What is Specialty Coffee?
For folks who love a good cup of joe, chances are you have heard the term “specialty coffee” used at least once or twice. Specialty coffee is truly a special coffee experience to be enjoyed and is by no means just another gimmick or naming trick that the coffee world is so fond of sometimes (looking at you "blonde roasts"!).
In fact, specialty coffee is a truly marvelous movement within the world of coffee. One that harmonizes and seeks to bring clarity, nuance, balance, and ethics, and a global coffee lexicon into the whole coffee supply chain. But what exactly is specialty coffee?
How to define Specialty Coffee
To really grasp what specialty coffee is and why it is so darn fantastic, it is important to try and understand the noble coffee plant. The coffee plant has scores and scores of different cultivars and variants, but the one type that reigns supreme is certainly the arabica bean. Other plant types shine in their own way but the arabica is one of the stars of the coffee world bar none. And they just so happen to be very difficult to grow to their maximum potential.
That’s right, despite being so popular, arabica plants are also real divas when it comes to producing the most perfect coffee beans that they can. Arabica plants need very specific conditions and constant love, attention, and care. And to provide the proper love, care, and cultivation required coffee farmers have to work hard all day every day to produce only the best coffee out there.
And it's the human factor that makes specialty coffee very special indeed. Initially, during the First Wave of coffee, the coffee industry was interested in producing a massive amount of coffee cheaply to sell for a higher price in supermarkets as big cans of coffee grounds. The human beings who work hard to produce coffee were the ones who lost out the most. Not only were the farmers and laborers paid unfair and unliveable wages for their work, but the mass production methods of farming also took their toll on the natural environment, too.
This led to a lower quality of life for the farmers and laborers, the plants and animals in their immediate vicinity, and to lower quality coffee products, too. Luckily, over the years, the coffee industry has become more and more woke to the plight of the coffee farmers, the land they farm on, and the world at large.
Climate change is a threat to us all and the coffee industry is not being spared from the damage climate change is already wrecking on the planet. Hence why specialty coffee and what it stands for is such an important mission and one that you can help to take part in as well. But who exactly sets the standard for what is and is not “specialty” coffee?
Setting the bar
Specialty coffee is not a label based on geography or roasting types like how some coffee beans are “Sumatra” or “dark roast” or “espresso grounds”, no, no, nothing like that! The truth is it's a much broader and difficult to pin down type of label because a lot of the criteria may sound a bit subjective.
This is partially true, factors like flavor, aroma, and other traits that can only really be parsed out through cupping or other modes of coffee testing can determine if beans are up to the task of being hailed as “specialty”. The criteria for gaining specialty status is pretty complicated, too, with factors like the plant the beans grew on, the condition and number of defects the beans themselves have, and other traits can mean the difference between a specialty bean and a, well, not so specialty bean!
And for those wondering who exactly gets to call the shots in regards to designating beans specialty or not, that valiant task falls to some of the coffee industry’s most illustrious organizations. The Specialty Coffee Association (SCA), World Coffee Research (WCR), and the Coffee Quality Institute (CQI). This triumvirate of incredible groups work to further the field of coffee and to flesh out what really makes a coffee bean a “specialty” bean.
A lot of their research and experimentation into the world of coffee beans has had tremendous effects on the world of coffee, with things like the SCA flavor wheel, for instance!
That colorful wheel of swatch-like flavors helps baristas and general coffee lovers alike enjoy their coffee more heartily each and every day. The coffee wheel doesn't just look pretty, it also helps make a global lexicon for coffee that allows baristas, roasters, coffee lovers, farmers, and others all to communicate and acknowledge one another. This common language of coffee has helped bridge many, many gaps in the world of coffee today.
What's special about specialty coffee?
Specialty coffee is an incredible development in the coffee industry. Not only does it seek to provide coffee lovers with apex level beans with every brewing, but it also seeks to achieve a higher and more ethical standard for coffee as a whole. Specialty coffee seeks to empower and fairly compensate coffee farmers in an industry that for a long time was notorious for often taking advantage of farmers and the land they produce on.
With specialty coffee en vogue we can begin to see a new face of coffee. One that benefits the planet, the coffee farmers, and coffee lovers all at the same time. From communicating with a shared lexicon of terms for flavors and aromas to noting areas and beans of special excellence, specialty coffee is here to help hasten the third wave of coffee movement and take it to new heights. Thanks to the efforts of groups like the SCA, the WCR, and the CQI, we can now appreciate and consider our coffee beans in a deeper and more reflective capacity than ever before.
At the end of the day, the real question is: Are you ready for specialty coffee? Why not try our amazing and nuanced take on coffee today. Check out some excellent beans online and from the comforts of your home, to give specialty coffee a try yourself here at OOF! COFFEE. And certainly take a look at the SCA flavor wheel when you do it!