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 and supply chain transparency. 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.
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