Specialty Coffee-What Does This Term Really Mean?

Specialty coffee is a term that gets used a lot nowadays. It is very similar to the term “craft beer” in the beer world. You probably have a general idea of what both terms mean but they are difficult to define.

Let’s start with what specialty coffee IS NOT.

Specialty coffee is not mass produced. It is not commodity or cheap coffee. And you will never find any self-respecting specialty coffee in a packet of instant coffee. However, specialty coffee does not have to be organic. It does not have to be fair trade certified. Specialty coffee doesn’t have to come from a specific country or region. It doesn’t have to be a very light roast or a very dark roast. Confused yet?

It is best to think about specialty coffee as the BEST OF THE BEST OF COFFEE.

Some people in the coffee industry will define this as the top 10% of Arabica coffee beans produced worldwide. The Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA) defines specialty coffee as any coffee that scores higher than 80 points on its 0-100 point scoring system. While these explanations are interesting, I find them to be somewhat arbitrary.

Instead of a number I find it is most helpful to think about specialty coffee as coffee that is produced in a quality manner at each step of it’s production. Lets briefly examine these steps where quality is so important.

  1. Quality, knowledgable coffee farmers grow high quality coffee plants in a location that allows that specific coffee variety to flourish.
  2. The coffee cherry (the fruit of the coffee tree) is only picked when ripe.
  3. Quality methods are used to process the coffee bean from the cherry.
  4. The coffee bean is then stored and transported in a way that prevents it from degrading or developing defects.
  5. A quality coffee roaster then transforms that green coffee bean by roasting in a way that best develops and highlights the flavors unique to that specific coffee.
  6. A barista or coffee lover at home then uses quality brewing methods to transform the roasted coffee into a quality drink.

Specialty coffee = Quality coffee.

Notice a pattern here? Specialty coffee really comes down to quality. Quality at every step of the way from the coffee plant to your cup. Each step is important because excellent coffee can be ruined by poor roasting or brewing and conversely poor quality coffee cannot be transformed into specialty coffee even at the hands of the best coffee roasters. After all, putting lipstick on a pig still leaves you with a pig.

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