An Introduction to the Specialty Coffee World

This is a collaborative post

Speciality coffee may be one of those terms that you have heard time and time again without fully understanding. For instance, you might have seen shops selling specialty coffee beans, or coffee shops on your high street saying they only stock specialty coffee varieties. What does this actually mean?

In this guide, we’re going to explore a little about specialty coffee and try to break down what it really means. While some people have a slightly different definition, it’s generally accepted that there is an agreed definition of specialty coffee.

When a coffee roaster buys green coffee beans, they may be referred to as specialty grade. When a coffee shop buys from a roaster, the same is true, but is this just a marketing ploy, or does it really mean something? What is the definition behind specialty coffee?

Image belongs to Coffee Friend Ltd

In a Nutshell

It’s generally accepted that specialty coffee is in the top 5% of all coffee that is available. Some graders even argue that to be a specialty coffee, it has to be in the top 2%. 

So, how is this decided? Obviously, the taste of something is pretty subjective, so it isn’t like everyone can even agree on this. Well, the quality is put in place by a committee of ‘Q graders’. A Q grader is someone who has been authorised and trained by the Coffee Quality Institute. They grade coffees based on many different aspects of taste, and there’s a standardised method they use, the Specialty Coffee Association (SCA) scoring system.

Specialty coffee is graded on more than just taste, too. The acidity, the feel of the coffee in the mouth, sweetness, aftertaste, and even the balance of flavors all come into play. There’s a scoring system, and under 80 on this system, the coffee is not really likely to be considered “speciality”.

Speciality Coffee Beans

There are certain types of coffee beans. There’s something called the arabica plant, which you probably will have heard of. This is the most popular type of coffee, with the second most popular being robusta, which generates larger yields from a more robust plant, but the quality doesn’t tend to be as high.

Arabica beans tend to be the best coffees out there, the plant can be more of a challenge for farmers to grow, but it tends to bring about more nuanced flavours and higher quality coffees.

Robusta coffees are literally named after the fact that they can grow more coffee in more challenging situations, and they allow coffee to be grown in low altitude conditions, but they tend to have a flavour like they’ve been burnt. This means they don’t tend to make the best coffees.

Image belongs to Coffee Friend Ltd

The Speciality Coffee “Chain”

Coffee goes on a pretty amazing journey before it comes to you. 

It starts with the specialty farmer, who is responsible for making sure that the crop is healthy and that the coffee is ready for the next stages of the journey. Coffee farms often have generations of experience. 

The coffee buyer is next, often certified and having a fantastic palate, which means they can identify coffee that is worth buying, and fits the specialty mould. They score through a process called ‘cupping’ to determine how good the coffee is.

The roaster is another step. This is where coffee can even take on more flavours. Even a beautiful coffee can taste awful if it is over-roasted, and there is a real skill to getting the right roast profile for a coffee before it goes into your beverage.

The barista is where the coffee starts to take the shape you know. Baristas take the roasted beans and turn them into your latte, flat white, or filter coffee. Like any other step in the chain, a bad barista can mess up the rest of the specialty coffee journey. If a coffee isn’t extracted properly or even if the milk is over frothed, it can ruin the drink. Did you know it’s actually really easy for baristas to burn the coffee? A barista plays a really key role.

Is Speciality Coffee Worth It?

We live in the age of the coffee snob, and there’s not necessarily anything wrong with just your run of the mill standard coffee that can be bulk bought and turned into instant. 

However, if you’re the sort of person who appreciates the nuance of flavour and likes to experiment, it is definitely worth getting speciality coffee. This means more than just coffee beans, too. Speciality coffee can take the form of pods, capsules, and more. 

As with anything else in life, you might pay a bit more for the best, but if you prepare it correctly then you are likely to taste the difference, and even wow your friends.

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