The Definition of Specialty Coffee and Why it Matters

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The Definition of Specialty Coffee and Why it Matters

The Definition of Specialty Coffee and Why it Matters

A comprehensive guide defining specialty coffee, explaining why it matters, and providing key facts on sourcing, processing, roasting, brewing, and enjoying high quality coffee.
The Definition of Specialty Coffee and Why it Matters

Coffee is one of the most beloved beverages in the world. But not all coffee is created equal. Over the past few decades, discerning coffee drinkers have increasingly sought out higher quality, carefully sourced, and prepared specialty coffee.

But what exactly is "specialty coffee"? And why does it matter?

In this complete guide, we'll cover everything you need to know about specialty coffee from what defines it, why quality matters, facts and stats on consumption and sales, how specialty beans are sourced and processed, a guide to roasting methods, brewing techniques, and tips for buying, storing, and enjoying high-end artisanal coffees.

Table of Contents

  • What is Specialty Coffee? - The Official Definitions
  • Why Specialty Coffee Matters - Flavor, Ethics, Environment
  • Specialty Coffee Consumption and Sales Statistics
  • Sourcing High-Quality Coffee Beans
  • Processing and Milling Specialty Coffee
  • Roasting Methods and Flavor Profiles
  • Grinding Coffee for Optimal Extraction
  • Brewing Methods from Espresso to Pour Over
  • Tips for Buying and Storing Specialty Coffee
  • Enjoying Your Coffee - Tasting Notes and Pairings
  • Frequently Asked Questions

What is Specialty Coffee? - The Official Definitions

So what exactly constitutes "specialty coffee"? There are a few key organizations that define and regulate criteria for coffee to be classified as specialty grade.

The Specialty Coffee Association (SCA) defines specialty coffee as:

Coffee that is free of primary defects, has no faults, displays a distinctive flavor profile, consists of a single coffee variety or blend, and is properly prepared. Specialty coffees are always sourced from the top 1-2% of the coffee produced in the world.

Specifically, certified specialty coffee meets the following standards:

  • A brewed coffee sample receives a minimum score of 80 out of 100 in a professional coffee cupping evaluation
  • The coffee sample has zero full defects and not more than five taint defects
  • The coffee is traceable back to the farm or cooperative where it was produced
  • The coffee is a single origin or blend crafted for flavor profile rather than economics of production

The term "third-wave coffee" is also used to describe high-quality artisanal coffee that focuses on sourcing, roasting, and brewing for optimal flavor.

Key Takeaways on Specialty Coffee Definitions

  • Must meet minimum cupping score of 80+ out of 100
  • Free of primary defects, low taint defects
  • Traceable single-origin or crafted blend
  • Top 1-2% of coffees worldwide

Why Specialty Coffee Matters - Flavor, Ethics, Environment

So why should coffee drinkers care about seeking out specialty coffee?

1. Flavor and Quality

The top reason that specialty coffee has seen a surge in popularity is the focus on achieving the best possible flavor and quality in the cup.

By carefully controlling the full process from farming techniques to storage, roasting, and brewing, specialty coffee producers can create incredibly complex, nuanced, and balanced coffee-drinking experiences.

From body and mouthfeel to aromas and finish, specialty coffee offers a wider range of flavors and characteristics to appreciate and explore.

2. Sustainable Sourcing and Fair Trade

Most specialty coffee is sourced directly from coffee farms, with an emphasis on fair prices, living wages, and environmentally sustainable practices.

Many small farm coffee producers lack the infrastructure and market access that larger operations have. Specialty buyers work directly with growers, often paying well above commodity market price per pound and providing resources to improve quality and yields through sustainable farming methods.

3. Preservation of Heirloom Varietals

The world of specialty coffee has helped spur interest in planting and preserving indigenous coffee varietals such as Geisha, Bourbon, Typica, Caturra, and Maragogype. These often have the most interesting flavor profiles but lower yields than hybrid varieties, so they are not economically viable on a mass commodity scale. By providing a market for these low-yield, high-quality beans, specialty coffee helps preserve coffee genetic diversity.

4. Transparency and Connections

Most specialty coffee is traceable to the farm or cooperative where it was sourced, providing transparency on where coffee comes from. Coffee bags are labeled with details on the growers, altitude, processing method, tasting notes, and more.

