For those immersed in the coffee scene, the term ‘specialty coffee’ is as evocative as the scent of fresh roasts—a phrase so commonplace, we seldom pause to unpack its significance. However, venture beyond these familiar grounds, and you’ll encounter a vast majority for whom ‘coffee’ and ‘special’ have yet to meet in the same sentence. So, what then, is ‘specialty coffee’ and what makes it so special? Journey with us as we demystify this enigmatic term and learn why some coffees qualify for a brew of higher distinction.
Rewind to the early 70’s and you’ll find a booming coffee landscape taking shape. A world steeped in excitement over instant coffee and packed coffeehouses where one wouldn’t be chided for confusing cigarette smoke with coffee aroma.
It was an era defined by rapid consumerism with many opting for a quick caffeine fix, making coffee an indispensable commodity in households globally. Titans like Nestle, Folgers and Maxwell House reigned supreme.
Yet, beneath the surface, discontent brewed among those who yearned for more than the prevalent artistry offered by the industry. Smaller roasters aspired for higher quality but lacked the means to acquire it.
Enter ‘specialty coffee’. First coined by Erna Knutsen in a 1974 interview with the Tea & Coffee Trade Journal, referencing the distinct raw coffee she sourced and sold to smaller roasting companies.
Often hailed as the godmother of specialty coffee, Erna was instrumental in championing high-quality coffee and making it more accessible. She broke gender barriers, becoming one of the first women to cup coffee, a role traditionally reserved for men. Beyond that, she personally sourced raw coffee and facilitated transactions for smaller roasters, underpinning the movement she was so passionate about. Dive deeper into her remarkable journey here.
Erna Knutsen, 1921 / Credit: https://knutsencoffees.com
Although the definition has evolved over time, one thing remails true – it denotes coffee of higher quality. There are many things involved in its definition, including a scoring system, taste, and how a coffee is cultivated, but before we delve into these technical aspects, it’s important to understand what coffee is.
Coffee is a fruit. It grows on trees, mostly in warm, wet spots near the equator, in an area we call ‘the coffee belt’. Inside each coffee fruit or “cherry” are two seeds, encased in a fine layer of pulp and skin. When the fruit is ripe, it’s picked for the two seedlings inside. The seeds are then dried, roasted and brewed.
Strangely, we’ve labelled roasted coffee seeds as ‘coffee beans’ because they bear a resemblance to legume beans. This is a very summarised snapshot, the journey from seed to cup is far more intricate but we’ll save that for another article.
Coffee cherries growing on a coffee tree
So, the thing that we’re mostly interested in are the two seeds inside the coffee cherry. In particular, their quality and how it relates to flavour. But how can one seed differ so vastly from another? Just as with any fruit, the care invested in its cultivation directly impacts its flavour.
‘Specialty coffee’ refers to coffee beans of distinguished quality, celebrated for their pronounced sweetness, acidity, and intricate tapestry of flavours. Growing higher quality coffee requires a keen attention to detail from planting the seedling, considering where and how it’s grown, to its harvest and processing—each step influencing flavour.
Farmers must recognise the best coffee varieties for their environment and how this affects taste. Only the ripest cherries are picked, manually sorted, processed, and prepared for roasting. Every stage, mostly done by hand, impacts the final cup’s characteristics.
The notion of specialty coffee implies a great deal of attention is paid to the raw product, ensuring full transparency and traceability throughout the entire supply chain, which includes:
Such information is often also supplied to the coffee roaster and end consumer.
Naturally sun-dried coffee cherries
In contrast, ‘commodity coffee’, focuses on quantity over quality. It’s about mass production: planting resilient varieties over extensive plots. With less focus on quality, machines replace many manual tasks, streamlining the process but often at the cost of flavour uniqueness.
Such generic flavour profiles mean origins can readily be swapped or adjusted, with flavours easily masked or concealed in products like instant coffee, pods, and traditional dark roasts. For instance, a generic Vietnamese coffee can easily be replaced by a Brazilian one due to its uniform flavour profile.
Is specialty coffee more expensive?
Like any industry, the greater the effort in producing a product, the higher its price: specialty coffee, with its rigorous and hands-on production, demands a premium price-point, and consumers are willing to pay for it.
Commodity coffee is exchanged on the “C Market” (Commodity Coffee Market), alongside other commodities like wheat and oil. Prices here reflect the ebb and flow of global stock exchanges, influenced by supply and demand. In this system, coffee farmers can offer their yield knowing they’ll at least get that day’s prevailing C Market rate. Sadly, these often-meagre rates have prompted a troubling rise in farmers abandoning their crops to pursue more lucrative careers.
In contrast, specialty coffee often charts its own course, typically being sold straight to importers or occasionally roasters. Thanks to its unique flavour, limited availability, artisanal touch, and compelling origin stories, producers often sidestep the C Market, negotiating better deals directly with importers.
While commodity coffee has hovered around $1 – $2/pound on the C Market for the past ten years, specialty coffee can command prices ranging from $5 – $30/pound, and in some cases, a lot more.
Some rare and exotic lots which exhibit remarkably distinct characteristics have been auctioned off for record prices, in excess of $10K/kg.
