The Definition of Specialty Coffee - What Makes it Different?

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The Definition of Specialty Coffee - What Makes it Different?

The Definition of Specialty Coffee - What Makes it Different?

A detailed look at specialty coffee - its definition, what makes it different from regular coffee, its origin and history, tasting notes and flavors, brewing methods, health benefits, and frequently asked questions.
The Definition of Specialty Coffee - What Makes it Different?

Coffee is one of the most popular drinks in the world, with over 400 billion cups consumed every year. But not all coffee is created equal. Specialty coffee is in a league of its own, distinguished by its higher quality, nuanced flavors, and careful production methods.

Table of Contents

  • What is Specialty Coffee Meaning?
  • Origin and History
  • What Makes Specialty Coffee Different?
  • Flavor Notes and Tasting
  • Brewing Methods
  • Health Benefits
  • Frequently Asked Questions

What is Specialty Coffee Meaning?

The Specialty Coffee Association defines specialty coffee as “free of defects and has no faults." This refers to the entire process, from growing and harvesting, to roasting, brewing, and tasting.

Specifically, specialty coffee must meet the following standards:

  • Grown at high altitudes in mineral-rich soil
  • Ripened to optimal maturity and hand-picked
  • Wet or dry-processed with care to preserve flavors
  • Roasted skillfully to bring out unique flavors
  • Free of defects and brewed properly

Only about 1 in 10 coffee beans qualify as “specialty.” This select coffee commands a higher price due to the meticulous production methods required.

Origin and History

The specialty coffee movement began in the 1970s with pioneers like Erna Knutsen, who coined the term “specialty coffee.” She established objective standards for bean quality and taste.

This contrasted with the commercial coffee at the time, which prioritized volume over flavor. Specialty coffee gained popularity among small cafes and retailers focused on quality.

The movement highlights) the nuances similar to wine or craft beer. Promoting coffee's origin story also became important.

Today, specialty coffee represents over 50% of coffee shop sales. Prominent growing regions include Central America, South America, Africa, Indonesia, and Hawaii.

What Makes Specialty Coffee Different?

Several key factors distinguish specialty coffee beans:

  1. Origin - Single-origin or estate coffees, not blends. This highlights regional flavors.
  2. Grade - Higher-grade beans with few defects. Standards like SHG or AA grade.
  3. Processing - Careful harvesting and processing, like honey or natural dry.
  4. Roast - Artisanal roasting that enhances flavor. Light, medium, or dark.
  5. Freshness - Roasted recently and brewed within weeks. Peak flavor.
  6. Taste - Complex, nuanced tasting notes. Fruity, floral, chocolatey.

Specialty coffee also adheres to sustainable growing practices. Farmers are paid fair prices, driving local economies.

Flavor Notes and Tasting

One of the hallmarks of specialty coffee is the myriad flavors and tasting notes. Careful processing and roasting bring out the unique characteristics of each coffee.

Professional coffee tasters, known as “Q Graders”, identify flavors using a surprisingly diverse vocabulary. Common tasting notes include:

  • Fruit: berry, citrus, stonefruit, melon
  • Floral: jasmine, honeysuckle, rose, lavender
  • Spice: cinnamon, nutmeg, cardamom, vanilla
  • Chocolate and caramel
  • Nutty
  • Earthy, woody, or herbal

The flavor profile depends on factors like the origin, processing method, and roast level. Lighter roasts accentuate fruity and floral notes. Darker roasts bring out more caramel, chocolate, or nutty notes.

Brewing Methods

Brewing specialty coffee requires care and the right equipment for the full experience. Recommended methods include:

  • Pour over - Slowly pour hot water over the grounds in a filter.
  • French press - Steeping grounds in hot water.
  • Cold brew - Steeping grounds in room temp or cold water.
  • Chemex - Pour over using a Chemex filter and decanter.
  • Aeropress - Forcing water through a filter under air pressure.
  • Espresso - Using an espresso machine to extract concentrated coffee.

The grind size and coffee-to-water ratio are also important. Specialty coffee shops can provide brewing guidance with purchases.

Health Benefits

Some key health benefits associated with specialty coffee include:

  • Antioxidants - Higher levels than commercial coffee.
  • Lower risk of diseases - Like type 2 diabetes, Parkinson's, and liver disease.
  • Increased lifespan - Linked to drinking 3-4 cups per day.
  • Better focus and energy - Due to caffeine content when consumed moderately.
  • Nutrients - Such as magnesium, potassium, niacin, and vitamin E.

The fresher beans and careful processing of specialty coffee preserve the beneficial compounds. However, moderating caffeine intake remains essential.

Frequently Asked Questions

  1. How is specialty coffee different from commercial coffee?
  2. Specialty coffee focuses on quality and flavor nuances versus volume and consistency. It uses higher-grade beans, careful processing, artisanal roasting, and preparation to highlight unique flavors.

  3. Is specialty coffee more expensive?
  4. Yes, specialty coffee tends to cost more due to the extra labor and care involved in small-batch production. But fans find the taste and experience worth the premium price.

  5. Should I brew specialty coffee differently?
  6. Specialty coffee shops can provide specific guidance, but generally, it is best prepared via pour-over, French press, Aeropress, or espresso. The right grind size and brew ratio are important.

  7. How can I identify quality specialty coffee?
  8. Indicators of quality include freshly roasted beans, single-origin or estate coffees, higher-grade Arabica beans, and aromas like fruit, flowers, or nuts. Taste looking for complexity and balance, not bitterness.

  9. Are there health benefits to specialty coffee?
  10. Yes, specialty coffee contains higher levels of antioxidants and beneficial nutrients. Moderate consumption has been linked to lower disease risk, increased lifespan, and improved focus and energy.


Specialty coffee offers a refined, elevated coffee experience through careful production, complex flavors, and artisanal preparation methods. With its boutique production and premium price, specialty coffee makes for an indulgent treat for passionate coffee lovers. Its potential health benefits and sustainable farming practices are an added bonus.

By understanding exactly what sets specialty coffee apart - from origin to flavor notes to brewing - anyone can learn to better appreciate and enjoy this special type of coffee.

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