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What Is a Specialty Coffee?

So many of us start our day with a steaming hot cup of joe. However, did you know your morning brew doesn’t always have to just a regular old coffee with milk and sugar? In fact, there are so many more options than that! There’s the right type of coffee for the morning and another for the late afternoon. There’s even that after-dinner coffee and the one to help you stay up late. There are flavours that are sweet, savoury, and everything in between. And what matters most is the taste, smell and often how much of a jolt it gives you!

What exactly does it mean to drink a specialty coffee? Let’s take a look!

Specialty coffee refers to the entire process that happens right from the beginning at the farm to the end result in your cup, all while using a single-origin coffee. The name specialty actually refers to the way the coffee beans were roasted and ultimately, how it was extracted before making its way to your cup.

In fact, specialty coffee represents about 37-45% of coffee, and it’s also considered to be some of the highest quality coffees in the world. There is even an international specialty coffee association! This is a non-profit, membership-based association that anyone can join from coffee farmers to baristas and roasters. Who knew, right? What’s great about this is that there are more options than just the grocery-store brand coffee. In fact, it can almost be likened to the food that is organic and non-organic. Initially, it looks pretty much the same, but as soon as you dig down deeper, you can see that there are far more differences than there are similarities.

Technically, none of these matters in the brewing process, however. You can use both traditional, also called commercial grade coffee, and brew it in many ways. The only question that remains is, “Will it taste the same? Or better?”

There are so many ways to brew a coffee. Specialty and non-specialty alike. Have a look at our article that describes these methods in detail. This list will help you to choose the best one for you. Once you have decided on your preferred method, try it out with both a specialty coffee and a commercial-grade coffee to see the difference for yourself! Our bets are that you will be using that specialty brand the second time around!

Why is that? Let us tell you.

Basically, coffee is defined as either commercial or specialty grade. Think of specialty as you would gourmet or artisanal. One of the first differences that are noticeable to the consumer is the packaging. Commercial is your typical grocery store coffee in the large tin or small bag. Specialty coffee is stored as whole beans and needs to be ground before it is brewed.

Commercial coffee is roasted and packaged in large industrial factories. Typically, by large national brands, whereas specialty coffee is roasted on smaller-scale factories. One of the great things about specialty coffees is that there are considerably more choices than with commercial coffees. Single-origin is a huge component of specialty coffee. In fact, it is one of the most critical factors. This is not even on the radar with commercially brewed coffees. This gives consumers so much more choice and opportunity to participate in the composition of their coffee versus commercial coffees.

The official definition of specialty coffee is based on a grading system. All coffee beans are graded on a score of one hundred. This process is called “cupping.” Arabica coffee, for instance, typically gets a cup score of eighty or more. Cupping refers to the number of defects with the beans. The more defects, the lower the score. Too many defects and the coffee will be disqualified for receiving specialty status. Make no mistake, though, specialty coffee is a breed apart from gourmet coffee. Gourmet coffee does not have the same definition, nor does it have a system of evaluation. Perhaps your favourite gourmet coffee is a specialty coffee or maybe…it’s just a coffee that has been well marketed.

For the beans to not have too many defects and be able to be evaluated according to the specialty coffee standards, the farmers must be meticulous at every stage. The coffee plants must be cultivated and harvested at the right time. Producers must adhere to strict processing protocols, and their storage methods must be on point.

When it comes to roasting and brewing, it’s a bit more complicated, but still, there are standards and certifications for all.

Specialty Coffee vs. Third Wave Coffee

Have you heard of these terms? And does it even matter? Well, yes and no. Third-wave is more of a reference to the movement behind specialty coffee. It’s about learning where your coffee comes from and the methods that were used to grow the plants that then produced the beans you are drinking from. It’s about knowing the story behind your coffee and where it comes from. Mostly how it came to be from the farm to your mug.

Let’s take a deeper dive into the details surrounding specialty coffees.

There are about seventy-five different types of coffee beans in the world, but only two are the ones that are most often used in the coffee industry: Arabica beans and Robusta beans. Check out our article on these two different types of coffee beans to learn all the details about them and why they are used. If you’re short on time, however, basically all you need to know is that Arabica is the best, and there are about one hundred and sixty varieties, many of these used in specialty blends. Robusta is a cheaper bean and typically used in commercial blends.

