Author: David Kelley
Specialty coffee is about quality and mindset.
The idea of specialty coffee is still relatively new, which is why most people think that everything on their local Starbucks menu is special. However, specialty coffee is more than a gourmet venti caramel mocha latte with a dollop of whipped cream.
While we can credit Starbucks and a few other smaller coffee companies with creating America’s coffee culture, it’s not exactly what we mean when we use the term specialty coffee. This is because specialty coffee is much more nuanced in that it revolves around an entirely different and globally conscious approach to coffee from source to bean to roasting and extraction technique.
It is true that specialty coffee look a bit different around the world, but the mindset behind it remains the same no matter where you go — as does the quality.
Right now you’re probably wondering if what’s in your morning cup of go-juice is specialty coffee. We can assure you that if it came from that $15 bag of Seattle’s Best from your grocery store that it’s not, even if it reads “specialty” on the label.
So, what exactly is specialty coffee, what makes it special and how can you tell if that’s what you’re drinking? Read on to find out.
What Exactly Is Specialty Coffee?
We’ll just get right to the point here — when we say specialty coffee, we’re talking about the entire coffee creation process using a single origin coffee. Single origin refers to one distinct region or area in which the coffee is grown, meaning that it can be easily traced back to a single farm, farmer, producer, crop, or region in one country.
Therefore the specialty coffee process starts with the one farmer and ends with what gets poured into your cup. It also has everything to do with how the coffee is roasted and how it’s later extracted, as well as its environmental impacts.
Specialty coffee is not the same as gourmet or premium coffees. Those are marketing terms better known as “weasel words” to make you think you’re getting some fancy, high-quality beans so the company can jack up their prices. However, these words hold no meaning as they have no defined standards when it comes to the coffee’s flavor profile, aromas, or anything else for that matter.
According to the definition of the Specialty Coffee Association (or the SCA, which Two Bit Rush Coffee Roasters is a proud member of), specialty coffee refers to “the highest quality green coffee beans roasted to their greatest flavor potential by true craftspeople (coffee roasters) and then properly brewed to the well-established SCA developed standards.”
As you can see, specialty coffee is a pretty big deal.
The SCA’s standards even have their own grading system for things like bean quality, aroma, flavor profile, acidity, body, balance, uniformity, and so on. (We’ll get into more detail on that later). The point is, your specialty coffee is going to taste significantly and unmistakable better than your average drip cup.
Where it Comes From is Important Too
Specialty coffee is carefully grown on select farms.
When it comes to the actual coffee in your specialty cup, it’s important to understand that while Arabica and Robusta are the most popular species of coffee bean throughout the entire world, only Arabicas are considered as specialty coffees.
Arabica coffee is said to have originated in Ethiopia, however, its origin story differs depending on who you ask. What’s more, Arabica coffee must be grown at higher altitudes, which is why countries like Ethiopia, Brazil, Colombia, Indonesia, and others are known for producing some of the best specialty coffees.
Origins aside, Arabica coffee contains roughly 60% more lipids and about twice the amount of sugars compared to Robusta coffee and any other type of bean. These two factors play an important role in the flavor profile, aromas, and body of the coffee. They also give way to the fact that Arabica beans simply taste better as the natural sugars provide for a cleaner “mouthfeel” and a decrease in bitterness.
Specialty Coffee Vs Commercial Coffee
By now you understand that specialty coffee is a coffee with standards handed down by an official organization. It also receives a grade based on those standards as it’s associated with a very specific process — which we’ll break down for you in just a moment.
But what else separates it from your basic cup of commercial brew?
Well, in today’s enlightened coffee society, commercial or regular coffee is the corporate way of saying low quality. Low quality coffee essentially means that it doesn’t taste as good, which you may have noticed if you’ve ever taken a sip of coffee only to be left with a not so pleasant aftertaste. The same goes for the aromatic experience — think: Burnt diner coffee.
When it comes to specialty coffee, there’s a guarantee that the entire experience will be pleasant thanks to all of the regulated stages from seed to cup it must go through to receive a top grade from the SCA.
Once again, specialty coffee is single origin coffee. Not only is it grown on one farm, but it’s specifically grown in an ideal climate to ensure that the end result is absolutely perfect in characteristic and composition with little defect.
Specialty Coffee Vs Third Wave Coffee
In the realm of artisan coffee, third wave coffee has reared its head to confuse the average coffee drinker even more. Most people assume that third wave coffee and specialty coffee are one in the same, or that third wave coffee is a special version of specialty coffee.
The quick and simple explanation, however, is that third wave coffee is a movement — not a type of coffee. This movement essentially revolves around the quality of each step of the coffee experience, which is similar to the concept behind specialty coffee. However, the defining factor that makes third wave coffee what it is has an innate emphasis on how the coffee is sourced.
