. Yes, it’s possible!

At this point, you may be thinking, “That sounds great, but how do you decide when a cup is amazing? That’s pretty subjective, isn’t it?”

This is where the Specialty Coffee Association (SCA) comes to the rescue with a globally standardized grading system and process to taste coffee, called “cupping”. Cupping uses a very strict and thorough process to smell, taste, and evaluate coffees. Licensed professionals by the Coffee Quality Institute called Q-Graders (Q for quality!) then score the coffee on a scale of 100.

Breaking the crust during the “aroma” phase of cupping.

Specialty coffee has a cupping score of 80+.

During cupping, Q-Graders base this score on the following criteria:

  • Fragrance/aroma
  • Flavor
  • Aftertaste
  • Acidity
  • Body
  • Uniformity
  • Balance
  • Clean cup
  • Sweetness

Specialty coffee is very similar to wine in the sense that there is a whole world of flavors and notes inherent to the fruit, where it was grown, and how it was grown, harvested, and processed. The principal difference is that this culture for wine has been around much longer and is more accepted.

Specialty coffee has been around for less than 50 years! Most people have an idea of what coffee should be, depending on where in the world they grew up and how it was brewed at home.

Many people are accustomed to drinking low-quality commodity coffee, which is usually an over-roasted coffee that results in a very bitter beverage that needs sugar. The coffee cherries were not selected on ripeness or processed well, but were collected altogether and shipped off with defects.

Generally, coffee beans that are roasted very dark are roasted this way to mask the problems within the beans. Lighter roasts allow the true qualities of the fruit and the terroir to shine through, so the quality must be top-notch!

Specialty coffee is traceable.

On a lot of specialty coffee bags, you may see information about the variety of the coffee plant, the types of processes used to separate the bean from the fruit, the altitude that it was grown, the region and country, and even the specific farm and farmer that the coffee came from.

This is all to show that the coffee is monitored from start to finish, with quality in mind. Consistency and excellence are the goals. With more traceability, buyers and drinkers of specialty coffee know exactly what they are getting.

Specialty coffee comes from special people.

It’s important to remember that the farmers and producers of specialty coffee are skilled artisans working with quality over quantity. Farming the best coffee possible to have cherries free of defects and picked only at peak ripeness requires serious time and skill. Don’t even get me started on all the processing that needs to take place after the harvest!

Because the workers are going above and beyond to deliver an amazing product, it’s important that they receive just compensation to continue their quality farming and have a proper livelihood. Many coffee farmers around the world are barely able to survive on coffee alone, so green coffee buyers must prioritize paying higher prices for higher quality products. Specialty coffee has to be more expensive as a final product. You can’t leave out the human element of this long and detailed process from farm to cup.

What matters most…

This past August, I had the chance to meet with Colombian roaster Carlos Rodriguez at his roastery in Toulouse, France. After talking about the history of specialty coffee for hours, he said, “At the end of the day, what matters most are the following two questions: Did you finish your cup? And would you want another?”

The answer should always be “yes” to both questions in this world of specialty coffee. If not, forget all the scores and lexicon… get back to the original reason for this quest into specialty coffee – to produce an amazing cup.

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