The Highest Grade
When you see words like ‘premium’ or ‘gourmet’ coffee, it is not the same as ‘specialty coffee’. The first two buzzwords are used to attract customers to those products. There are no standards put in place to determine whether it can be named ‘premium coffee’ or ‘gourmet coffee’. However, when we’re talking about specialty coffee, we’re talking about coffee that is held to rigorous standards. The term specialty coffee refers to the highest quality of coffee available.
It was first coined by Erna Knutsen, of Knutsen Coffee Ltd. She used it to refer to green coffee beans with unique flavor profiles that reign from special geographic microclimates. This became the foundation for how specialty coffee is assessed. According to the Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA), specialty coffee must be single origin or single estate coffee beans. They must also be Arabica beans.
How Do We Define Specialty Coffee?Specialty coffee is graded on a 100 point scale, through a process called “cupping”. To qualify as specialty coffee, a cup score of 80 (or more) points must be determined. Only Arabica coffee can qualify as specialty coffee and there are standards set at every stage of coffee production. A coffee professional, also known as a certified Q grader, will look at green bean defects, water standards, and brew strength. Green beans must have zero defects to qualify as specialty coffee.
Coffee Quality Grading System:Specialty Grade:
- 100-90 Outstanding
- 89.99-85 Excellent
- 84.99-80 Very Good
- 80 and below
The People Involved in Making Specialty CoffeeThere are various roles coffee producers play and every player within the chain is important in qualifying specialty coffee. The standard of excellence needs to be consistent from the very start of the lifecycle of coffee, to the very end.
The Coffee FarmerThe concept of specialty coffee starts with the expert cultivation of coffee trees. Cultivar, or cultivating a plant variety by selective breeding is an essential part of making great coffee. More than that, it also involves growing the plant in specific microclimates, taking detailed care for years before the first harvest. Only red coffee cherries at peak ripeness are picked. The cherries are then run through the wet mill and dried at the optimal level of humidity to then be hulled. During this process, any beans that reveal defects are removed. The right combination of cultivar, microclimate, soil chemistry and plant management allows for the potential of specialty grade.
The Green Coffee BuyerCertified Coffee Tasters or Certified Q Graders will identify the quality of the coffee through a systematic coffee tasting (cupping). The coffee’s score and specialty grade quality is determined from there. It is the green coffee buyer that will identify flavor profiles and tasting notes to communicate information about the coffee.
The RoasterCoffee roasters have a high degree of knowledge and experience in the art of producing specialty level roast profiles. During the process of roasting, coffee must be watched closely to ensure the highest standard of quality and flavor is achieved. Roasters must:
- Skillfully identify the potential of the coffee
- Understand how to develop the flavors
- Properly package the roasted beans for the next set of hands, the barista.
The BaristaHaving completed numerous hours of coursework and hands on training, baristas are responsible for properly brewing the coffee. Without the appropriate skills and techniques, the full potential of the coffee will not be achieved. This would undermine all the hard work that went into producing a higher quality product. Baristas must:
- Have skilled knowledge of brewing equipment
- Be intimately informed on the origin of the coffee
- Know how best to reveal flavor profiles in brewing
Varying Interpretations of Specialty CoffeeDifferent countries may have varying degrees of what specialty coffee means. Ultimately the general consensus is that specialty coffee is great coffee. But defining what great coffee is can vary from place to place. In understanding what makes quality coffee, varying opinions exist on how best to process, roast and brew the beans. Both producers and consumers lack crucial information in certain parts of the world. There may be differences in understanding specialty coffee in countries that primarily grow it and countries that primarily consume it.
Are Specialty Coffee and Third Wave Coffee the Same?These terms are not the same. To put it plainly, third wave needs specialty coffee but specialty coffee doesn’t need third wave. Specialty coffee refers to a high level of coffee quality. Whereas third wave, refers to the experience provided in serving specialty coffee. There is an increased focus on educating and serving high quality coffee and that is what third wave coffee refers to. It involves high coffee quality, meaningful relationships with trade, innovative brewing methods, understanding the importance of production and processing, and more.
Considering Sustainability in Making Specialty Coffee
In coming to understand the important roles of each player in the making of specialty coffee, sustainability cannot be overlooked. Various issues regarding sustainability impact the production of specialty coffee. Climate change is particularly challenging coffee farmers’ abilities to cultivate high grade coffee. Higher-quality coffee tend to grow in higher elevations.
With rising temperatures, farmers are forced to move up mountainsides that have less available land for coffee farming. Worldwide, coffee farmers are also finding difficulty finding economic sustainability in producing coffee. Basic necessities such as education, housing, food, and healthcare are affected by unstable coffee prices.
This also limits the number of coffee farmers who have the resources to produce or transport harvests of specialty coffee. More and more, there are fewer coffee farmers that are able to invest in creating specialty grade coffee. Specialty grade coffee can require more care than coffee farmers can afford. Less coffee farmers with the means to produce quality coffee means less specialty coffee that is available for consumers.