We live in a much more ethically conscious world today than yesterday. Coffee roasters and drinkers alike not only care about where their coffee is coming from but who is growing it and everything else involved in the supply chain. Of course, this is in addition to details about how the coffee has achieved its character and flavor profile as well as how it has been painstakingly prepared.
You could say that the basis of third wave coffee is transparency. The quality of the beans and soil here come secondary to that of ensuring the independent farmers are not lost in the process of buying and selling. Consumers want to know that they’re giving back to these communities of hard working people that bring them coffee as an experience, not just a drink, which is a testament to how good specialty coffee really is.
Ipso facto, specialty coffee is essentially the key element of third wave coffee as it provides the physical reason for consumers to care about a coffee bean’s heritage and the community that grows and roasts it.
What Makes Specialty Coffee So Special?
By now, you have an idea about what makes specialty coffee what it is. You know that it’s a single-origin product, grown in particular climates with care. You know that it’s associated with an entire organization to ensure its quality using a grading system and you know that it’s ethically sourced and makes for an exceptional cup of coffee.
Now, let’s break down specialty coffee, step by step, to help you understand what it is about the process that designated the name:
The Plant and the Terroir
Exceptional coffee begins with the coffee plant itself. Coffee, just like wine, comes in many types or varieties. However, just like wine, some varieties are more popular than others and things like soil, climate, and altitude (the terroir) have everything to do with how the coffee’s flavor profile develops.
As we’ve mentioned earlier, Arabica coffee is the variety of bean chosen for specialty coffee crops. But, Arabica is the general variety. There are plenty of sub-varieties of Arabica coffee beans — even hybrids — that make for each farmer’s unique coffee crop.
When it comes to the soil and climate, there’s a reason why shady, temperate, mountainous (volcanic) regions produce the finest Arabica coffees in the world. They offer higher elevations which equates to better drainage and, therefore, a greater concentration of flavors within the fruits.
Additionally, coffee grows well in volcanic soil simply because it’s packed with organic materials and a balanced mineral composition which makes it nice and fertile. Having the right amounts of naturally occurring phosphorus, nitrogen, potassium, calcium, zinc, and boron contribute greatly to the coffee fruit’s flavor development.
Specialty coffee involves a very selective picking process.
Assuming that the terroir, method of planting, and weather all align in the farmer’s favor, the next critical step in creating a specialty coffee is the harvesting technique.
Coffee beans are actually the seed of the coffee fruit, which are called the “cherries.” These cherries are usually hand picked, with the farmers only picking the cherries that are ripe while discarding anything that appears to be overripe and allowing those that aren’t ready yet to mature.
Therefore, specialty coffee involves a very selective picking process whereas commercial coffees pick their cherries by mechanically stripping down the plant once the majority of the fruit seems ripe enough. Of course, this leads to a mix of cherries at varying stages of maturity. It also traps a significant amount of twigs and debris in the mix, which add to the commercial coffee’s bitter, astringent, or sometimes cheesy taste.
The post-harvest stage is arguably the most critical stage of the entire coffee process at its source. Once picked, the coffee cherries are then sorted by the farmer’s skilled workers. Any leaves, stems and other debris that ended up in the mix are removed, and the cherries are re-examined to ensure the entire bunch is uniformly ripened to perfection.
From there, the farmer has three options for processing the cherries and the coffee beans inside:
- They can choose the wash process, which involves hulling the coffee cherry and removing the mucilage from the beans with water prior to drying.
- They can choose the semi-wash/honey process, which is when the coffee cherry is hulled and then the bean is left out to dry while the mucilage is still intact.
- They can choose the natural process, which involves leaving the coffee cherry and bean out to dry on their own.
Each of these processes generally take between two and four weeks to cure the beans, and each process greatly influences the final flavor.
Once the beans have dried, they’re laid to rest for up to three months, remaining in their parchment — otherwise known as their “skin,” which serves as a protective layer.
Once rested up, the parchment is removed and the beans are further selected by hand. This is to check for any defects, including insect damage, chips, souring, or black beans. Many farmers will take things a step further to sort the uncovered beans by size. From here, they’ll send a green (unroasted) sample for an initial grade based on their appearance to a green coffee analytic center to check for any missed defects.
This is to ensure that there aren’t any or too many physical defects as too many physical defects can cause the batch to be rejected for specialty grading.
Once the coffee has passed its physical inspection, it’s time for the first cupping — or, tasting. To prepare a sample for the first cupping, the coffee beans are lightly roasted and then tasted to assess them for any flavor defects.
In the first cupping, the taster will look for a lack of a combination of defects, such as bitterness and moldiness. They’ll also look for the presence of an identifiable and unique aroma. The goal is to ensure that this sample provides a balance in flavor notes and aromas, which will help the coffee garner a grade of 80+ points when it’s time for grading.
Keep in mind, this is only the first cupping. There will be an additional cupping once the coffee is shipped out to ensure it hasn’t deteriorated during the trip — which is why the next step of the process is crucial.
Specialty coffee is typically shipped in specially designed bags which protect the beans while in transit.
