What is "Specialty Coffee", Anyway?

Posted by Bethany Warren on 12th Mar 2014

What is "Specialty Coffee", Anyway?

Consider this our first installment in an ongoing series: we'll be talking all aspects of the coffee industry from growing to brewing, debunking myths, telling stories, and generally having fun.

Here's a little about me (Bethany)- I'm working with Kiva Han Coffee (and loving it!), but I'm also an independent coffeeshop owner/operator. I've done everything from sourcing beans at origin to judging SCAA barista competitions, working the closing shift, handling inventory, working the opening shift, training and coaching baristas, dealing with customers (rowdy and wonderful alike), cleaning up spills, working the open-to-close shift, and every other detail that goes in to loving coffee, running a neighborhood cafe, and striving to make it the best it can be for that particular community. My favorite part (besides talking about it): making a drink and serving it with pride to every customer that walks through the door! I'm a barista at heart, at the end of the day.

I thought we should start things out with this "Specialty Coffee" concept: it affects both retailers and consumers, and I think it's an initially confusing term, but absolutely makes sense in the end.

To some, it probably seems like kind of a loosey, goosey, marketing-driven term designed to separate consumers from their cash. Kind of like "gourmetfrozen macaroni and cheese" or "low-fat heavy whipping cream". 

On the contrary, "specialty", referring to coffee, has been a major game-changer in the last 25 years since Erna Knutsen first coined it at an international conference for coffee professionals held in France. She basically said that some coffee is just better: it's been grown with care, harvested and processed properly, and therefore should be roasted, brewed and served in a high-quality manner as well. The Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA) has been further defining and refining that initial concept over the years.

Now, the SCAA says:

The term "specialty coffee" refers to the highest-quality green coffee beans roasted to their greatest flavor potential by true craftspeople and then properly brewed to well-established SCAA developed standards. Specialty coffee in the green bean state can be defined as a coffee that has no defects and has a distinctive character in the cup, with a score of 80 or above when graded according to SCAA Standards.

Still kind of, "huh"-worthy?
To contrast specialty from non-specialty coffees, the lower grade stuff is often defined and sold by percentage of defective beans in a "lot", whereas the more intentionally grown coffees are talked about more in terms of the quality in the cup (there's a whole industry of professionals called "q-graders" whose job it is to define that quality in each coffee- kind of a dream job for me, I'll admit, but you have to have some super-duper taste buds). Defects can include insect or weather damage, mildews and fungi, and a host of other things. I don't know about you, but I'd rather drink coffee that was sold in the positive terms rather than those negative. Seems like a good place to start!


Q-Graders at Work

Coffee buyers can purchase beans through four main means: the commodities market, at auction, through the Fair Trade Federation, or through personal relationship with farmers (and sometimes a combo). This is totally another episode, but you can probably guess which avenue non-specialty coffee is most likely to funnel through, and what that means for the price paid to the producers at origin, and hence what those producers can afford to do on their farms to better them. That'll be a post I look forward to writing, but I shouldn't get ahead of myself!

I still feel like "specialty coffee" can be a nebulous term, but I think we all can agree that you know it when you see it or taste it. Did it come from a vending machine? Probably not a specialty bean (hey, sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do). Did it come from a local cafe with baristas who seem to care, and can tell you what it is they are brewing? Most likely specialty.

How about in the grocery store coffee aisle? Is it sold in a flavor-lock can? Or is it from a local roastery with origins and roast date listed?

coffee shelf

"But it's more expensive!" I can hear it from here, but I'll never be convinced that's a good argument for buying sub-par coffee! In this situation, you really do get what you pay for, and so does the future of coffee in the world. That intentional growing of "specialty" preserves coffee farmland and lengthens its useful farming time. (yep- another episode) Cheaper, non-specialty coffee pillages land (in many ways) and the people that work it, and will quickly leave it useless, raising the international prices of coffee across all types and grades. So in the end, the cheaper you go now, the more it'll cost down the road. 

Plus, let's say the can costs $6.00/pound, and that specialty stuff down the aisle or in your local cafe costs closer to $12.00/pound. Seems like a pretty steep difference, but $6.00 in the grand scheme of things is not steep, especially considering what we are willing to spend money on in other places (candy crush saga, anyone?). In most cases, I'm willing to bet that the $6.00 can made more money for its shareholders than the $12.00 bag did for the roaster (economy of scale and willingness to cut corners factor in here too).
Add that when you buy specialty coffee you're supporting craftspeople around the world, from the farmer to the roaster, and that you will actually enjoy and appreciate what you're drinking, and you've got a pretty good deal on your hands. And believe me, it sure is a very exciting craft to be a part of!

So now we know the term "specialty" is not just a marketing scheme, and isn't just an excuse for us retailers to charge what seems like a lot of money for a cup of coffee. There's a whole industry (employing a staggering number of people around the world) behind that term, working towards better and better methods along the whole process that lead to better flavor for the end drinker. And the concept/industry is so much more complex than I was able to get into here, but there's a start. 

If you want to try some specialty, there are so many great sources. Try some of ours!
(And yes, another episode: why a latte costs $3.75)

So what other topics would you like to read about on our blog?

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