What is specialty coffee?

What is specialty coffee?

Specialty coffee is for many coffee professionals and -lovers something like common sense. Especially when you are stuck in a specialty coffee barista bubble. Sometimes you can forget where you were before working with specialty coffee. Back to the base. Back to what is specialty coffee?

During my almost four months of traveling I’ve visit many specialty coffee shops where of course I never have to explain anything about specialty coffee. I also met so many coffee lovers from all over the world who just love their daily cup of joy and here my love for sharing came back. Getting back to the base and explain in my own words what is specialty coffee. This is for all the coffee lovers who want to dive in their daily cup a little deeper. 

The coffee plant

To go back to base we go all the way back to the coffee plant. You might have heard about the words Arabica and Robusta. This are the two main varieties in coffee beans. There are many differences between those two types of beans.

Arabica

  • Plant name is Coffea Arabica
  • Larger bean, more oval
  • Less caffeine
  • Grows on higher altitude (600-2400 masl)
  • Sensitive to insects/diseases
  • More expensive
  • Takes longer to grow + smaller yield
  • Biggest producer is Brazil
  • About 75% of the world’s production

Robusta

  • Plant name is Coffea Canephora
  • Smaller bean, more rounded
  • More caffeine (almost double to Arabica)
  • Grows on lower altitude (0-800 masl)
  • Prone to insects/diseases. The high amount of caffeine works as a defense
  • Cheaper
  • Easier to grow
  • Used for instant coffee due to lower price and high in caffeine
  • Biggest producer is Vietnam
  • 25% of the world’s production

Now it is important to know that only Arabica is specialty coffee. Although there are many experiments with Robusta and the quality is definitely increasing, but for now there is just Arabica specialty coffee. So from now on if I talk about specialty coffee, I talk about 100% Arabica beans. But not all Arabica beans are specialty coffee. Only the highest quality, the best beans will make it. Lower quality coffee can for example end up as ground coffee in supermarkets. This can be cherries that fell off the coffee tree, before picking started, unripe cherries, defects etc. Medium quality can also end up in the supermarket as beans, can end up in cheaper blends (Arabica/Robusta blends) or can be bought by bigger commercial coffee roasters/brands.

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Ripe and unripe Arabica coffee cherries on a specialty coffee farm in Bali.

Cupping and Q-Grading

It will get a bit more technical now to better understand when coffee is specialty coffee. Coffee beans can be graded from zero to 100. The process of grading is called “cupping” and the professionals who do this is are Q-Graders. Like I said before only Arabica is specialty coffee, but with a cup score of 80+ points.

During cupping the Q-Grader, the professional grader, will check the coffee on things like fragrance, flavor, aftertaste, body, acidity, clean cup, uniformity, defects, which will all be written down in an official cupping form by SCA (Specialty Coffee Association). Official cupping protocols, created by SCA, need to be followed.

After cupping the coffee got a final score which results in the quality of the coffee:

Total Score Quality Classification
90 – 100: Outstanding
85 – 89.99: Excellent
80 – 84.99 Very good
< 80.0: Below specialty coffee quality

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Coffee bags and buckets at the roastery of Industry Beans, Melbourne.

Specialty coffee shops

Now what is the difference between a regular café and specialty coffee shop. First of all specialty coffee shops will only use specialty coffee. They can either buy beans from a specialty coffee roaster, or roast the coffee themselves. The cafés are mostly small to medium size. Everything is about quality in the shop. From the milk for the milk-based espresso drinks, to the filtered water that is used for brewing, to the cups, coffee machines and qualified Baristas.

Coffee machine and grinders

There are many options for coffee machines, but most common brands around the world are: La Marzocco, Victoria Arduino and Kees van der Westen. Every machine has their own qualities. In the end it’s not only about the machine, but about the Barista that is using the machine. The barista needs to have good understanding of the coffee machine to prepare good coffee. Taking care of the machine and the cleaning process are very important aspects. Prices from coffee machines can go from 6.000 to 20.000 euros. Coffee grinders that are popular in specialty coffee shops are Victoria Arduino (Mythos One) and Mahlkönig (K30, EK43).

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Professional Barista behind the Victoria Arduino coffee machine at Sir Charles, Melbourne.

Transparency & traceability

Important in specialty coffee is transparency and traceability. Coffee plantations where specialty coffee grows are mostly small (smallholders), with small badges of coffee beans. Less crop, but higher quality and higher price for the beans. When plantations are smaller it is also easier to keep the focus on quality by for example only selective handpicking at the right moment. You will always find extra information about the coffee on the coffee bag. And in some high quality specialty coffee cafés you will get a card or flyer with your espresso with additional information about the coffee that you are drinking. Information about the coffee that can be found: altitude, process, variety, notes, roasting profile and even about the plantation or finca like region and size. Specialty coffee is mostly light or medium/light roasted, to bring out the best flavors from the coffee.

Specialty coffee is an amazing product with many hands involved. The price of a cup of specialty coffee is higher, but you can expect a higher quality of coffee and equipment, professional made by qualified and passionated Baristas, better working conditions on the plantation and more transparency.

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