This enables a deeper connection between coffee drinkers and the farmers who produce the beans, fostering an appreciation for all the work that goes into producing an exceptional cup.

Specialty Coffee Consumption and Sales Statistics

The specialty coffee segment has seen impressive growth, rising from less than 10% to over 50% of U.S. coffee market value in the past 3 decades.

Some key facts and figures on specialty coffee:

  • Specialty coffee makes up over 50% of the U.S. coffee market value - projected to reach 60% by 2025 (Specialty Coffee Association).
  • There are over 20,000 specialty coffee companies in the United States alone (Allegra World Coffee Portal).
  • The U.S. specialty coffee market value is over $46 billion, with a 14% CAGR from 2019-2024 (Mordor Intelligence).
  • 65% of U.S. coffee drinkers say they purchase specialty coffee most of the time (National Coffee Association).
  • Daily U.S. specialty coffee consumption rose from 14% to 41% from 2000 to 2020 (Reuters, Allegra World Coffee Portal).

As coffee drinkers increasingly seek out higher quality and unique coffee experiences, the specialty coffee market is positioned for continued double-digit growth.

Sourcing High-Quality Coffee Beans

To produce specialty grade coffee beans requires care and expertise starting right at the farm level.

Here are some key practices of specialty coffee sourcing:

Altitude and Microclimate

The best specialty coffees are grown at higher altitudes, often 3,000-6,000 ft above sea level. The cooler temperatures, plentiful sunshine, and rich volcanic soil found in these high-altitude regions contribute to slower bean maturation and the development of complex flavors.

Specific microclimates and mountainous regions renowned for specialty coffee include:

  • Tarrazú, Costa Rica
  • Antigua, Guatemala
  • Santa Maria de Dota, Costa Rica
  • Sidamo, Ethiopia
  • Kintamani, Bali
  • Mt Kenya, Kenya

Coffee Varietals

Arabica coffee trees make up about 60% of world coffee production and produce beans with more aromatic, complex flavors. The finest specialty Arabicas include Typica, Bourbon, Caturra, Catuai, Geisha, and heirloom varieties. Robustas have a higher yield and caffeine but a more neutral flavor.

Shade Grown

Growing coffee under canopy shade slows down cherry ripening, protects the plants, and supports biodiversity. This labor-intensive method lowers yield but improves coffee quality and taste.

Harvest and Processing

Specialty beans are hand-picked when perfectly ripe. Post-harvest processing (wet, dry, or honey) is completed with meticulous attention to detail to achieve the best flavor.

Processing and Milling Specialty Coffee

After harvest, additional steps are required to prepare the coffee beans for roasting. This post-harvest processing develops the coffee's distinct flavors and aroma.

The main processing methods used for specialty coffee are:

Wet/Washed Processing

Most prized specialty coffees are wet-processed. After harvest, the coffee cherry's outer skin is removed, the sugars are washed off, and the beans are dried.

Benefits: Brings out bright acidity and fruit notes.

Dry/Natural Processing

The cherries are dried immediately after harvest with the fruit still intact. This imparts a sweeter, heavier body.

Honey Processing

A hybrid method where the skins are removed but some residual sticky mucilage stays on during drying, giving honey and caramelized sugar notes.

After processing, the green beans are milled to remove any remaining dried outer husk and silverskin. They are sorted, graded, and exported. The highest-grade green coffees will be purchased by specialty roasters.

Roasting Methods and Flavor Profiles

From light-roasted single-origin beans to deep, dark espresso blends, roasting is an art and science that transforms raw coffee into the diverse array of flavors and aromas that we enjoy in our cups.

Light Roast

Specialty coffee is often lightly roasted to accentuate the original flavors from the bean, like fruit and floral notes. Lighter roasts have higher acidity and caffeine levels.

Medium Roast

As roasting progresses, sugars caramelize bringing out sweeter, nuttier flavors. Acidity decreases as the bean structure breaks down.

Dark Roast

In dark roasting, the sugars fully caramelize and begin to char. Oils migrate to the surface. The dominant taste becomes roasty and bittersweet with lower acidity.

