Like “artisan bread," “craft beer,” or “gourmet chocolate," you’ve probably come across the term “specialty coffee.” But what does that mean exactly? What separates specialty coffee beans from all the rest? Is it more than just another way to say “fancy coffee”? (hint: Yes, it is).
We’ll be taking a look at exactly where the phrase came from, how it’s used today, and what you need to know about specialty coffee beans to get started.
What is specialty coffee?
The term “specialty coffee” isn’t marketing lingo—it’s actually an industry term. It was first coined by Erna Knutsen in a 1974 interview with Tea & Coffee Trade Journal, where she referred to the exceptional coffees she was sourcing as “specialty coffees.” The term caught on, and today is used to denote only the highest quality coffees. It’s estimated that around 10% of the world’s coffee are specialty coffee beans; everything else is considered low-grade “commodity coffee.”
But who gets to determine which coffees are bound for your airy, succulent-filled, Nordic-inspired Park Slope café and which are destined for a bag of Signature Select French Roast?
That would be the job of Q Graders:
You can think of a Q Grader as the coffee equivalent of a sommelier. Like sommeliers, Q Graders are professionally certified, and must undergo a series of rigorous sensory and knowledge-based exams in order to attain their license. The exams are notoriously difficult; with a pass rate far below 50%. There are only about 300-400 Q Graders in the US. Lucky for Bean & Bean customers, our founding mother & daughter duo are actually both Q Graders! You can learn more about Q Graders here.
Q Graders are tasked with scoring coffees on a 100-point scale, evaluating every aspect of a coffee’s flavor profile—attributes like sweetness, acidity, body, balance, etc.—and determining whether any glaring defects are present. Coffees that score 80 points or above are considered specialty coffee beans.
Why should you buy specialty coffee?
It’s tempting to say that specialty coffees are only objectively “better” than other coffees. Because ultimately, everything is a matter of taste, and if you prefer the same kind of coffee that your grandpa used to make, that’s up to you.
But we are a specialty coffee roaster after all, and we absolutely believe that more people should drink specialty coffee. Here are a few reasons why:
Specialty coffee beans capture a wider and truer expression of flavor.
Most big, commercial brands buy low-grade coffees and then roast them very darkly in order to mask defects and create a consistent flavor profile—which is often bitter, astringent and unpleasant. Specialty coffee roasters, on the other hand, work to highlight the incredibly diverse range of unique and interesting flavors that can be found in coffee. For example, coffees from Kenya, which tend to be remarkably bright, sweet and floral, are starkly different from coffees grown in Brazil, generally less acidic and more chocolatey and nutty.
You want to know exactly where your coffees are coming from.
One of the hallmarks of the specialty coffee movement is the emphasis on provenance and traceability. And we don’t just mean whether a coffee is from “Mexico” or “Colombia.” As a specialty coffee roaster, we go to great lengths to ensure that we know exactly where our coffees are coming from—down to the village where they are grown. We do this by going directly to the origin ourselves, or by working with reputable importers who do the same. This is important because it allows us to ensure quality and build lasting relationships with our farmers. They’ve put in so much work to grow their delicious coffee, and we want to make sure they’re in the spotlight!
Specialty coffee farming is more sustainable.
Coffee plants require very particular conditions to grow well. In order to grow higher quality coffee, coffee farmers have to employ practices that take better care of the land, such as reducing the use of agrochemicals and pesticides.
Specialty coffee is also more economically sustainable for farmers. It’s no secret that the majority of the world’s coffee farmers don’t receive a fair price for their coffee; many struggle to even achieve a livable wage. At Bean & Bean, we pay our farmers well above market prices to ensure they’re able to make a decent living and continue coffee farming for years to come. We also often work with cooperatives that strive to support their women farmers. Our Peru Las Damas, for example, comes from an exclusively women-run operation.
What to look for when choosing a specialty coffee brand
So how can you tell if you’re buying from a specialty roaster? There are a few things to look for.
Any roaster that doesn’t share where their coffee is coming from is not worth buying from. Specialty roasters will tell you not just the country, but the region where the coffee was grown—if not the farm itself. Our Costa Rica Las Lajas Black Honey, for example, is grown in the Central Valley of Costa Rica, and is processed at the Las Lajas micromill, run by Francisca and Oscar Chacón.
Check the roast profile—look for medium to light.
Specialty coffee is roasted much more gently and carefully than large commercial roasting. Medium or light roasts are the way to go. And while you’re at it, look for a roast date. Specialty roasters want to make sure you’re drinking coffee at peak freshness, so knowing when your coffee was roasted is important.
Research a roaster’s principles and practices.
How are they sourcing their coffee? Are they working directly with farmers? Are they working with reputable importers? What efforts are they making to foster more sustainability? A good specialty coffee roaster should be able to answer these questions and more.
Which coffees should you try first?
If you’ve never tried specialty coffee before—you’re in for a treat! We do our best to curate a menu of coffees that appeal to a wide range of palates.
If you’re used to heavier-bodied, “darker” coffees, try our Downtown Blend or our Indonesian Sumatra. While neither of these are dark roasts, we roast them just a little more than our other coffees to bring out richer notes of cocoa and caramel.
And if you’re feeling extra adventurous, give our Costa Rica Las Lajas Black Honey and Red Honey coffees a try. These stellar coffees are processed using the special “honey” method, which imparts deep fruit notes—think ripe strawberries and watermelon candy.
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