The specialty coffee sector is thriving, with experts forecasting its market slice to expand by roughly 11% come 2030. This uptick spells promising times for coffee cultivators: not only will they reap fairer rewards, but it also spurs them to uphold and further elevate their coffee’s quality, ultimately benefiting the sustainability of the entire industry.
Beautiful red coffee cherries
How do we define quality?
Is it based on the fruit itself or the end product? And who sets the benchmark for what’s good and what’s bad?
While there are myriad ways to judge quality, the essence often boils down to taste.
“But isn’t taste subjective? How can one decide what’s good and what’s not?”
True, taste is personal, but there are universally acknowledged attributes in coffee, like body and acidity that can be evaluated irrespective of personal preferences.
This is where the SCA (Specialty Coffee Association) comes into play. Established in 1982, the SCA rolled out a coffee scoring system aiming to delineate more clearly between commodity and specialty coffees.
The SCA Cupping Form breaks down a coffee’s various characteristics, such as aroma, flavour, body, acidity, etc… cumulatively scoring the coffee out of 100 points. Any coffee achieving a score over 80 points earns the title of ‘Specialty Coffee’.
This system allows for an objective assessment of a coffee’s fundamental qualities, moving beyond individual taste preferences and ensuring consistency within a larger framework.
While the SCA Cupping Form is accessible to anyone curious enough to use it, delving into its intricacies is not recommended. Typically, this depth of assessment is the domain of an elite group of coffee professionals, those who have invested time in rigorous training and calibration alongside their peers – known as Q-graders.
SCA Cupping Form
The goal of Coffee Quality Institute (CQI) is to elevate coffee quality while improving the livelihood of its producers. They’ve devised an educational system for the coffee community that fosters a unified coffee language spanning the entire supply chain. A synced-up dialect for which roaster, producer, and farmer can use to discern quality. Among the qualifications offered by the CQI, the Q-Grader (Quality Grader) certificate is the most highly regarded.
The Q-grader system is designed to offer a standardised, objective metric for assessing coffee quality. This program educates participants on the nuances of accurately tasting, describing, and evaluating coffee quality, encompassing even the visual examination of un-roasted beans. Most certified Q-Graders possess the expertise to analyse, articulate, and score coffee with remarkable precision.
For instance, if I (As a Q-Grader myself) score a coffee at 86, a fellow Q-Grader is likely to give it a very similar score, usually falling within 1 – 2 points. This score helps producers determines the value and price of their coffee.
But becoming a Q-Grader is no easy feat. It takes years of practise and dedication and passing the exams is known to be incredibly difficult with a mere 20% pass rate.
A certified Q-Grader must learn to set aside personal preferences and judge coffee objectively. For instance, I personally dislike the taste of papaya so I will therefore score it lower in flavour, however I can still appreciate its lingering sweetness, vibrant acidity, and its velvety body – attributes deserving of high scores.
As Q-graders, our mission is to see beyond the roasting style or brewing technique. We aim to evaluate the coffee in its pure, unaltered state. That’s why we employ the simplest brewing method, known as cupping, and maintain a uniform roast across samples. This standardisation minimises variables that might skew perceptions, ensuring consistency in every evaluation.
ASCA judge scoring a Brewer’s Cup Competition coffee
Specialty coffee spans a broad spectrum: from the good to the truly exceptional, and yes, even the mediocre. But for the most part, specialty coffee is special.
Considering the entire voyage from seed to cup, the depth of craftsmanship and care is immense, yet it’s surprising how often its value is overlooked. Beginning as a mere seed, it spends three to five years maturing into a tree. After a full year, it bears fruit, which is then meticulously hand-picked, sorted, processed, dried, roasted, and finally brewed.
That, to me, is a special process.
However, it’s important to keep in mind that even if a coffee earns the “specialty” label, its final taste can still be compromised. As it travels to the latter end of the chain and into the hands of roasters and baristas, the coffee faces numerous critical steps. Missteps at any stage can drastically alter and even ruin the intended flavour of the brew.
Vacuum-packed green coffee
For those unfamiliar with the depths of specialty coffee, it might come as a surprise to learn about its complexity. Coffee boasts over 1000 distinct aromatic compounds, leading to an expansive flavour palette. From floral undertones of jasmine and rose, to tropical hints of pineapple and mango, and even to more unconventional flavours like miso, mushroom, black olives, and blue cheese – coffee’s range is vast and varied. Every year we continue to discover new flavours in coffee.
Compared to fields like winemaking, specialty coffee is still budding. Each year, we uncover exciting advancements like cutting-edge processing techniques, hybrid varieties, fermentation methods, and innovations in roasting and brewing. These discoveries continuously reshape our understanding of flavour. Given the endless flavour possibilities, every step in the supply chain holds promise to elevate the cup even further.
One of the things that excites me most about specialty coffee is that you can never truly predict with certainty how a coffee will taste. Despite years of brewing experience and understanding intricacies like water chemistry it never fails to astonish. Each cup, given coffee’s organic nature, stands unique—always poised to amaze or perhaps, on rare occasions, to disappoint.
Simon Gautherin, 2023 Australian Brewer’s Cup Final
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