For some, coffee is nothing more than a convenient way of getting caffeinated. For others it goes way beyond that. The same way connoisseurs may appreciate a fine wine or a craft beer, the coffee industry has a term to describe a similarly gourmet approach to the world’s most popular drink. It’s called Specialty Coffee. You may have come across this phrase if you’ve checked out some of the higher-end coffees available. So what is ‘specialty coffee’ and why does it matter to me as a coffee lover?
If you’re not in the reading mood and just want our recommendations on the best specialty coffees of the year, check out our selections below:
Best Geisha Coffee: Bean & Bean
Best Blue Mountain Coffee: Out of the Grey
Best Kona Coffee: Big Island Coffee Roasters
Definition of Specialty Coffee
There are two types of definitions when it comes to understanding specialty coffee: A general one and a technical one. Many might argue that only the technical one matters. Nonetheless, the term is used in a variety of contexts making the distinction still a helpful one.
The first definition of specialty coffee is a general one. In short, it’s premium coffee that’s genuinely quality-driven from start to finish. It’s akin to Third Wave Coffee in which coffee is treated as an artisinal product as opposed to just a drink. Specialty coffee captures the entire process from farm to cup using single origin coffee (as opposed to a blend). The roasting and brewing processes require skill and artistry and are meticulously tailored to produce optimal flavor, range, and body. The end result is a carefully refined cup of premium brew. Specialty Coffee also focuses on ethical sourcing. More and more specialty coffee roasters are now buying their beans directly from the farmers (direct trade), ensuring farmers receive a fair wage for their services. Removing the middlemen in the coffee supply chain guarantees more money and resources are returned to the coffee farmers and their communities. In this regard, specialty coffee roasters look to build lasting, fruitful relationships with their suppliers.
The second definition of Specialty Coffee is the technical one and it’s helped usher in a new era in coffee. The Specialty Coffee Association of America, formed in 1982, has created official quantifiable standards for specialty coffee that grades virtually every aspect of the coffee beans in question. Coffee that rates an 80 points or above on a 100-point scale is awarded the title of specialty coffee from the SCAA. The existence of such standards by the SCAA ensures the term “specialty coffee” retains its meaning and isn’t just used as a unsubstantiated marketing ploy. While the specialty coffee industry has experienced unprecedented growth in the past few decades, the term itself was actually first used back in 1974 by Erna Knutsen in an issue of Tea & Coffee Trade journal.
What is Specialty Coffee Summary
- Roasting and brewing methods are carefully tailored
- Ethically sourced
- Single origin coffee – (from a single farm or geographic region)
- Focus on building direct relationships with coffee farmers
- Rated over 80 points by the SCAA (ex: True Coffee)
FAQ about Specialty Coffee
Below we present some simple answered to commonly asked questions about specialty coffee.
Q: What makes specialty coffee different from regular coffee?
A: Specialty coffee is grown in specific regions under strict conditions, harvested at the peak of ripeness, and processed to remove any defects. As you might expect, the growing conditions in which a coffee plant grows has a major effect on how the final brew tastes. These specialty beans are roasted in small batches to highlight the unique characteristics of the coffee beans, and brewed using precise methods to bring out the best flavors and aromas.
Q: What are some common characteristics of specialty coffee?
A: Specialty coffee often has a unique flavor profile with notes of fruit, chocolate, nuts, or spices. It’s also typically more acidic than regular coffee and has a cleaner finish. Specialty coffees are known for their complex flavor profiles.
Q: How do I choose a good specialty coffee?
A: A good place to start is to consider your preferred roast level: light, medium, and dark. The roast level is a spectrum so you can also find light / medium and medium/dark roast options as well. Light roasts allow more of the beans natural flavors to express themselves while darker roasts typically yield a bolder and smokier flavor. Medium roasts, as its name suggests, is somewhere in the middle. Being that specialty coffee is all about nuances, you’ll find many specialty beans offered as a light or medium roast. Look for beans that are roasted recently and have a roast date listed on the packaging. You can also consider the origin, processing method, and flavor profile of the beans to find a specialty coffee that suits your taste.
Q: What are some popular brewing methods for specialty coffee?
A: Brewing is all about chemistry and every variable counts. From the coffee to water ratio to the precise temperature of the water, each of these variables have a major influence on the final brew. Some popular brewing methods for specialty coffee include pour-over, French press, Aeropress, and espresso. Each method has its own advantages and can bring out different aspects of the coffee’s flavor and aroma. The pour over is especially popular given the fine level of control that a barista can exert over the brew process. One of the downsides of a pour over is that it takes longer to make.
Q: Is specialty coffee more expensive than regular coffee?
A: Yes, specialty coffee is typically more expensive than regular coffee because it’s produced in smaller quantities with more care and attention to detail. The result is a much more refined cup of coffee that you’ll have to taste yourself to full appreciate. These unique flavors and aromas of specialty coffee can be worth the extra cost for many coffee lovers.
Best Specialty Coffee Companies
Having gone over the definition of specialty coffee, the next step is actually trying some. After all, you can’t really know it until you’ve had it. Most specialty coffee will come as either a light or medium roast. These roasts tend to allow a fuller range of coffee flavors to express themselves compared to dark roasts. You can still find dark roast specialty coffees on the market, but they are rarer.
Below are some of the best specialty coffee brands that in our opinion capture the very spirit and quality of the specialty coffee movement.
Buy Koa Coffee
Buy Driftaway Coffee / Read Driftaway Coffee Review
Buy Grosche Coffee
Check out this very brief documentary that explains the differences between regular coffee and specialty coffee.