What Is Specialty Coffee and How Is It Defined?

From the aromatic coffee aisle in a grocery store to a cozy, local cafe, different types, flavors, and preparations of coffee are available everywhere. New coffee companies are appearing on the scene all the time, and hundreds of brands are available. As a result of the many brands, types, and flavor distinctions in beans, coffee connoisseurship has grown and become as refined a connoisseurship as wine connoisseurship. Coffee connoisseurs eventually began labeling the highest-quality coffees as “specialty coffee,” and an entire niche was born as many growers, roasters, and brewers strove to produce specialty grade coffee.

But what makes a specialty grade, exactly?

There are two main species of coffee: Arabica and Robusta. Only the top 10% of Arabica coffee is good enough to be considered specialty. These beans are grown at high altitudes (2,000-6,000 feet) near the equator in various countries. The farmers that grow specialty grade coffee do whatever they can to ensure that they grow the perfect bean; everything from soil to the micro-climate of the region affects the product and its flavor. Farms that specialty coffee comes from are usually small family farms that take pride in their coffee bean production. The coffee cherries are hand-picked when they reach their ripest stage, and the cherries are hand-sorted, the beans removed from the cherries, and the beans dried. The beans are then sent to a roaster, who roasts them carefully, bringing slight flavor differences to the beans depending on how long they are roasted. The coffee is then packaged and distributed in its final form as “specialty coffee.”

To receive the coveted label of “specialty,” the coffee is graded before it is roasted, while it is still in the green coffee bean stage. The standards for specialty coffee are determined by the Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA), and the coffee is set up in a strictly regulated fashion to be examined for defects (such as broken beans, sour beans, husks present, or pods present). No primary defects are allowed per sample of specialty coffee, and only five or less subprimary defects are allowed. The beans are then roasted, and the coffee is “cupped” (or prepared in cups to allow graders to smell and taste the coffee in a controlled environment to bring out flavor nuances). The whole grading process determines whether beans are specialty grade or a lower grade (lower grades are premium, exchange, below standard, or off grade). Because of the strict grading allowances and the narrow growth climate requirements, specialty coffee is considered the “best of the best” coffee.


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