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Specialty Coffee: What is it exactly?

Updated: Sep 21, 2022

In today's society amongst coffee drinkers, roasters, growers, etc - a regular coffee really is a sneaky way of saying low in quality and taste.

When drinking regular coffee, you can often be left with a bad aftertaste and a less than better experience.

What is specialty coffee ?

The term “specialty” was first used to refer to coffee in 1974 by Erna Knutsen in an issue of the Tea & Coffee Journal. Knutsen used this term to describe beans of the best flavor which are produced in special

microclimates. To put it in simpler terms specialty coffee is the "best of the best" in their specific category of coffees. The Specialty Coffee Association of America was established in 1982 with forty-two members, many of who sold what was then often colloquially called “gourmet” coffees direct to customers. “It is an effort to bring the coffee business back to its roots,” explained founder Donald Schoenholt of Gillies Coffee.

In a 2017 article, then-executive director of the association Ric Rhinehart defines specialty coffee “in its green stage

as coffee that is free of primary defects, has no quakers, is properly sized and dried, presents in the cup free of faults and taints and has distinctive attributes. In practical terms, this means that the coffee must be able to pass aspect grading and cupping tests.”

In more concrete terms, s

specialty coffee is any coffee that has achieved a score of 80 or higher out of 100 on a standardized score sheet by a panel of expert coffee tasters known as Q Graders. The coffee quality progression is not linear but bell-curve shaped; it is generally accepted that only around 10% of all coffee produced reaches specialty grade.

The journey from seed to cup

“Quality and good work need to be done at all stages of the chain, all the way from seed to cup!”


Coffee beans are actually seeds. It can only be used to brew after they have been dried, roasted and grounded. These seeds are normally planted in large shaded areas and left to grow for a few days before shifting them to individual pots for ideal growing conditions. Planting is also best done during wet seasons to ensure that the soil remains moist throughout.

Coffee cherry harvesting

It will take around 3 to 4 years before the newly planted coffee trees are ready to bear fruit. The fruit, called the coffee cherry, turns a bright, deep red when it’s ripe and ready to be harvested. In majority of the countries, the cherries are still picked by the local workers and is a labor - intensive job. Regardless of whether it’s by manual labor or machine, coffee can be harvested in two ways: Strip picking and selective picking.

Coffee cherry processing

There are different techniques in processing coffee that are employed by farmers or producers throughout the world. These coffee processing techniques are done to showcase the coffee bean’s inherent qualities, maintain a long-held tradition, or to coax new flavors to uncover a new profile. Among these techniques, two are most dominant: natural and washed coffee processing.

Beans that have been processed via the wet method have to be dried to approximately 11% moisture. They are sun-dried by spreading them on drying tables and floors. These dried beans are also known as parchment coffee.

It’s time for hulling, which is the process of removing the parchment skin from the coffee bean. As the saying goes, “Never judge a book by its cover”. Even the nicest looking beans can conceal their inner defects. Polishing is an optional step that involves getting rid of any excess silver skin that appears during hulling.

Roasting and Tasting

You’ve got your specialty-grade coffee beans, now we need to roast them to make that coffee brew we all know and love. Enter the Specialty Coffee roaster. Normally, Specialty Coffees are roasted lighter than commercial coffees to keep as much of the flavor of the beans as possible. Darker roasts burn off bad flavors in the coffee, but they also burn off the good ones. Given that specialty-grade beans go through rigorous quality controls at every stage of the production process , a good roaster shouldn’t over-roast his beans, in order to preserve those lovely aromas. Even if a roastery bought specialty-grade green coffee beans, if it’s not roasted properly, a cupping by a Q-grader would likely downgrade the quality of the coffee

The final stage of the coffee’s journey is the transformation of the bean into a drink. Coffee can be brewed many different ways: with an espresso machine, a Chemex, an Aeropress, a French Press – the list goes on. No matter what the brewing method, there is an objectively “correct” way of extracting the coffee. Over-extracted coffees are usually bitter and astringent, with under-extracted ones watery and overly acidic. Even if all the previous steps were adhered to perfection, if you don’t extract the coffee correctly, it won’t taste good.

So what have we learnt? Specialty Coffee is more than just the 80+ points given by a Q-grader. It’s a laborious process from start to finish, involving several precise and delicate steps, each of which is vital to realizing the coffee’s full potential. Deviation at any stage of the production chain can downgrade the final product to commercial-grade coffee. Given all these factors, and the meticulous care taken at every step, when you do experience a great cup of coffee, cherish it. Stop and wonder at the sheer improbability of it all, because it really is something special.

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