What is speciality coffee and why is it special?
If you are a keen coffee drinker, you may have come across the terms ‘speciality’ or ‘artisan’ coffee, but what exactly is ‘specialty coffee’ and what makes it special? Is it just a fancy term to justify charging you more for a bag of beans or a flat white or does it actually mean something? In this blog we’ll look at what speciality coffee is and what makes it different (and tastier!) to commercial or commodity coffee.
How is a coffee awarded speciality status?
Coffee is assessed by a group of people called ‘Q Graders’ and given a score out of 100 based on its flavour and overall quality. To achieve speciality status a coffee must score at least 80 out of 100. This is high bar and less than 10% of all the coffee produced around the world achieves this score.
Anything that scores less than 80 is classed as commodity coffee. Much of this coffee is bought by huge multinationals to be used for instant or served in some chain coffee shops.
So, the official definition of speciality coffee is anything that scores 80 or more on the quality scale, but there is so much more to it than that. For a coffee to truly be speciality, every step of the production process needs to focus on quality.
Speciality Coffee farms and farmers
Coffee begins its journey to speciality status at the coffee farm where the focus is on quality rather than quantity. Speciality coffee farms have often been in the same family for generations and huge amounts of skill and knowledge are built up over the years.
Great coffee is grown at high altitudes so coffee farms are often located on challenging terrain in mountainous or hilly areas. Because of this much of the harvest is done by hand which can be labour intensive but helps to ensure that only the ripest coffee cherries are picked.
Two species of coffee are farmed for people to drink – robusta and arabica. The coffee grown on these farms and used in speciality coffee is almost exclusively arabica as it has a much cleaner, smoother taste and has the potential to produce a wide range of flavours. Robusta, on the other hand, is known for having a much harsher, bitter flavour often described as rubbery. Robusta coffee is far easier to grow than arabica and yields a much bigger harvest so is often grown specifically for the commodity market to be used in instant coffee.
How speciality coffee is processed
Coffee is not actually a bean; it is a seed that grows in the cherry of the coffee bush. After the ripe cherries have been harvested, the seeds (what we call beans), need to be removed from the cherries – this is called ‘processing’.
On speciality coffee farms great care is taken over processing as it is important to remove any foreign objects or unripe beans that might have been accidentally picked. This is a labour-intensive process and often involves hand-sorting.
A feature of speciality coffee is that different processing methods can be used to try and achieve different flavours. You may have seen words like ‘washed’, ‘natural’, ‘honey’ or ‘pulped natural’ on your bags of beans and this refers to how those beans were processed. Most coffee is ‘washed’ which means all the cherry flesh was removed from the seed during processing producing a clean flavour. ‘Natural’ means the opposite – the cherry has been allowed to dry out with the seeds still inside which imparts lots of fruity flavours into coffee. ‘honey’ or ‘pulped natural’ are somewhere in between.
Speciality coffee farmers are constantly experimenting with new ways of processing to try and discover new flavour profiles that can be achieved.
Trading and price
Perhaps one of the biggest and most important differences between speciality and commodity coffee is the way it is traded and the price that the farmers receive for their crop.
Commodity coffee is traded on the world commodity exchange where the price per kilo is set by market forces and bears no relationship to the cost of producing the coffee. This means that farmers producing commodity coffee have no control over the price they receive and making a profit depends on what the commodity price happens to be when they sell their coffee. This can lead to cycles of boom and bust making it hard to plan for the future and dis-incentivising investment.
Speciality coffee is not traded on the world commodity exchange and farmers have more power to negotiate a price depending on the quality of their crop. While not perfect, this system rewards quality and incentivises farmers to invest for the future, experiment with different types of coffee and processing methods and boosts the wages they are able to pay to their workers.
So now we get to our favourite part! As coffee roasters it is our job to make sure that all the hard work and passion that has gone in to producing the green coffee is reflected in the roasted product.
This means developing roast profiles (length of roast, temperature etc.) for each coffee to ensure that we maximise the potential flavour of that coffee. A speciality coffee roaster will consider a variety of factors such as processing method, the country of origin and the altitude the coffee was grown at when devising a roast profile for a particular bean.
We also want our customers to understand as much as possible about the coffee they are drinking and the people who produced it. You’ll often find plenty of information on a product page or packaging including the name of the farm and farmer, type of coffee, altitude it was grown at, processing method and flavour notes.
Finally, speciality coffee should always come with a roast date. Coffee is a perishable product and is at its peak around a week after roasting. It stays pretty fresh for several weeks but leave it too long and it will start to stale, and the flavours begin to diminish. It should certainly be drunk within three months of the roast date, but because speciality coffee is so delicious it’s unlikely to hang around that long anyway!
Another feature of the speciality coffee industry is a focus on sustainability. The arabica coffee that we depend on is fragile and requires specific conditions to grow. Climate change poses a serious threat to the future of coffee with some studies suggesting that rising temperatures may reduce the area suitable for growing arabica by up to 50% by 2050.
Many businesses involved in speciality coffee put sustainability at the heart of what they do, for example at Boona Boona we donate 10 percent of profits to support tree planting in the UK. This isn’t just marketing or ‘Green washing’ but is driven by a recognition in the industry that we must behave as responsible businesses and play our part in protecting the environment for the future.
So what does all this actually mean?
Hopefully the topics covered in this blog have provided a good introduction to what speciality coffee is. By buying your beans from a speciality coffee roaster or your morning cup from an independent café, you are helping to support thousands of small-scale coffee farmers around the world and contributing to a more ethical and sustainable coffee industry. Hopefully you’ll agree that this is something pretty special.