What is specialty coffee?
People are talking more and more about speciality coffees, but what exactly are they? Specialty coffees are very different from the regular ones that we commonly find on supermarket shelves. Specialty coffees are grown at higher elevations, are traceable at origin or estate level, and processed carefully once harvested.
The entire coffee chain is impacted in this definition because at each stage of production the goal is to reach a standard significantly above the average, with no defects on the beans or in the final cup.
But the main difference with commercial coffees is evident in a striking way at the moment of tasting. By their very nature, specialty coffee have a complexity and a richness of aromas and flavors that make them absolutely recognizable even for less skilled palates.
To make it easier to compare different origins, the Specialty Coffee Association (SCA) uses a tasting procedure that assigns a score to each batch. On a rating scale of 50 to 100, only coffees with a rating above 80 points are called specialty coffees.
The higher the score, the higher the reward for the coffee farmer and the motivation to improve quality at the farm level.
How recognize a specialty coffee?
Specialty coffee can be compared to a Grand cru in the wine market, where quality refers to a terroir, an altitude, a perfect pulping process and a system of skills, which ensure that this precious fruit of the earth is harvested and treated with care to obtain the best possible drink in the cup.
If you want to make sure that your coffee is a specialty coffee, it is important to ask questions about the traceability of the coffee: where does it come from, who is the farmer or the cooperative that produces it? What variety, what altitude and what process was used? Only if you can get the answers to these questions you can be sure you have a specialty product in your hands.
Once the origin of the coffee is known, it is also important to discover how the roaster was able to transform the green beans, enhancing all the flavors and aromas that are naturally present in the beans. Specialty coffee is always typically light roasted, to highlight the precious aromatic bouquet of that origin in an explosive way.
Freshness is also one of the key points of the specialty world.
The coffees are roasted with care in an artisan setting in small batches, with small roasters that allow full control over the roasting curves and the aromatic profile of the coffee. Furthermore, by producing in small quantities, the roaster makes sure that he always has very fresh coffee. Thus, it is always necessary to check if the roasting date is mentioned on the packaging.
A specialty coffee should ideally be consumed within 3/6 months from the day of production.
How to read the label
Before choosing a bottle of wine, even the less experienced consumer takes his time to study the label. The winegrower, the blend, the region of origin can tell us a lot about the wine you are going to have. Hardly the same thing happens when we buy a package of coffee. Actually, also in this case the label is essential to understand what we are buying in terms of quality and result in the cup. More specifically, for specialty coffees we have a lot of information available and it is important to understand the characteristics that we will identify when tasting. Most micro roasters work hard to source coffees that meet specific standards – sustainably grown, responsibly traded coffees with amazing taste in the cup. Specialty coffees enthusiasts are not satisfied with a creative name and a nice brand on the package. They want to know more about what they are drinking, where it come from, how it was grown and who transformed it before it got into the cup. If you are a demanding consumer and you know where to look, you can generally find all this information – and often more – on the packaging of your specialty.
Here is a brief label guide to help you in choosing a specialty coffee.
Coffee is usually named after the country and the farm it is from. While knowing the country of origin doesn’t tell us whether a coffee will be good or not, it gives us an idea of what we can expect. For example, we can be pretty sure that a Kenyan coffee will be fruity and have strong berry notes (Kenyan coffees are often described as berry-bombs) – whereas if I get a coffee from Ethiopia, there is a high probability that it is light, with floral and citrus notes in the cup. Of course, making these flavors stand out largely depends on how well the roaster can make his job.