What Makes Specialty Coffee Special?
You will see me use the term specialty coffee a lot when describing the coffee I am roasting and talking about with Ligature, and that term might be lost on people new to this industry.
So what makes specialty coffee, special?
So glad you asked.
To start, one of the main things that makes coffee specialty is a simple one: Quality
In the coffee industry we have two categories for most coffees. One being Commodity and the other being Specialty.
First coffee is judged by the quality of how it was grown and handled through processing. This is something called "Green Grading" and takes the green unroasted coffee after processing and looks for defects. Defects can be things like rocks and sticks mixed in with the coffee, chipped beans, or mold growing on the coffee. Those are going to be the easiest to spot without tasting the coffee. Specialty coffee is more particular than commodity, but still does allow for some categories of physical defects. However, once you have a certain amount of specific defects, the coffee can no longer be considered specialty.
Coffee is then judged based on taste. The coffee is sample roasted and cupped/brewed to evaluate key flavor characteristics. In this we judge Fragrance, Aroma, Flavor, Acidity, Body, Aftertaste, Sweetness, Balance, and Uniformity. For specialty coffee these are done on a scale of 6-10. After adding all those numbers up on a cupping sheet, the coffee should be at least an 80. This is the lowest number of specialty coffee.
Specialty coffee should be sweet and have no taste defects.
While specialty coffee generally receives the higher prices, it also take a lot more input in making sure it passes all of the requirements. This could look like investing in things to guarantee the coffee plant is growing well and free from pests, only picking the ripest of cherries (which can lower the end yield for the producer), and highly meticulous processing.
Not all coffee becomes specialty coffee. So where does it go?
Commodity coffee, as mentioned before, can go to all the other things that coffee is used for. That coffee can be used for its caffeine content for energy drinks, supermarket coffee, flavored coffee, etc.