What is Specialty Coffee? A Detailed Look at the Meaning and Characteristics

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What is Specialty Coffee? A Detailed Look at the Meaning and Characteristics

Specialty coffee has become increasingly popular in recent years, with more and more coffee drinkers seeking out higher-quality beans and brews.
What is Specialty Coffee? A Detailed Look at the Meaning and Characteristics

What is Specialty Coffee? A Detailed Look at the Meaning and Characteristics

Specialty coffee has become increasingly popular in recent years, with more and more coffee drinkers seeking out higher-quality beans and brews. But what exactly is specialty coffee and how is it defined? This comprehensive guide will explore the meaning, characteristics, and criteria that set specialty coffee apart.

Introduction to Specialty Coffee

Specialty coffee refers to coffee that is made from higher quality coffee beans and cares in production to produce an overall superior tasting brew. The Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA) defines specialty coffee as:

"Coffee that is free of defects and has no primary tastes or smells that would overshadow or suppress the taste of the coffee itself. Specialty coffees are grown at ideal high altitudes, are processed with great care to prevent mold and over-fermentation, and are expertly roasted to bring out their inherent tastes and aromas."

So in essence, specialty coffee is coffee that has been carefully grown, harvested, and processed to highlight the unique flavors inherent to the coffee beans and their place of origin. This contrasts with commercial or commodity coffee that is mass-produced and often lower quality.

The term "specialty coffee" emerged in the 1970s and 80s as coffee shops began focusing on sourcing higher-quality coffee beans, roasting techniques, and preparing coffee drinks. Specialty coffee emphasizes quality from start to finish, paying attention to details such as:

  • Where the coffee is grown
  • The variety or cultivar of the coffee plant
  • How the coffee cherries are picked and processed
  • How the beans are roasted
  • How the coffee is prepared and served

The goal is to produce the best-tasting coffee experience possible, bringing out the nuances and complex flavors of the beans. Specialty coffee producers aim to find the highest quality beans and use methods to optimize their natural flavors.

Characteristics and Criteria of Specialty Coffee

So what makes a coffee "specialty grade" compared to commercial grade coffee found in grocery stores or large chains? Several key characteristics and criteria help define specialty coffee.

Arabica Coffee Beans

The first criterion is that specialty coffee will be made with Arabica coffee beans, rather than the lower-quality Robusta beans used in mass coffee production. Arabica beans have a sweeter, more complex flavor profile compared to the harsher, more bitter taste of Robusta. Specialty coffee seeks to highlight the unique flavors and qualities of fine Arabica beans.

Higher Quality Grades

Specialty coffee is graded according to standards that evaluate attributes like size, appearance, and lack of defects. Only the top quality grades - such as AA or Extra Fancy - will be approved for specialty coffee. Lower grades with more defects or imperfections would compromise the flavor.

Single Origin vs Blends

Many specialty coffees are single origin, meaning the coffee beans were grown in one particular region or farm. This allows the "terroir" or qualities of that location to shine through. Specialty coffee may also be a single estate, coming from one specific farm.

That said, specialty coffee blends combining beans from different regions are also standard. But care is still taken to blend components that complement each other and create complexity.

Processing and Roasting

Another hallmark of specialty coffee is careful processing and roasting. Methods like the "washed" process help bring out acidity and clarity. Roasting is done to precise standards to create the optimal roast profile based on the coffee's inherent qualities. Light, medium, and dark roasts are customized to each particular coffee.


Specialty coffee is fresh, meaning it is consumed within days or weeks of roasting before the coffee stales. Many specialty coffee roasters will print "roasted on" dates to indicate freshness. The beans then need proper storage and packaging.

Flavor and Quality

Of course, flavor and overall sensory quality determine if coffee is "specialty grade." Specialty coffee should have no significant defects and exhibit a pleasing, balanced flavor profile with some complexity and personality. Often there are tasting notes reminiscent of fruits, nuts, chocolate, flowers, spices, or other aromatics.

Certifications for Specialty Coffee

Several organizations offer certifications that can indicate if coffee meets specialty standards:

  • SCAA Certifications - Coffees that score 80 points or above on the SCAA Coffee Standards Golden Cup testing are considered specialty grade. Coffees scoring 87+ are certified as Premium or Elite specialty coffee.
  • Fair Trade - Fair Trade certifications indicate coffee was produced ethically and sustainably, with fair compensation for small-scale farmers. Standards help produce higher-quality beans.
  • Organic - Organic coffees are grown without synthetic chemicals, which can improve coffee flavor and support ecological farming.
  • Rainforest Alliance - This certification promotes sustainable farming practices that protect forests and habitats while producing better coffee.
  • Smithsonian Bird Friendly - The most stringent shade-grown coffee certification, promoting high biodiversity "bird-friendly" shade cover on coffee farms.

While not required, these certifications can validate quality, sustainability, and ethics for specialty coffee consumers.

Types of Specialty Coffee Drinks

Specialty coffee refers not just to the beans, but to how the coffee is skillfully prepared and served. Some examples of specialty coffee drinks and methods include:

  • Pour over - Slowly pour hot water over coffee grounds to gently extract flavor. Manual pour-over produces a clean, bright coffee.
  • Cold brew - Steeping ground coffee in cool water for an extended time, producing a smooth, less acidic cold coffee concentrate.
  • Chemex - A manual pour-over using a Chemex filter to produce a clean, light-bodied coffee.
  • French press - Steeping coffee grounds in hot water and using a plunger to filter out grounds. Creates a robust, full-flavored coffee.
  • Espresso - Using an espresso machine to force hot water under pressure through finely ground coffee. Creates an intense, concentrated coffee.
  • Cappuccino - Espresso topped with steamed, foamy milk, allowing espresso flavors to shine.
  • Latte - Espresso with steamed milk and a thin layer of foam, highlighting milk's flavor contribution.

