What Makes Specialty Coffee Special?

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What Makes Specialty Coffee Special?

A detailed guide explaining what makes specialty coffee different and better than regular coffee, including origin, processing, roasting, and brewing techniques.

 Coffee is one of the most popular beverages in the world, with millions of people drinking it every day. But not all coffee is created equal. Specialty coffee refers to the highest quality coffee made from premium beans and expert roasting and brewing techniques. Keep reading to learn what sets specialty coffee apart.

Table of Contents

Origin and Varietals

One of the defining features of specialty coffee is that it comes from the top coffee-producing regions around the world. Specialty roasters source their beans from specific farms rather than commodity markets. Some of the premier coffee-growing regions include:

  • Ethiopia
  • Kenya
  • Colombia
  • Guatemala
  • Costa Rica
  • Brazil

Within these regions, there are hundreds of different varietals or strains of coffee plants. Just like wine grapes, the coffee variety imparts distinct flavors and aromas. Some popular gourmet coffee varietals are:

  • Bourbon
  • Typica
  • Caturra
  • Gesha
  • SL28
  • Mundo Novo

Processing and Drying

After coffee cherries are harvested, they must be processed and dried before export. The method used to process and dry coffee beans has a major impact on the final flavor profile. Specialty coffees utilize processing methods that enhance sweetness, complexity, and clarity of flavor such as:

  1. Wet/Washed Processing: Cherries are pulped to remove outer skin, fermented, washed, and then dried with parchment skin intact.
  2. Dry/Natural Processing: Cherries are dried whole with skin and fruit still attached, leading to a sweeter flavor.
  3. Honey Processing: A hybrid method where cherries are dried with some mucilage still attached.

Careful processing and drying ensures specialty coffee beans reach their full potential in terms of complex flavors and aromas.


After import, green specialty coffee beans are skillfully roasted to bring out the best attributes of each origin and varietal. Roasting is both an art and a science that requires in-depth knowledge and precise technique. Hallmarks of specialty coffee roasting include:

  • Lighter roast profiles to preserve origin characteristics
  • Slow roasting in small batches
  • Constant monitoring of temperature and time
  • Adapting roast for each particular coffee batch

Specialty roasters are craftspeople who know how to accentuate the unique qualities inherent in each coffee they work with. Their expertise shines through in the nuanced, complex flavors of their roasted coffee.


The final key component to specialty coffee’s excellence is the brewing method. Specialty coffee shops and retailers put painstaking care into preparing coffee to highlight tasting notes and achieve the perfect balance of sweetness, acidity and body. Common specialty coffee brewing methods include:

  1. Pour Over: Manually pouring hot water over ground coffee in a filter
  2. French Press: Steeping coarse ground coffee in hot water
  3. Cold Brew: Steeping ground coffee in cool water for 12-24 hours
  4. Espresso: Forcing hot water under pressure through very finely ground coffee

In the hands of a skilled barista, these brewing techniques allow the distinct flavors within specialty coffee beans to shine. The barista can adjust variables like water temperature, coffee dose, and brew time to create the optimal cup.


Finally, specialty coffee is all about freshness. Roasted coffee beans begin to degrade and lose flavor within a few weeks after roasting. Specialty coffee companies always indicate a roast date and use packaging to maximize freshness. Look for the following indicators of freshness:

  • Recent roast date (within past 1-2 weeks)
  • Hermetic, vacuum-sealed packaging
  • Opaque bags or containers to prevent light exposure
  • Whole bean format (ground coffee stales faster)

Drinking freshly roasted and optimally packaged coffee allows you to taste all the subtle nuances that specialty coffee has to offer.


Specialty coffee offers a superior taste experience compared to commercial, mass-produced coffee. By sourcing beans from the top coffee-growing regions worldwide and applying expertise throughout the growing, processing, roasting, and brewing stages, specialty coffee showcases amazing depth, complexity, and clarity of flavor. Sourcing premium beans, using artisan roasting techniques designed to highlight a coffee's inherent qualities, and preparing it with care allows specialty coffee’s notes of fruit, floral, chocolate and more to shine through beautifully in the cup.

Frequently Asked Questions

What are the main factors that make specialty coffee special?

The four key factors are: 1) Premium bean origin and varietal 2) Careful processing and drying methods 3) Expert roasting in small batches 4) Meticulous brewing techniques.

Does specialty coffee have to be expensive?

Not necessarily. While some rare coffee can be quite expensive, there are many specialty coffees available at reasonable prices. The higher cost comes from the additional care and labor used throughout the entire growing and production process.

Is dark roast or light roast better for specialty coffee?

Light and medium roasts are generally preferred for specialty coffee as they preserve more of the bean's distinctive aromatic compounds and flavors. However, a high quality dark roast can still be quite flavorful.

What are some examples of specialty coffee varietals?

Some popular specialty coffee varietals are Bourbon, Typica, Gesha, Caturra, SL28, and Mundo Novo. Different varietals have distinctive flavor profiles based on their genetics.

How soon after roasting should specialty coffee beans be used?

Ideally within 1-2 weeks for peak freshness. Freshly roasted coffee will have the fullest aroma and flavor.

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