Understanding Specialty vs. Commodity Coffee - Going Beyond the Buzzwords

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Understanding Specialty vs. Commodity Coffee - Going Beyond the Buzzwords

Understanding Specialty vs. Commodity Coffee - Going Beyond the Buzzwords

A detailed guide exploring the differences between specialty and commodity coffee, the buzzwords used to market them, and how to identify truly high-quality specialty coffee.
Understanding Specialty vs. Commodity Coffee - Going Beyond the Buzzwords

Coffee is one of the most popular beverages in the world, with people consuming over 2.25 billion cups per day. However, not all coffee is created equal. The two main categories are specialty and commodity coffee, which have distinct differences in quality, taste, and price.

With specialty coffee marketed as superior and commodity coffee considered more ordinary, it's important to understand what sets them apart. This article will explore the key distinctions, buzzwords used in marketing, and how to identify truly high-quality specialty coffee.

Table of Contents

Defining Specialty and Commodity Coffee

Specialty coffee refers to the top tier of coffee production, representing about 15-20% of the world's supply. It is made from high-quality coffee beans grown in ideal conditions, carefully harvested and processed, then roasted to maximize flavor.

Commodity coffee makes up the other 80-85% of global production. It's grown in less-than-perfect conditions, harvested and processed in high volumes, and roasted generically. The focus is on quantity over quality.

Key Differences:

  • Specialty coffee is graded 80 points or above out of 100 by professional "Q" coffee graders. Commodity coffee scores below 80 points.
  • Specialty beans are grown in optimal conditions and selectively picked when ripe. Commodity beans are less selectively harvested.
  • Specialty coffee is carefully processed to preserve flavor. Commodity coffee undergoes faster, generic processing.
  • Specialty coffee is roasted in small batches to bring out taste nuances. Commodity coffee is roasted in large volumes.

Origin and Processing

Where and how coffee beans are grown makes a big impact on quality and taste.

Specialty Coffee Origins:

Specialty coffee is grown in specific regions known for high quality, like:

  • Ethiopia
  • Kenya
  • Colombia
  • Guatemala
  • Costa Rica
  • Sumatra

These regions have ideal climates, soil, and elevation for growing flavorful beans. The top specialty coffee farms also carefully cultivate their land and trees.

Commodity Coffee Origins:

Much of the world's commodity coffee is grown in Brazil and Vietnam. These mass-production regions focus more on yield than flavor.

Processing Methods:

Specialty coffee beans are processed using methods like:

  • Dry/Natural - Drying the bean with the fruit still attached, which imparts flavor.
  • Wet/Washed - Removing fruit then washing and drying, which produces a cleaner taste.
  • Honey - Partially drying the bean with some fruit still attached.

These careful techniques help preserve the coffee's inherent flavors. Commodity beans undergo faster, less flavor-focused processing.

Grading Systems

Coffee grading helps indicate quality based on screen size, bean density, and number of defects.

Specialty Coffee Grading:

Specialty coffee achieves scores of 80+ out of 100 when cupped (professionally tasted) and graded by certified Q Graders. The Specialty Coffee Association also has strict standards for specialty-grade coffee.

Commodity Coffee Grading:

Commodity coffee scoring falls below 80 points. Lower grades like R, UG, and FAQ indicate more defects and poorer taste. Commodity beans are graded more on screen size than cup quality.

Flavor and Complexity

The most noticeable difference between specialty and commodity coffee is in the cup.

Specialty Coffee Flavor:

Careful growing, harvesting, and processing preserves specialty coffee's nuanced flavors. Professional cupping brings out tastes like:

  • Fruit tones like berry, citrus, or melon
  • Floral notes like jasmine or honeysuckle
  • Spices like cinnamon and cardamom
  • Sweetness like caramel, chocolate, or vanilla

These complex flavors and aromas are what specialty coffee drinkers cherish.

Commodity Coffee Flavor:

Commodity beans lack the flavors that specialty coffee showcases. When cupped by Q Graders, commodity coffee is evaluated more for cleanliness, uniformity, and defects.

The commodity bean's generic profile leads to relatively simple, muted flavors focused on basic notes like "nutty", "chocolatey", or "earthy."

Pricing Differences

With its focus on quality over quantity, specialty coffee commands a higher price.

Specialty Coffee Pricing:

Factors like limited supply, careful production, and cup quality lead to higher green bean prices for specialty coffee. This translates into higher costs for roasters and consumers:

  • Green beans cost $5-8+ per pound for specialty, vs. under $2 for commodity grade.
  • Roasted specialty coffee sells for $12-20+ per 12 oz. bag. Commodity-grade roasted coffee costs $6-12 per bag.
  • Specialty coffee drinks cost $3-5+ at cafes. Commodity coffee drinks are under $3.

What You Get for the Price:

While specialty coffee is more expensive, fans feel it provides a far superior taste experience and ethical sourcing compared to commodity beans.

Buzzwords in Marketing

When researching coffee online or in the grocery aisle, you'll encounter lots of buzzwords used to market specialty coffee. But do they really mean high quality?

Common Specialty Coffee Buzzwords:

  • Artisan - Hand-crafted in small batches
  • Gourmet - High-quality taste and excellence
  • Sustainable - Environmentally and socially responsible growing practices
  • Direct Trade - Roasters source beans directly from farmers
  • Rainforest Alliance Certified - Meets standards for sustainability
  • Third Wave - Focused on quality, origin, and fair prices
  • Single Origin - From one specific farm or region

While these terms can indicate good practices, they don't guarantee delicious flavor on their own. Do more research into factors like origin, processing, and cupping scores to verify quality.

How to Identify Quality Coffee

Here are some tips for looking beyond buzzwords and recognizing truly exceptional specialty coffee:

  • Check for Q grader cupping scores of 80+
  • Look for specific single origin vs. vague "blends"
  • Seek out coffee-graded Specialty grades vs. commercial grades
  • Favor roasters who source beans directly via direct trade
  • Look for detailed flavor notes like berry, floral, etc. vs. generic "nutty"
  • Research roasters' commitment to ethical, sustainable practices
  • Talk to your local specialty café or roaster for tasting recommendations

While specialty coffee costs more than commercial brands, paying the premium brings you an elevated tasting experience that commodity coffee can't match.


With specialty coffee marketed as the pinnacle and commodity coffee considered ordinary, it's important to understand how factors like origin, processing, grading, and roasting impact quality and flavor.

Specialty coffee's focus on excellence from crop to cup shines through in its complex aromas and tastes. Commodity coffee provides a more straightforward, affordable option for day-to-day drinking.

While buzzwords abound in the coffee world, truly exceptional specialty coffee delivers a nuanced taste experience and commitment to responsible production that discerning drinkers value. Taking time to learn the signs of quality helps you go beyond the marketing hype and appreciate what makes specialty coffee special.

Frequently Asked Questions

What percentage of coffee is specialty vs. commodity?

Around 15-20% of world coffee production is considered specialty grade, while 80-85% is commodity grade.

What are the signs of high-quality specialty coffee?

Signs include cupping scores of 80+, single-origin beans, specialty grade, direct trade sourcing, detailed flavor notes, and commitment to sustainability.

Is specialty coffee worth the higher price?

Specialty coffee fans feel the elevated taste experience and ethical production are worth paying more compared to commodity coffee.

Do buzzwords like "gourmet" guarantee great coffee?

Not necessarily. Look beyond buzzwords for information on origin, cupping quality, specific flavors, and roaster practices to identify truly great coffee.

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