| Lynsey Harley

What is speciality coffee? It’s more than just marketing

With the multiple revolutions that coffee has gone through already, the cognisance of the term ‘speciality’ continues its escape, from the closed quarters of the coffee elite to the more casual plains of local delis and corner cafes. But unlike ‘artisan’ or ‘gourmet’ (other specials board favourites), 'speciality' comes with an authentic proviso of quality that takes effect before the beans are even roasted...

The Origins of Speciality Coffee

Coffee can be special in its own way to everyone. It could be the special feeling you get from taking your first sip of Joe at 6AM before work, it could be the way your favourite barista brews it just the way you like, or it could be that there are particular notes and flavours that you love the most. But these criteria are too subjective to give exceptional coffees the credit that they deserve. Factor in one of the most crucial stages in production that can affect flavour, roasting, and it makes the task of defining truly premium coffees even harder.

Coffee is one of the oldest industries in our history, but it wasn’t until 1974 that the term ‘Speciality Coffee’ was first coined by the journalist Erna Knutsen. She used it to describe beans that were from particularly high-end farms and usually only available in short runs, making them a precious gem in cafe culture.

By 1985 the Speciality Coffee Association of America (SCAA) had been established and produced the Coffee Cupper’s Handbook, which soon became the industry standard for tasting and scoring the quality of coffees.

Qualified tasters, known as Q Graders use this standard to rigorously measure the quality of coffees before they are released onto the market for export, where they are eventually sold to roasters. Each coffee is scored out of 100 points, any coffee that scores 80 points or above is officially classed as Speciality Coffee.

What Makes Speciality Coffee So Special?

To score very well in cupping (80 or above), a Speciality Coffee will usually offer excellent full flavour and no defects, or at least minimal signs of any. More often than not, these coffees are grown in very specific micro-climates, with the perfect natural conditions for growing and harvesting amazing coffee. These farms and plantations can produce coffees that are unique in their quality and sometimes also their flavour characteristics - once you get to know them these are easy to identify coffees from a particular growing region in a country. The most prominent regions for growing Speciality Coffee are high up in the hills of Central American and African countries.

For this reason it can also be much more difficult to produce than most commodity coffees. The origins are usually at locations that can be very hard to reach using normal farming machinery and freight vehicles, because they’re halfway up a mountain around 1300-1700m above sea level! Farmers also need the help of highly skilled workers for maintaining the crops and sorting out the best beans in pretty tricky conditions.

Once grown and processed the coffee needs to be judged. It takes an excellent pallet and experience for Q Graders to identify a Speciality Coffee, most of them will have spent time working as green coffee buyers or roasters before becoming certified judges.

Why Do Roasters Like Us Work With Speciality Coffees?

Quality, just like a good chef wants to work with prime cuts of beef. However, like the chef with his prime cuts, it’s imperative that we treat Speciality Coffees with extra care when roasting them, to protect their unique and beautiful flavours. You could argue that this has stunted our interest in the UK as we’ve continued to turn to heavy dark roasts, however the speciality coffee market share has grown by nearly 20% in the last 25 years, as our awareness as coffee consumers continues to improve.

After all of the love and labour that goes into growing, harvesting and grading the Speciality Coffee, it can be pretty expensive compared to commodity coffee. But the reward of a beautiful final brew really makes it all worthwhile.

As well as guaranteeing excellent quality (we hope), this higher price also helps contribute to the continued preservation of the origin and the living standards for those who work there. In fact Speciality Coffee farmers can command two or three times the price of Fair Trade or Rain Forest Alliance certified commodity coffees, although some speciality growers do also subscribe to these worthy causes.

Now even at your local supermarket or deli you can probably find a selection of Speciality Coffees available to try - dare I say ours among them! The packaging should tell you the specific origins of the coffee, this is a good indicator and of course you should be able to Google them.

Does It Taste Different To High-Street Coffee?

Yes. There really is a huge difference in flavour and quality - so long as it's been roasted well. If you’re used to drinking very dark roasts you may be astonished at first by how light and fruity or floral Speciality Coffees can taste. It’s a lot like wine, different origins naturally become associated with different flavours, whether it’s chocolatey sweetness from Brazil or lavender notes from Kenya - we’ll go into origins in greater detail later on. Once you get used to tasting those different flavours coming through you'll be hooked!

You may not like it as first but my advice is to persevere and try more different ones. Again, just like wine, you might prefer certain characteristics of a particular region or grape and the same can be said of coffee beans - of which there are over 5,000 varieties. The best part is that most of the time it won't cost you much more (if any) than your usual commodity coffee.

We in the UK have been fed pretty much the same thing for the past 40 years and most of us aren’t even aware that we have a choice as to what we pour or is poured for us into our cups. Trust me, there are literally thousands of options out there, so look out for those Speciality Coffee beans and enjoy the experience.

To learn more about Speciality Coffee or any of the coffees that we roast here at Modern Standard, you can refer to our blog or better still, contact us directly on Twitter, Facebook or by emailing us.

Happy Brewing!

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