September 06, 2021

What Is Specialty Coffee?

By Ronald Kelley
What Is Specialty Coffee?

Recent studies have shown that nearly half of consumers in the US believe that the coffee they drink is specialty (National Coffee Association of America). True or not, exactly what is specialty coffee? Since we offer specialty coffee to our customers, it seems appropriate to explore the subject in some detail. Here is our first blog post.  Comments welcome.


You’ll hear varying definitions of specialty coffee from around town and the world. And while specialty coffee professionals adhere to the strict guidelines of the Specialty Coffee Association (SCA), these different perspectives can help us understand the role of coffee in people’s lives and cultures.

We have found that for most people, specialty coffee just means great coffee. And there are definitely varied understandings or opinions on what good or great coffee means, how it should best be processed, roasted and brewed.

Even different countries have their own explanations of it.  Coffee producing countries, who are closer to the production, see specialty differently than consuming countries, like the US.  If you talk about coffee as a drink, or as a place, a coffee shop, opinions are widely different – not only across different countries, but in one city.  Just ask your friends about their preferences and you will get different answers about what’s best.


All coffee beans can be graded on a scale of 100. This grading process is called “cupping”. And according to the SCA, specialty coffee is Arabica coffee with a cup score of 80+ points.  The other main coffee bean, Robusta is rarely found in specialty coffee and when they are, they are often referred to as “fine” vs. specialty.

Further, the cupping process must be done by a certified Q grader, trained in the nuances of the cupping process. On top of that, if too many defects are present in a sample of the green, unroasted coffee, those beans will automatically disqualify that coffee from specialty status.

This careful grading process sets specialty apart from “gourmet” coffee, which has no strict definition. Gourmet coffee could be high-quality coffee, or it could just be marketing buzz. The terms are not interchangeable.

Confused yet? Read on please.


The answer from coffee professionals is no. Specialty coffee producers must pay attention to quality at every stage. Since the beans can’t have too many defects, the coffee plants need to be carefully cultivated and harvested at the right time. Producers must adhere to best processing practices during the drying and storage stage to avoid having unpleasant, musty odors absorbed by the coffees.  And transportation in clean, dry environments is also required to maintain quality.


But what about how coffee is roasted and brewed? There’s debate about the extent to which these can be considered specialty.  We’ll leave that topic for a future post.


It would be good if everybody seeking great specialty coffee understood coffee cuppings, brewing methods, and all that goes into producing coffee.

And it is somewhat difficult to explain the work behind a cup of coffee to someone who hasn’t visited a farm or seen the  cupping or roasting process. It’s always a challenge to know and understand anything you haven’t experienced it. We believe as part of the supply chain from “seed to cup”, we have the responsibility to inform our customers. We hope you will follow along as we attempt to be your guide.


We’ve heard some complex definitions for specialty coffee, but in the end, it’s all about trying to create great coffee. Whether it’s producers carefully harvesting and processing their crops, Q graders looking for complex flavor profiles, roasters selecting different roast curves, or brewing with your favorite method. The aim is the same.

We’d love to hear what specialty coffee means to you.  Click on Leave a Comment below and let us know what you think.


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