What makes Specialty Coffee so special?

These days the term 'Specialty Coffee' is used by almost everybody in the coffee world. But what can be seen as Specialty Coffee and what's so special about it?

I hate it when I 'google' the term 'Specialty Coffee' and I see coffees and coffee companies pop up who are 'NOT SPECIALTY' at all, but sell their stuff under this umbrella. Lots of people who are curious about it do buy this shit and are disappointed by the result or don't know better, keep on drinking it and could be lost for the good stuff forever. Don't get me wrong: everybody can sell, drink and like whatever they please, but i don't like it when people use misusing a term, for which we have been working our asses off for half of our life, and try to make money with it. 

When I started Caffenation in 2003 I had never heard of the term 'Specialty Coffee' and even the first mentioning of 'Third Wave Coffee' was only popping up around 2005. It was used to explain the newest way of making coffee in which the barista and the coffee bean played a more important role. 

There are a lot of explanations out there, but for me the three coffee waves mean:

Wave one: The launch of the espresso machine in commercial environments. You can fill in the era and the advantages by yourself.

Wave two: The upcoming of specialized coffee bars. We can see Alfred Peet as the first well known pioneer in California in the late 60's. The coffee bar became a place where people liked to hang around, Single Origin coffees were brewed and sold and the bartender became a coffee connoisseur. 

Wave three: At the beginning of the 21st century Barista Championships popped up, the Barista started to go deeper into the art of making coffee and became more transparent on the techniques and (light roasted) beans he or she used. Over the years the term 'Third Wave' was used less often and 'Specialty Coffee' took its place. But how can we describe 'Specialty Coffee' and why are so many people, first and second wavers included, using this term today?

It's and endless discussion on a lot of matters, but this illustration is not so far off i think:

So 9 stops from seed to cup. Let's get to them:

1) Origin: Theoretically all coffee countries can harvest and process top quality beans, but the closer you go to the equator, the higher the chances to spot Specialty Coffee - a closer definition on the type of bean we are talking about in 5)

For the American continent we find the most Specialty coffee in Colombia, followed by Peru, Brazil, Panama, Bolivia, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Honduras and other central American countries. Most 'island coffees' like Cuba, Jamaica, Galapagos or Puerto Rico are not on my list of favorites. 

Africa: Kenya, Ethiopia, Burundi, Rwanda are clearly the most interesting origins. Uganda, DC Congo, Tanzania and Malawi come next. All the rest is surely less interesting and very rarely be seen as Specialty. 

Asia: Indonesia upfront, followed by Papua New Guinea and to a lesser level by Myanmar and India. .... Forget about China, Vietnam and Australia. 

Of course you'll meet people who swear by low and high they tasted some supreme Vietnamese or Hawaiian beans, but i'll pass on them. Of course everything is possible but it's so much easier to go for 'Equator' coffees and enjoy these as much as you can.

2) Only ripe picked cherries please: What can I say? When picking cherry from your red cherry tree at home; which cherries you prefer most; the green ones or the dark red ones? So hand picking is obligatory! I see many coffee roasters promoting their 'cheap Brazil' filled bags of coffee with a big 'Specialty Coffee' stamp on them. What a laughter. A good way to test your Brazil: look if the color of the beans is unicolor - the lighter colored ones are often quakers, or unripe picked cherries, and have less body and too much nuttyness. Or briefly: buy a bag of nuts if you like nuts with your coffee. 

3) Hard working farmer: 'Hard working' is very relative of course, but for sure you are looking to buy coffee from people who invest in quality and aim to get coffees out that score as high as possible. The highest cupping coffees are often microlots that are produced by relatively small farms and do have more info on the cupping sheet than 'strictly hard bean', 'fine cup' or 'superior'. 

4) Trained (unroasted) Green coffee buyer: You don't need a Q-graders degree to buy Specialty Coffee beans, but at least you need some experience and do it on a daily or weekly basis to keep a good 'reference palate' or taste buds that are very well trained. You need enough experience to know where to catalogue them in terms of aromatics, flavors, defects, overal score and seasonality. I taste in between 500 and 1000 coffees a year. The new samples are always cupped blind and given tasting notes and a score. 

 5) Great Green coffee beans: It's smart to give a cupping score to your coffees. Cupping scores are on 100 and basically score in between 80 and 90. Rubbish beans score below 80, commercial coffee in between 80 and 84, most of the 'special' stuff 84 to 88, 'very special' stuff 88 to 90, and, very rare, the best of the best 90+. The big question here is how to get these scores and starting from where we can catalogue the greens as Specialty. It looks like every person or company has their own system and rules, but it's hard to judge this. It doesn't mean that using the same protocols and score sheet results in the same score to everyone around the table. More important for me is to listen to people who do test all kinds of coffees, in terms of taste and price range, and explain where the score comes from. A cupping score is a sum of different sub scores and not given lightly. 

So conclusions on this one: if you claim your coffee is 'Specialty', then show the world your scores.  

6) Right processing method: This is a follow up on number 4) and basically it says that the farmers you buy from need to know what they are doing and the person selling the bean (green or roasted) needs to inform the people, buying the coffees, on this. Variety, Elevation, Processing, .... 

A small word on the processing: from certain coffees we expect them to be classic washed ones (let's say an average Guatemala Antigua) and some natural (like most of the Brazilian coffees), but if there is an exception you need to inform the world. Basically you want your coffee drinker to know why a coffee tastes the way it tastes. Of course there are many details involved but we can assume that the processing method has biggest impact on the final taste result, so it is not done to sell/offer a Double Soaked Anaerobic Natural Processed coffee without informing the consumer about it. And smart: explain what this could mean taste wise. 

7) Skillful Roaster: The skills of the person roasting the coffee is often overseen. Of course there's not much skill needed to roast robusta's of cheapo arabica coffees, but if you talk 'Specialty Coffee' you expect a coffee roaster to dig deeper and work hard to get the best out of the bean, without creating extra defective by-flavors. 

Once the good greens are bought and stored, in a temperature controlled environment - so please not next to your roasting device -, the real fun starts. Important here is to measure all variables, take notes of all your different roasts and collect samples. Cup all the samples to re-evaluate your roasts and then go for your best profile or adjust when necessary. 

Be precise in the bagging of the beans, store them correctly and keep rotation high - at Caffenation we almost rotate weekly all coffees. 

And finally: stay in dialogue with the buyers, barista's and clients. 

8) Professional Barista: At the end of the line we have the coffee beans ground, brewed and served. As a barista you need good skills, but for Specialty Coffee your knowledge on the beans is as important. Serving a coffee as an 'espresso roast', 'medium roast', '100% arabica', 'seasonal blend', 'Colombian' or 'special' is NOT Specialty, or at least it's not enough. Who's the farmer? What's the variety? How is the coffee been processed? How does it taste? How fresh is it? What are the brewing ratio's? If you don't know all of this, fine with me, but stop bragging you're serving 'Specialty Coffee'. 

9) A lot of craziness, passion and love. Love your coffees, love your clients and have fun! 

To conclude a small warning to those who are trough all these points and used to Specialty Coffee, because once your palate gets used to it, you will not want to go back and have a coffee made without love, in the closest bar, prepared with commercial coffee, done with the dismissed beans, dark roasted and grinded since who knows when or how and finally prepared in an old low quality machine wrongly calibrated. Amen.

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