It’s also important to know where your beans come from. Specialty coffee brands are known for showing exactly where a bean was grown. They are committed to being transparent about the county of origin, the region, and even the farm where the plants were grown. This is all part of the quality control process. As well, it helps consumers to understand where and how their favourite coffee came to be in their mug.

The coffee bean’s flavors are influenced by the soil they are cultivated. When you find a coffee that you love, you will begin to notice its particular tones and subtle notes of flavor. Specialty coffees are known for this, unlike commercial brands, which pretty much all taste the same. With a specialty brand, farmers will be sure to select particular areas of the hillside, soil type, and altitudes. Not to mention picking times! It’s an incredibly detailed process that all leads to a uniquely flavoured bean in your mug! This process enhances the taste in a way that commercial coffee will never have the chance to do.

The quality control offered by specialty coffee farmers is second to none.

First off, the coffee cherries are only picked by hand. This keeps them in mint condition and allows for a unique selection process. Even the selection process is unparalleled. No blemishes allowed and perfectly ripe without being too overripe. It’s a painstakingly, slow, and special process. Again, none of this happens with a commercial-grade coffee. The commercial coffee industry will use pretty much any type of bean and cherry, whereas specialty coffee only selects the best without any blemishes or defects.

Now you may be wondering how a coffee bean could be defective. Here’s a handy list to explain why and how:

  • Discoloration
  • Dryness
  • Damage caused by fungus
  • Any foreign matter on the bean
  • Over or unripe beans
  • Malformations
  • Chips in the bean which often prove there are mistakes during the processing phase
  • Husks still present after roasting (this is important because it affects the taste)
  • Damage caused by insects

All of the above may seem overly detailed, but it is all for a good reason. Although what the coffee bean looks like it is not really of much concern once the coffee is in your cup, the taste is of utmost concern. Therefore, the specialty beans are roasted and then assessed again in a cupping test!

Here’s a list of what they look for this time:

  • Fragrance
  • Aroma
  • Flavor
  • Aftertaste
  • Acidity
  • Body
  • Balance
  • Sweetness
  • Uniformity
  • Negative impressions

It is only after this extensive testing that the coffee beans can be labeled within the following range:

  • Outstanding specialty
  • Excellent specialty
  • Very good specialty
  • Usual good quality
  • Commercial grade
  • Below-grade

It is interesting to note that specialty coffee brands will only purchase beans within the first three labels. Commercial brands will purchase anything within their designated price range.

Specialty coffees are also very particular about how they package their coffee. And rightly so because the packaging does matter. The air affects the quality and flavor of the beans and, ultimately, the coffee that you brew. Therefore, specialty coffees are vigilant about using bags designed to keep the air and moisture out even after opening. Resealable bags help with this as the manufacturers are very concerned about the consumer’s taste experience. The goal is to prevent deterioration at all costs. This does not happen with commercial-grade coffee. Once it’s open, there’s usually just a plastic cover, which does absolutely nothing to keep it fresh. Another thing to note is the quantity. Specialty coffee is sold small quantities as it cannot stay fresh indefinitely. Expiry dates are very real and important to take notice of.

Beans will peak in flavor after roasting, so it’s important to brew them before the expiry date. Typically, seven to ten days after roasting is ideal.

And now for the roasting. In the commercial coffee industry, everything is done in mass production fashion. This means beans can get burned or even be under roasted. With specialty coffees, this will never happen. Manufacturers take their time and roast in small quantities to ensure they get the best end result. 

Finally, let’s discuss the variety. As it’s plain to see at this point, commercial-grade coffee beans have very little variety. For many people this is fine, but for those of us who enjoy a variety flavors and roasts, it’s simply not enough! By choosing to brew a specialty coffee, you can find beans that match your preferences. You get to choose the flavor, sweetness, aroma, and body that you enjoy the most. You basically have control to tease your taste buds and titillate your senses in the most incredible ways. Why wouldn’t you want to try it?

The world of specialty brewed coffees is large, and it’s expanding every day. Coffee houses are stocking more and more brands of specialty coffees. Private label manufacturers are creating new and improved blends. All to offer the end consumer a specialty coffee, unlike anything they have tasted before. Flavor is so important, but so is knowing that the coffee you are ingesting and serving to your friends and family is sourced with high standards. The investment is a little bit higher than with commercial coffee but like everything in life…a higher price point is indicative of a higher quality product.

So, now that you know what it’s all about…jump on the specialty coffee train if you haven’t already. We guarantee that your taste buds will be instant converts!

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