What is Specialty Coffee?

What is Specialty Coffee?

The term 'Specialty Coffee' is fast becoming, if not already the hottest buzz word in the coffee industry, whether tasting the treasures found in Specialty coffee cafes in Marrackiville, Newtown, Surry Hills, Katoomba, inner city Melbourne and just about any other suburb in Australia's capital cities, you are sure to come across this term 'specialty coffee'. So that begs the question; what is specialty coffee. First of all to answer this we need to acknowledge a couple of the common misconceptions of what specialty coffee is. For instance just because coffee is 'fair trade' this does not mean it is 'specialty', although the coffee may be fully traceable and the farmers get paid equitably the quality of the coffee is not guaranteed. Another misconception is that just because a coffee has a high cupping score (or in common terms, tastes really good) this is because the traceability of the coffee may not necessarily be assured. Moving on from this we then need to ask how do we determine specialty 'quality' coffee and also traceability that leads to a coffees specialty status, for without these two key criteria reaching specialty standard a coffee probably shouldn't be called specialty.

Specialty 'quality' coffee changes from cafe to cafe and within specific coffee circles as the industry continually redefines itself with incremental improvements. Despite this it is generally accepted that a cupping score of 80 or more as per the Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA) scoring protocols dictate. However its not uncommon for specialty cafes to only accept a cupping score much higher than 80 (say 84) as specialty, or some larger importers may classify coffees scoring 76 as specialty. The key thing to remember here is that 'specialty coffee' needs to taste better than 'non specialty coffee' thus the minimum cupping scores being an important checkpoint to mark off.

Traceability likewise is very important in the specialty coffee industry, this term refers to the ability of anyone from the millers, exporters, importers, roasters, cafes and retail customers to be able to trace specialty coffee back to its cooperative, farm, estate or even micro-lots within estates and farms. Further to this concept of traceability is the quality of processes taking place throught the life cycle of a coffee bean. This starts at the farm, with its altitude, soil. micro-climate and farming practices. Then the next step is milling and storage of beans in origin, are the beans left out to dry for too long or too short, how and where are they stored etc. This scrutiny continues through to storage in warehouses within importing countries. Following this is the quality of roasting and the ability of cafes and baristas to extract all of that amazing flavour and put it in a cup for the public to experience. In other words not only does a 'specialty' grade coffee need to be traceable but that tracing needs to reveal quality processing, this however is often revealed in cupping sessions.


Therefore we can summarise the question 'what is specialty coffee' by affirming that it needs to cup at least 80 and be fully traceble back to the farmers. And also the storage, roasting and extracting all need to be to the highest level to ensure the coffee tastes amazing. The full life cycle of the coffee determines whether it is specialty as a drink. This is because, for example a cafe may buy specialty coffee and roast it themselves poorly then extract it poorly with poorly maintained equipment and practices. That coffee will then taste poor due to the cafe ruining the final stage a a true specialty coffees life cycle. In short a specialty coffee can be made un-specialty at any stage within its life cycle.

A true specialty coffee will always offer origin information and a tasty tasty drink, this is of course what it is all about, the finished product. Enjoy your next specialty cup!