October 17, 2021

How roasting and brewing contribute to what makes specialty coffee

By Ronald Kelley
How roasting and brewing contribute to what makes specialty coffee

In our first blog post, titled What is Specialty Coffee, we alluded to the fact that considering a coffee to be specialty grade wasn’t just about how coffee was grown, harvested and transported. Proper roasting and proper brewing remain before a cup of great coffee can be enjoyed as specialty coffee. Let’s look at each of those steps.

Our coffee beans have changed hands several times and have now made their way as green beans to become roasted coffee. Ric Rhinehart, former Executive Director of the Specialty Coffee Association (SCA), refers to the roasting step as revelation. Why revelation? Simply put, the roaster must accurately identify the potential for the coffee, properly developing the flavors during the roasting process and ultimately properly packaging the roasted product. The finest green coffee in the hands of an unskilled roaster, using equipment that is not operating properly, using poor packaging materials or practices can all lead to disaster, thus undoing all the care taken to bring specialty beans to this stage of the process. Provided that all goes well here, and the coffee’s potential remains intact, there are two remaining steps before the long chain of custody that is unique to coffee ends in the consumption of a specialty coffee beverage.

After roasting and before brewing, the coffee must be ground. Grinding is best done as close in time to brewing as possible, as many delicate aromatic compounds are fully released upon grinding. And the dramatic increase in surface area necessary to effect brewing also opens the coffee to rapid oxidation and staling. The size of the ground particles is also important and driven by the method of brewing to be employed. Too fine a grind for the selected brewing process and the coffee may be destroyed by over extraction (bitter cup). Too coarse a grind and the coffee may never develop its full flavor potential in the cup (weak cup).

Finally, after every step from coffee tree to the end consumer has been carefully orchestrated, the final process must take place—the coffee must be brewed. Whether the coffee is to be prepared as an espresso, as drip coffee or in a steeping method like a French press, the exacting application of standards of water quality, brewing temperature, coffee to water ratio and extraction must be applied to create a specialty coffee beverage.

We will explore each of these 4 critical factors in future blogs.

So, how do we define specialty coffee? Well, in the broadest sense, we define it is as coffee that has met all the tests of survival encountered in the long journey from the coffee tree to the coffee cup. More specifically, we measure it against standards and with methods that allow us to identify coffee that has been properly cared for. For example, while it is not possible to inspect every bean from every farm at the point of harvest, or during processing or drying or shipping, it is possible to employ the standards developed by the SCA to make a meaningful judgment on the preparation of the coffee through aspect grading and to employ a standard cupping protocol to assess the quality of the cup and to discover any defects caused by poor practices that result in a loss of potential for the coffee.

In the final analysis, specialty coffee will be defined by the quality of the product, whether green bean, roasted bean or prepared beverage and by the quality of life that coffee can deliver to all of those involved in its cultivation, preparation and enjoyment by the consumer. A coffee that delivers satisfaction on all counts and adds value to the lives and livelihoods of all involved is truly a specialty coffee.

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