What Is Speciality Coffee?

Picking the right coffee is like choosing your favourite wine.

Ripe coffee cherries on a tree

Coffee, like most industries is remarkably diverse. I’ve often asked people how they feel about coffee, and been met with indifference. They didn’t seem to ‘get it’ when I spoke about how amazing coffee could be, so we tried looking at it from a different perspective; “Have you ever had a really bad coffee?”. This question was pretty effective at eliciting a strong reaction, so we began to delve deeper into what separated the good experiences from the bad.


On the face of it, you might think that Speciality Coffee is just a really good cup of coffee; and it is! The thing is, quite a lot of work went into producing the tastiest coffees we’ve ever had, and that’s where the term “Speciality Coffee” gets a little complicated.

 

The first time anyone referred to speciality coffee was way back in 1974. Erna Knutsen described speciality coffee as “beans of the best flavour produced in special microclimates”. Pretty open to interpretation.


More recently, the Specialty Coffee Association has defined it as any coffee that scores over 80 on the 100 point scale of coffee evaluation. Useful for professionals, but doesn’t really tell us much as consumers. Surely people score the nice coffees high, and the unpleasant coffees low? Not quite.

 

Let’s start at the beginning. Coffee grows on a tree, as a fruit. We can split the stages of coffee production into a few main areas. Growing, processing, roasting, and brewing. When all these stages are carried out to the highest possible standards, you get something amazing at the end. However, each stage come with a lot of risks, and a lot of opportunities to either realise the coffee’s potential or reduce its quality.

Harvested coffee cherries

Like any crop, the approach at the farm level can really set the coffee up for success. Well maintained trees in biodiverse, nutrient rich soil are immensely important to kick off the life of a coffee. As the coffee ripens, it’s time to harvest. This is the first time human hands will touch the coffee, and ensuring only the ripest cherries make it through selection is important to ensure there are no under or over ripe cherries in the lot. As coffee is a fruit, you can imagine the effect of these cherries ending up in your final cup. Under ripe fruit usually has high level of astringency, and lacks sweetness. Over ripe fruit can start to get a little funky at the low end, or even continue to become rotten; not things we want to taste in our morning coffee. This is one of the first areas that we start to see a massive increase in labour contributing to a better cup of coffee. Hand picking of the ripe cherries is a time intensive process and is just one of the many reason we pay a bit more for great coffee.


Once the coffee has been harvested, it undergoes processing. This is where the farmers transform their coffee from a fruit into a green been. Processing, like every other aspect of the production chain, can have some incredibly tasty effects on the final product, or can be devastatingly bad for quality. High levels of attention to detail and years of experience count for a lot here, especially with a farmer’s crop and livelihood on the line. If the farmer nails the processing, combined with quality farming practices, they get one step closer to producing a very special cup of coffee.

Coffee drying on raised beds

So at this point, we have largely undertaken two monumental first steps in producing a great cup of coffee, and the coffee will be prepared to be sent around the world, ready to be roasted.

This is an interesting point in the process, as this is where the SCA can evaluate green bean quality to determine whether it is or isn’t speciality grade. Officially, speciality coffee is defined as,

“Free of primary defects, has no quakers, is properly sized and dried, presents in the cup free of faults and taints and has distinctive attributes”.


So that’s it; coffee is grown really well, processed carefully, and sorted to ensure all the bad beans are taken out. That’s speciality coffee. The problem we encounter now, is that while a huge amount of work has gone into creating coffee of a high standard, there’s no guarantee that it will taste good by the time it gets to you.

 

Transport, storage, roasting, and brewing. That’s quite a number of hurdles that need to be overcome to realises the potential of the coffee and preserve the hard work that’s been done up to this point.


Now that the ‘speciality coffee’ has landed with your local roaster, the responsibility of maintaining quality is with them. First off, green coffee that is old starts to lose vibrancy, clarity, and just generally tastes flat. Once a coffee is ‘old crop’ can we really call it speciality anymore? Officially, yes, but I wouldn’t. The coffee no longer lives up to its potential, and doesn’t represent the quality that it used to be. In short, it has got worse through no fault of the producer. The best roasters around will overcome this challenge by managing their stock levels, and understanding their volumes, allowing them to ensure they always have fresh crop coffee going out the door.

Assuming your favourite roaster has bought speciality grade green coffee, and it’s fresh crop, now we get to a stage that we’re all a bit more familiar with; roasting. Light, medium, dark. These are all terms that we would have heard as we first got exposed to coffee. Most people associate dark roasted coffee with intense bitter qualities, whereas light roasted coffee is often described as more mild. These are broadly accurate, but there’s always more to it.

Coffee roasters

When we roast coffee, we start with our green bean, which has all the flavour compounds that were developed in the growing and processing stages. These were the formative stages of the coffee cycle that gave it flavour potential. Roasting can develop or destroy these compounds. Think of it like cooking; as we start to roast our coffee, it begins with high acidity, and vegetal qualities. As it roasts, the acids begin to break down, and sugars begin to caramelise. Done to the right level, this can highlight the origin of the coffee, showcasing all the best flavours developed by growing and processing. Taken much further, the inherent flavours of the coffee start to disappear, and are replaced by the flavours imparted by roasting. Eventually, as the roast darkens, coffees lose their identity, and begin to all taste pretty similar, regardless of their quality as green beans. So once again, we can ask ourselves, if an amazing green been is roasted to the point where it no longer tastes of where it comes from, can we really call it speciality coffee? It certainly once was speciality, but I’d argue that it loses that label once roasted in a way that no longer showcases the distinctive flavours that the SCA mention.

So finally, the coffee is in your hands. You’ve done your homework and have bought a bag of incredible coffee, roasted to highlight all of the nuances of its production. It’s speciality coffee, and there is just one step left before you get to enjoy the result of dozens of hands and the hard work of everyone before you; no pressure.


This is where we can make or break a coffee. For all the work that has gone into producing a bag of speciality coffee, it is still possible to brew it badly and yield a less than impressive cup. The ball is in your court now, so I would recommend checking out some brew guides to find out how to get the most out of your coffee.

 

Speciality Coffee, on the face of it is a simple term, and is a great starting point for someone looking to level up their coffee game. The most important takeaway I can offer is that while it is important to look for the stamp of approval that comes with the term, it’s important to remember that there are many more steps that might make the coffee not quite to your taste. The term is a guarantee of quality that the roasters are buying, but it doesn’t guarantee the quality that goes out their door to you.


As you explore different coffee roasters, you will discover ones that you love, and ones that don’t quite match your tastes. That’s ok, because coffee is a wonderfully diverse world with something for everyone. The fun part is exploring and discovering what you enjoy the most, whether it’s a certain origin, processing method, or roasting style. So keep tasting, enjoy the ones you’re familiar with, and see if you can discover a new favourites along the way. There’s so much to learn about in coffee, and you’ll never know everything, but learning how to spot the best coffee is a great place to start.