What is specialty coffee?

What is specialty coffee?

Specialty coffee refers to the highest quality coffee, typically scoring 80 points or above on a 100-point scale, that is produced, processed, and roasted with exceptional care and attention to detail throughout the entire supply chain. It is distinguished by its distinctive attributes, such as unique flavour profiles, lack of defects, and sustainable farming practices, which give it significant added value in the marketplace. Specialty coffee represents a modern demand for exceptional quality, both in terms of the coffee itself and the overall coffee experience and is closely tied to the "third wave" of coffee culture that emphasises transparency, traceability, and the appreciation of coffee as a craft.

Key characteristics of speciality coffee

  • High Quality Beans: Specialty coffee is made from Arabica beans that are meticulously grown at high altitudes, often in specific regions known for their ideal coffee-growing conditions. These beans have minimal defects and are carefully hand-picked for optimal quality.

  • Distinct Flavour Profile: Unlike commodity coffee, which can be bitter and one-dimensional, specialty coffee boasts a unique and complex flavour profile. The specific notes can vary depending on the origin, processing method, and roast, but specialty coffee generally emphasises the natural sweetness and acidity of the beans.

  • Freshness: Freshness is paramount in specialty coffee. The beans are roasted in small batches shortly before brewing, ensuring they haven't sat around losing their flavour and aroma.

  • Skilled Roasting: Specialty coffee roasters are artisans who meticulously roast each batch to highlight the unique characteristics of the beans. They avoid over-roasting, which can create bitterness and mask the delicate flavours.

  • Transparency and Traceability: Specialty coffee often comes with a story. You can often trace the beans back to the specific farm or cooperative where they were grown, ensuring ethical sourcing and supporting sustainable practices.

  • Allowed defects: Allows a maximum of 5 defects per 300 grams, must be free of any errors or blemishes, and should have at least one unique selling point such as a distinctive flavour profile, acidity, body, or aroma

The origin story 

Specialty coffee is a relatively recent concept, with the term first coined by Erna Knutsen in 1974. Knutsen, a Norwegian coffee expert, was revolutionary in her work with small trade coffee suppliers to promote single-origin coffee, a practice uncommon at the time.

The specialty coffee movement has experienced several revivals, particularly in the early 2000s and the last 8 years. This resurgence has been driven by a shift in consumer perception, where coffee is no longer seen solely as a stimulant, but rather as a delicious, flavourful product to be savoured. The focus has shifted to quality over quantity, with an emphasis on responsible sourcing, unique flavour profiles, and the artistry involved in coffee production and preparation. The specialty coffee industry has transformed the way we experience and appreciate this beloved beverage.

How is specialty coffee made? 

  • High-Quality, Single-Origin Beans:  The process starts with meticulously grown beans, often Arabica, cultivated in specific regions with ideal climates and altitudes. Specialty coffee focuses on single-origin beans, highlighting the unique characteristics of a particular region.

  • Selective Picking and Processing:  Ripe cherries are hand-picked to ensure only the best quality beans make it through. The cherries then undergo meticulous processing methods, like the washed or natural process, to remove the fruit and prepare the beans for roasting.

  • Small-Batch Roasting:  Unlike commercial coffee roasted in large quantities, specialty beans are roasted in small batches by skilled roasters. This allows for precise control over the roast profile, drawing out the unique flavours of each bean. Freshness is key, so specialty roasters typically roast shortly before the beans are sold.

  • Precise Brewing:  Brewing methods for specialty coffee are often designed to optimise flavour extraction. Techniques like pour-over use specific grind sizes and water temperatures to ensure a balanced and nuanced cup.

How to recognise specialty coffee? 

Specialty coffee can be recognised through several key indicators, even at the consumer level. The packaging is a good starting point, as high-quality specialty coffee will often provide detailed information about the coffee's origin, farm, producers, and roasting date. The roast level is also important, with lighter roasts generally retaining more of the coffee's natural aroma and flavour.

Examining the physical appearance of the beans can also reveal clues about the coffee's quality. Whole, unbroken beans with no visible oil are a good sign, as broken beans and excessive oil can indicate less gentle roasting or older, less fresh coffee.

Additionally, specialty coffee is often accompanied by information about the specific variety, processing method, and even harvest date, similar to how wine is labelled. Finally, the price is a reliable indicator, as specialty coffee typically costs at least £21.50 per kilogram or more.

By considering these various factors, coffee drinkers can identify high-quality specialty coffee and enjoy its exceptional flavour and aroma.

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Author Bio
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Author Bio

I'm Laura, the founder and owner of Coffee Collective UK Ltd. My journey began with a simple yet profound love for coffee - I mean, I really love coffee. My day doesn't truly begin until I've savoured my first latte. This passion led me to create Coffee Collective UK Ltd., a place where fellow coffee enthusiasts can find their perfect brew.

At Coffee Collective, I believe that every coffee lover deserves a personalised experience. That's why I partner with a renowned UK roastery to ensure each bean is roasted to perfection and ground to match every customer's unique preference. Whether you like your coffee bold and strong, or smooth and mellow, I've got you covered.

My mission is to share the joy and versatility of this wonderful bean with everyone who walks through our doors. From the first sip of the morning to the last cup of the day, I aim to make every coffee moment special. So, come join me on this delightful journey and discover the magic of coffee crafted just for you.