What is Specialty Coffee?

Updated: Apr 10, 2018


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How do we define Specialty Coffee?


The aim of Coffee Rambler is to get more people drinking specialty coffee. However, first we need to explain what we mean by this. As of now, there are no industry standards for what specialty coffee actually is, so with our own experience and with a collection of ideas within the industry, we define it as follows:


An Arabica coffee bean that scores higher than 80, is absent of defects and exhibits distinct and unique characteristics. It's production should not negatively impact the environment or coffee-growing communities.


Scoring


The definition above requires further explanation. Scoring refers to a professional system of ranking roasted coffee out of 100. There are a number of different forms, but in more simple variations there are five components that are ranked out of 10 and 50 is added to the final score. These five sections usually refer to the acidity, sweetness, mouthfeel or body, balance or aftertaste and flavour. If four sections are used, sometimes cleanliness of the cup is measured as the fifth, which is how the cup is enjoyed in terms of balance and an absence of unpleasant/defective flavours. The SCAA form uses 10 different sections, marking each section from 5 to 10. Anything less than 5 is thrown out and defects are subtracted at the end.


Note (Rant) - In more recent times I have become rather tired of seeing coffee scores in shops. They are arbitrary and many businesses self-grade. Too many coffees are scored over 90 in an attempt to market them. I personally believe that outside of competition, scoring should be done to ensure a coffee is specialty grade and not used to sell a product or enhance one's own reputation.


Defects


Defects come in a number of forms but the most unpleasant are those that destroy the pleasant flavour of the coffee. They can taste like potato, chemicals, be super sour or exhibit other undesirable flavours.


Coffee Characteristics


The characteristics of a coffee are its aromas, tastes, mouthfeel and flavours. For example, the characteristics of a specialty Kenyan coffee may be a wine-like body with a bright acidity and blackcurrant flavour notes.


A coffee’s natural characteristics are far more prominent in lighter roasts which allow the coffee’s natural sweetness and acidity to shine. If it has fruity or floral flavours, they will be most present when drinking the lighter roasts. The darker a roast gets, the more the roasting characteristics take over, including further caramelisation of sugars, less acidity and greater bitterness. A loss of natural flavours is replaced with roast flavours and a fuller, richer body, to a point. This explains the relative uniformity of many dark roasts you might encounter in mainstream coffee stores and supermarkets.


No simple thing


Any coffee that makes the specialty grade has been on a remarkable journey where so much could have gone wrong. A tree will take three to five years before producing fruit, which at that stage shade, terroir, water intake and good many other factors will influence the end result. So too will the variety. During and after harvesting there is still plenty that can go wrong with ripeness, defects and processing. The coffee may change hands as many as six times before finding it to a roaster and so it must be stored carefully along its journey to avoid spoiling. It is then down to a roaster to ready the coffee so that it may be expertly extracted by a barista.


A lot of work goes into any cup of coffee, and that bit more extra for the specialty kind.


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