How coffee beans are shipped is critical to preserving their quality. Keep in mind, specialty coffee doesn’t come with overnight shipping, and it can take months for them to get from Africa, Indonesia, and even South America to North America.
Commercial coffees are typically shipped in yute bags without a second thought to any internal coverings. Their containers are also often overfilled, which can cause condensation and consequently mold and other defects.
To protect all of their hard work and efforts, specialty coffee farmers will ship their beans in specially designed bags, such as ecotact bags. These protect the beans from any external changes in moisture and humidity to keep them fresh and preserve their quality.
Once the beans arrive at their destination, they undergo a second cupping. Any coffee that has deteriorated too much during their trip is declassified as specialty and sold as commercial coffee. The beans that have been able to hold on to their quality and flavor profiles are then sent to specialty distributors and then on to coffee roasters for further sampling.
Once the specialty beans make it to the roasters, the real magic can happen. Specialty coffee is notoriously roasted lighter than the average commercial bean. This level of roasting is done to retain as much of the flavors of the coffee beans as possible.
Darker roasters may burn off bad flavors in the beans, but they also burn off the good ones. Therefore, a specialty roaster knows not to over-roast their beans as part of their rigorous quality control standards. Besides, when specialty coffee beans aren’t roasted properly, the Q-grader who later cups the coffee to determine its final grade will end up downgrading the quality of the coffee.
The last stage of the specialty coffee process is its transformation from roasted bean to hot brewed drink. While coffee can be brewed in a variety of ways — Chemex, Aeropress, French Press, Espresso machine, etc — there is an objectively specific extraction method that makes for a good cup.
Over-extracted coffee comes out bitter and astringent while under-extracted coffee ends up as watery and very acidic. Even if each step of the process leading up to this point has been perfect, incorrect extraction of the coffee will result in a bad tasting cup.
The Specialty Coffee Grading System
A Q-Grader is the coffee equivalent to a wine sommelier.
When we talk about specialty coffee grading, we’re referring to the number of points a coffee has received from a Q-Grader. A Q-Grader is the coffee equivalent to a wine sommelier, which means they must go through classes and receive a certification to become qualified in this field of work.
The Q-grader will conduct a blind tasting via cupping. Cupping actually comes from the “Brazilian Cupping Method,” which involves coarsely grinding a certain amount of coffee, brewing it and tasting it over specific intervals of time to uncover the coffee’s flavor profile and aromas.
From there, the coffee is graded based on a score between 0 and 100. To be considered a specialty coffee, it must receive a score of 80 or above.
Here’s the specialty coffee score and quality correlation:
- 80-84.00 is considered as Very Good
- 85-89.99 is considered to be Excellent
- 90-100 is considered to be Outstanding (as in, flawless)
These numbers are amassed based on a standardized scale designating points that range from 6-10 in 10 different categories. This is known as the Coffee Review Scores, and the categories include things like aroma, acidity, balance, flavor, sweetness, bitterness, uniformity, and so on. The sum of the scores give the Q-Grader a final score, which may or may not reach the necessary 80 points for specialty status.
4 Ways to Identify Specialty Coffee
With specialty coffee becoming more popular, you can find it in some grocery stores. Although, your best bet is shopping at your local craft coffee shop or ordering direct from us here at Two Bit Rush Coffee Roasters for the good stuff. However, since we know that many coffee companies like to use weasel words on their packaging, it may be hard to tell if the package of beans in your hand is actually a specialty coffee.
Here are four ways to identity specialty coffee at a glance:
The coffee origin: If the packaging presents information about the coffee’s origins, processing method, farm, or region, then it’s likely a specialty coffee. This is because coffee roasters of all kinds, whether they be small batch roasters or larger roasters, are proud of their partner farms. Therefore, they’ll be much more transparent.
The roast date: If the packaging provides you with an exact date of when the coffee was roasted, it’s another sign of a specialty coffee and that the roaster prioritizes freshness over all else. Keep in mind, you want to look at the roast date — not the best by date.
The flavor description: If the packaging describes the coffee with great detail in regards to its flavor notes, it’s an indication of higher quality and more nuanced farming practices.
- Roast level: If the packaging says “dark roast” or if you can visibly see that the beans are super dark and oily, then they are absolutely not a specialty coffee. Keep in mind, when coffee beans are roasted dark, they lose a lot of their flavoring and bitterness, whereas specialty coffees are lightly roasted for the purpose of preserving the beans’ flavor profile.
To recap what we’ve learned here today, specialty coffee is more than just the Q-Grader’s score. Specialty coffee is a precise and laborious process that involves a delicate and caring approach to each step, from single origin to single cup, bringing you an experience rather than simply a hot beverage.
Don’t forget, specialty coffee is also ethical coffee that can be sourced back to one farmer and one farm as part of the third wave coffee movement. Above all, It’s to be enjoyed and appreciated, because it truly is something special.