Blending different roast levels and bean types is key for creating complex, balanced coffees suited to particular brew methods like espresso.

Grinding Coffee for Optimal Extraction

Proper grinding maximizes coffee extraction during brewing. The optimal grind size depends on the brew method. Espresso requires very fine powdery grind while French press uses coarse grinds.

Common grinds from fine to coarse:

  • Turkish - Pulverized superfine powder
  • Espresso - Fine powder, feels like flour
  • Drip - Medium grind, grainy feel like table salt
  • French Press - Coarse grind, gritty texture

Conical burr grinders allow precise grind customization. Grinding beans fresh right before brewing preserves aroma and oils.

Brewing Methods from Espresso to Pour Over

Brewing is where science meets art. The many brew methods each produce a different blend of flavors and textures by controlling time, temperature, and extraction.


Finely ground coffee is brewed under pressure with hot water, producing concentrated liquid espresso with crema foam.


Hot water passes over the grounds to produce smooth, well-rounded drip coffee. Brew time is under 5 minutes.

French Press

Coarse ground coffee steeps in hot water and then is pressed through a plunger. Full-bodied with sediment.

Pour Over

Water is manually poured over the grounds in a filter producing clean, bright coffee. Flow rate controls flavor.

Cold Brew

Coarse grounds steep in room temp or cold water for 12+ hours then filtered. Sweet with low acidity.

Vacuum Brewing

Coffee is completely immersed in water, and then vacuum suctioned through a filter once brewed. Clean taste.

With proper technique, each brew method can produce an amazing cup that highlights different flavor notes in the beans.

Tips for Buying and Storing Specialty Coffee

To get the most enjoyment from your specialty coffee purchase, proper storage and handling are key.

  • Whole bean is best - Purchase and grind beans fresh before brewing.
  • Air-tight container - Store beans in a sealed, opaque container away from light and oxygen.
  • Cool and dry - Store beans in a cool, dry spot. Refrigeration optional.
  • Buy smaller batches - Buy what you'll use in 1-2 weeks for optimal freshness.
  • First in, first out - Brew older beans first before tapping into a newer bag.
  • Freeze extras - Freeze surplus beans in airtight bags for longer storage.

Enjoying Your Coffee - Tasting Notes and Pairings

Here are some tips for expanding your coffee-tasting experience once you've got your fresh specialty coffee in hand:

1. Take note of aroma and appearance

Before even sipping, smell the freshly roasted beans and ground coffee to appreciate the complex aromas. Note the coffee's color and crema.

2. Slurp vigorously like a wine tasting

Slurp a spoonful vigorously to spread it across your palate. Pick out subtle tastes and textures like fruit, syrupy mouthfeel, and dry finish.

3. Add milk/sugar judiciously

Add small amounts slowly to enhance but not hide flavors. For black coffee purists, enjoy it solo to fully experience the bean.

4. Pair coffees with foods

Fruitier coffees pair well with sweets, while darker roasts match hearty meats or savory treats. Try coffee alongside chocolate, doughnuts, or affogato.

Frequently Asked Questions

What percentage of coffee sold is specialty?

As of 2022 over 50% of US coffee market revenue comes from specialty coffee, projected to reach 60% by 2025 as quality awareness increases.

Is specialty coffee a fad or trend?

While many see the popularity of specialty coffee shops and roasters as a trend, the focus on quality, ethics, and sustainability indicates this is much more than a passing fad for most coffee lovers.

Is specialty coffee always organic or shade-grown?

While many specialty coffees use shade-grown or organic farming, there is no requirement that the beans be certified organic or grown under shade to be considered specialty. Though these practices often improve quality.

Do I need special equipment to brew specialty coffee?

While coffee aficionados may use professional espresso machines and gooseneck kettles, you can certainly brew great specialty coffee with basic home equipment. Focus more on technique, grind size, and freshness of beans.

With specialty coffee's surge in popularity, discerning coffee drinkers can now access a wide selection of beans grown, roasted, and brewed with attention that reveals the breadth and subtlety of flavors a seemingly simple cup of joe can provide. Seek out locally roasted fresh beans and put these brewing tips into practice. Soon you may find yourself joining coffee fans who swear specialty brews are a cut above the rest.

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