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What Exactly is Specialty Coffee?

What Exactly is Specialty Coffee?


Gourmet, strong, premium, rich and specialty: these are all words often used to describe coffee. Most of these are simply marketing terms designed to entice you. However, specialty coffee is actually quite a bit different from “regular” coffee. The Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA) is the authority on specialty coffee and has created standards that coffee beans must meet in order to be called “specialty”.

Technical Definition

To ensure outstanding quality in flavor, aroma and balance, the SCAA has determined three specifications that coffee beans must meet to be described as specialty. These high quality beans must be grown and produced in exceptional microclimates which are ideal because of the unique soil characteristics and composition. There are two main species of coffee beans: Arabica and Robusta. Arabica coffee beans (grown mostly in the “coffee belt” of Brazil, Colombia and Ethiopia) are the only beans that have earned the title of specialty.

The SCAA has developed a 100 point scale on which all coffee beans are graded. Cupping is the grading process and coffee beans must be cupped by a certified Q grader. To become a specialty coffee, the beans must score 80 points or higher. Finally, the sample of green unroasted coffee beans must have minimal defects to qualify for specialty status. This means that it is essential for growers and producers to adhere to the absolute best processing protocols.

The Process

Becoming a delicious cup of high quality, specialty coffee may begin with the beans, but the entire process is crucial to maintaining the integrity of the green coffee bean. The SCAA states that specialty coffee is “the highest quality green coffee beans roasted to their greatest flavor potential by true craftspeople and then properly brewed to well-established SCAA developed standards.” Starting with planting the seeds all the way up to brewing the coffee, there are multiple stages and numerous people involved in the process.

First, the unprocessed coffee seeds are planted in nutrient rich soils at just the right time of year. After three to four years, the planted coffee trees begin to bear their fruits and are ready to be picked. Coffee can either be harvested by strip picking or selectively picking. Strip picking takes all of the berries from the trees at the same time. Selective picking takes longer, but it means that select coffee beans are picked at the peak of ripeness and raw beans are left to grow until they are ready.

After picking, coffee beans must be dried as soon as possible to prevent any spoilage. Dry beans are then sorted by weight and size and damaged or discolored beans are removed. This is important as just one overripe coffee bean can ruin a quality cup of coffee. Next, the green beans are delicately roasted to become the aromatic brown coffee beans we are accustomed to. Each type of coffee bean must be roasted on a very specific roast curve and profile in order to retain its unique flavors and distinction.

Consumer Responsibility

As a consumer, you have the opportunity to purchase coffee beans that are whole or those that have already been ground. Grinding your coffee at home allows you to extract the flavor and aroma immediately before brewing resulting a fresher, tastier cup of coffee. Even if you do not grind coffee beans at home, there are a few things to keep in mind when brewing your specialty coffee.

Water quality makes a major difference in how your coffee tastes. The most exquisite coffee beans can be instantly ruined by using poor quality, unfiltered or mineral rich tap water. The dosage or “throw weight” is also pertinent to the taste of your coffee. You don’t want your coffee too bitter or too watered down; the proper dosage ensures that the perfect coffee to water ratio is maintained.

As you can see, the artisans involved in the specialty coffee making process take a lot of care and attention to provide you with the most superior product possible. The end result is a uniform and fragrant cup of joe with just the right amount of acidity, body and aftertaste: a cup of coffee deserving of the title “Specialty”.

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