These methods allow the natural flavors of quality coffee beans to be highlighted. The barista's skill and knowledge are critical.

Specialty Coffee Roasters and Shops

So where can you find specialty coffee? High-end coffee shops and artisan coffee roasters are good options. Here are some roasters known for specialty coffee:

  • Blue Bottle - Founded in Oakland, Blue Bottle is dedicated to freshly roasted single-origin coffees and manual brew methods.
  • Intelligentsia - This pioneer Chicago roaster sources Direct Trade coffees and produces award-winning blends.
  • Counter Culture - A specialty coffee leader based in Durham, NC with an emphasis on sustainably sourced beans.
  • Stumptown - Iconic Portland roaster offering a variety of high-quality single-origin and blended coffees.
  • Four Barrel - San Francisco roaster sourcing an array of beans from growers around the world.

Many local, independent coffee roasters and cafes may also produce or serve specialty coffee using high standards for sourcing and preparation. Look for small-batch roasting and coffee menus highlighting single-origin beans.

Benefits of Specialty Coffee

Why should you drink specialty coffee? There are several advantages compared to commercial coffee:

  • Better flavor - Specialty coffee often has a more complex, nuanced flavor with clarity of aromatics.
  • Appreciation of origins - You can better understand and appreciate how factors like variety, region, and processing influence coffee qualities.
  • Support farmers - When produced sustainably and ethically, specialty coffee supports small-scale growers.
  • Connection to the community - Drinking locally roasted specialty coffee connects you to your neighborhood cafe and roaster.
  • Experienced baristas - The preparation skill of passionate baristas allows specialty coffee flavors to shine.
  • Environmental benefits - Sustainable practices protect coffee lands. Shade coffee protects birds and wildlife.
  • Health benefits - Specialty coffee is often higher in antioxidants than commercial coffee.

Overall, specialty coffee offers a superior drinking experience for coffee lovers interested in flavor, ethics, community, and sustainability.

Specialty vs Commercial Coffee - Key Differences

To summarize, here are some of the key differences between specialty and commercial/commodity coffee:

Specialty CoffeeCommercial Coffee
Arabica beansRobusta beans common
Highest quality gradesLower grades with more defects
Single-origin or careful blendsIndiscriminate blends
Careful processing methodsLower standards in processing
Artisan small batch roastingBulk roasting in high volume
Freshness emphasizedCan be stale
Complex, nuanced flavorsSimple flavors, more bitterness
Highly skilled preparationAutomated preparation
Sustainable practicesLower standards in sustainability
Support for farmersCommodity market challenges for farmers
Higher consumer priceLower consumer price

So while specialty coffee demands a higher price, fans would argue the experience is worth it! At the end of the day, specialty coffee promises a better journey from crop to cup.

Frequently Asked Questions About Specialty Coffee

What is the difference between specialty coffee and gourmet coffee?

While sometimes used interchangeably, "specialty coffee" implies meeting objective standards like SCAA criteria for high-quality coffee. "Gourmet coffee" is more of a marketing term without defined standards behind it. Any high-quality artisan coffee could be considered "gourmet."

Is specialty coffee better than Starbucks?

While Starbucks serves consistent, drinkable coffee, actual specialty coffee from high-end roasters or cafes is generally regarded as superior quality. However, Starbucks does serve some options like Reserve coffees that aim to compete with specialty coffee.

Is specialty coffee roasted differently?

Yes, specialty coffee roasters give great care to roasting beans to optimize the inherent flavor qualities of each coffee. Light, medium, and dark roasts are tailored to the particular coffee. Mainstream coffee is often roasted uniformly dark.

Is specialty coffee more expensive?

Typically yes, due to the higher costs for quality beans, processing, ethical sourcing, artisan roasting, skilled labor, and related factors. But fans find the superior taste and experience worth the extra cost.

Where can I buy specialty coffee beans?

Check your local artisan coffee roaster or high-end cafe. Many specialty roasters also sell beans online. Look for roasters who emphasize things like single-origin beans, craft roasting, and direct trade sourcing.

How should I brew specialty coffee at home?

Manual pour-over, French press, Aeropress, and cold brew are great options. Use the correct grind size and pay attention to factors like water quality and temperature. Espresso machines can also make specialty espresso at home.


Specialty coffee offers a higher quality, more ethical, and sustainable approach for passionate coffee lovers. By focusing on details from crop to cup, specialty coffee aims to produce an unparalleled tasting experience that highlights the diversity and complexity of exceptional coffee beans. From meticulous sourcing to artisan roasting and skilled preparation, specialty coffee promises delicious coffee and an enlightening journey into the world of high-end coffee. The proof is ultimately in the cup, where specialty coffee delivers nuanced flavors and aromas that captivate the senses. While demanding higher prices, specialty coffee devotees believe the experience is worth the investment. So for those interested in exploring coffee beyond the every day, specialty coffee offers a world-class beverage like no other.

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