Specialty coffee is more than a new trend. It’s about the quality of the beans and how they are roasted and brewed.
There are standards for every stage in the coffee chain. From the farmers to the roasters and baristas, everyone needs to work together. They need a shared language so that they can give and receive concrete feedback about the characteristics of the coffee.
In the most simple sense of it, Specialty coffee is defined by the number of points a specific coffee has received from a qualified “Q Grader” (the coffee equivalent of a sommelier). Coffees that receive 80 or above on this scale are deemed high quality and thus Specialty.
However, in a wider sense the term Specialty is about much more than that. It is about a deeper knowledge and appreciation for the unique characteristics of different growing regions, or terroir as it is often called; meticulousness at every step of the coffee lifecycle, from production to brewing; and a compulsion to ensure that the people who grow our coffees are treated fairly and with respect.
Specialty coffee is generally grown at high altitudes, with a lot of care and attention from the farmers, and it is sold at a premium to coffee traders or direct to roasters. From there the coffee is roasted and then sent to cafes and other specialty coffee shops.
Specialty coffee is not just a label given by a Q-grader. It’s a complex and delicate process at each step of the supply chain, from farm to cup, requiring high standards for every aspect of production. Deviation in even one stage can downgrade a product to commercial-grade coffee.
The farmers who grow specialty coffee take a lot of care to select the right altitude, climate and soil conditions that best suit their beans. They also ensure that the cherries are harvested at their optimal ripeness to capture the full flavour and aroma of the coffee plant.
Once harvested, the green coffee is sent to a green coffee buyer who will inspect it for quality. They will then send the coffee to a roaster where they can create a unique roast profile to unlock its full potential. This is when the magic really happens!
As the coffee industry continues to evolve, so do the methods and equipment used. Technological advancements like precision agriculture, roast profiling and brewing tools help to refine and elevate the craft.
The nuances of coffee terroir – the soil conditions, climate and altitude that impart distinct characteristics to each microlot – are also revered. In addition, many specialty roasters travel to origin countries and make deals directly with the farmers themselves. This cuts out a few middlemen, and allows the roaster to form relationships and develop a more intimate knowledge of each farm.
The defining standards for Specialty Coffee are set by the SCA and World Coffee Research (WCR). These are designed to create fair markets for growers in origin countries. They also give coffee professionals a common language to evaluate a coffee’s quality once it is brewed. This gives the consumer a consistent experience, and provides the roaster with concrete data that they can use to improve their product.
The demand for Specialty coffee has evolved into a relationship with the farmer and brewer. This requires an appreciation for the distinct flavors inherent to a growing region, or terroir; meticulousness at every step of the supply chain from production to brewing; and respect for producers, often the unsung heroes of a fair and equitable supply chain.
It also requires a willingness to spend time understanding and experimenting with different brewing methods. For example, pour-over brewing allows for a wide variety of water temperature and brew times to be tried, in order to discover how each can influence the flavor profile. Finally, it requires the skilled use of equipment like espresso machines and a willingness to learn from others in the industry. This community of passionate and dedicated individuals, is a great source of education, equipment reviews, and new techniques for making great coffee. This has contributed to a rapid rise in the number of skilled home baristas.