What is Specialty Coffee?

Pouring specialty coffee into coffee cups

The term “Specialty coffee” was first coined by Erna Knutsen in the Tea & Coffee Trade Journal in 1974. Knutsen used this to label specialty coffee for the highest quality beans.

These beans are grown at higher altitudes, in unique microclimates, in perfect soil, and harvested during the ideal time of the year. Specialty coffee needs more care and attention from the farmers. Who are generally able to sell it at a premium price to coffee traders or roasters.

What is Specialty Coffee, and what is the qualification process? To qualify as Specialty Coffee, green beans have to be graded by certified graders and must score 80 points or above on a 100-point scale. Coffee scoring 80–84.99 is graded Very Good, coffee that scores 85–89.99 is graded Excellent, and from 90–100 is graded Outstanding.

The selection and testing process is rigorous. This means that if you choose specialty coffee, you will get to enjoy some of the tastiest coffee in the world.

What Coffees can be Specialty?

All coffee beans can be graded, and this process is called cupping. Any coffee can be Specialty, as long as it scores the desired 80 points or more, regardless if it is Arabica or some other variety.

The majority of specialty coffees come from Arabica and its varieties such as Bourbon, Typica, Geisha, and several others. All these are labor-intensive and difficult to grow in certain climates and are unique because of their full taste and have no significant defects.

While Arabica has a more appealing flavor and aroma profile than its Robusta counterpart, recently, more focus has been on producing higher quality Robusta from this high production and resilient species. As a result, Specialty Robusta is becoming more and more accepted, but it is still rare.

The SCA (Specialty Coffee Association) defines specialty coffee as “the highest quality green coffee beans roasted to their greatest flavor potential by true craftspeople.” The coffee beans must be free of primary defects, correctly sized and dried, quaker free, and must pass all the required aspect grading and cupping tests.

Who Decides What Coffee is Specialty?

The coffee has to be cupped by Quality Graders (Q graders) according to the standards developed by the SCA. Q Graders are individuals who are certified by the Coffee Quality Institute (CQI) after completing a rigorous Q Graders Course and passing no less than 22 tests.

Q graders will examine both the green samples and roasted samples to assess the quality of coffee. If the green sample has too many defects, it will immediately disqualify the unroasted beans from Specialty grading.

A female Q grader is testing the coffees
Image Credit: Harbucks, Shutterstock

Why Green Beans Quality Matters?

Coffees might have defects; imperfections do happen. The standards set by the SCA are high; thus, the coffee needs to be excellent in every aspect to meet them.

Often there is a close relationship with how the coffee is cultivated and processed, so it is essential to check on the physical state of the green beans. Even one faulty or inconsistent seed can disqualify the entire sample from the Specialty grading process.

Even though some of the best coffees might have minor defects, but never serious ones, Specialty Coffee does not happen by accident.

Growing Regions

Specialty coffee is usually produced in three continents: Central and South America, Africa, and Asia. Colombia, Panama, Ethiopia, and Kenya are some of the most important countries where many farmers can achieve specialty standards.

These countries are focusing on raising the quality at the farm level to improve their cupping scores, which would allow them to charge specialty prices at the coffee commodity markets.

It is important to note that even producers from smaller countries can achieve the Specialty designation because it is about the attributes of the coffee rather than giving preferences for specific countries and origins.

A large bag of freshly picked specialty coffee cherries in Ethiopia

Why Drink Specialty Coffee?

Because Specialty Coffee will taste better, it will have a more complex and deeper flavor profile. It will go through many control checks and will be free of defects. You will have many choices when buying specialty coffee, and you can choose your preference by country, roast level, single-origin, blend, flavor, or price.

Drinking Specialty Coffee will also support jobs in local economies and help with higher wages in many third-world nations; also including one of the world’s poorest countries, and the birthplace of coffee: Ethiopia.

In addition to the positive social and economic impact, Specialty Coffee will also enhance your coffee experience and change the way you think about flavors and aromas in a cup.

Final Thoughts

A freshly roasted, delicious cup of Colombian Supremo or a fine Panamian single origin, the choice is yours. You may have your favorite or taste as many as you like.

Specialty coffee is not only about high standards, scores, and grades. To coffee drinkers, it also means a guaranteed and consistent quality that you can trust.

It is thrilling to taste unique and mesmerizing coffees. At the same time, you support the entire supply chain working hard to create value. You are rewarding excellent work, from the farmer, trader, roaster, grader to the barista.

The growth of Specialty Coffee is seen as part of a broader cultural trend or movement. While it has been quite a ride so far, we can say the sky is the limit for Specialty Coffee’s true potential and promise.