Upgrading From Folgers & Starbucks: What in the world is "Specialty Coffee"?

While it comes as a surprise to many, the American coffee industry is a fairly new development. It wasn’t until the 1960’s that coffee became widely accessible and a common household item. In the 80’s and 90’s, large companies started making high quality, interesting drinks readily available, turning coffee and tea into a luxury product more than a mere necessity. Enter the third wave of coffee….


What is this so called “third wave”? What in the world is specialty coffee? 


At its simplest, specialty coffee is defined by an attention and dedication to quality at every stage. But what does that mean? Let’s go straight to the source: 


The Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA) defines “specialty coffee” as...

  1. The highest quality green coffee beans 
  2. Roasted to their greatest flavor potential by true craftspeople 
  3. Properly brewed to well-established standards

Let’s break that down… 


1. Highest quality green coffee beans 


To meet “specialty coffee” requirements, green coffee beans must have no defects, claim a distinctive character profile in the cup, and have a score of 80 or above when graded by the SCAA. This grading process takes into account many factors including the ideal growing conditions, soil quality, ripeness at the time of picking, delivery time between picking and milling, and the drying and processing stage.  This scrutinizing system rules out 90% of Arabica coffee beans and 100% of Robusta beans, leaving truly the best of the best!


2. Roasted to their greatest flavor potential by true craftspeople


Roasting coffee beans is anything but simple! Hobbyist, coffee-lovers, and professionals with a true passion for coffee know that green coffee beans must be roasted specifically catering to their unique flavor profiles. Specialty roasters spend thousands of hours roasting and testing to make sure the roast curves and profiles are perfectly highlighted. They must take into account all the before mentioned elements to identify the potential of the bean, then roast it to maximize flavor. 


3. Properly brewed to well-established standards


This is where you come in! The grind (fine, medium or coarse), water to coffee ratio, and water quality are all factors in producing a true “speciality” cup of coffee. It’s easy to ruin a specialty roast by burning it with scalding water, weakening it with an incorrect ratio, or letting it sit and grow stale before even brewing it. 


The 3-Step Checklist


As a coffee novice, all this lingo can get really overwhelming, so here are a few simple steps you can take to ensure what you’re purchasing truly is “specialty” in every sense of the term (adapted from Java Presse): 


  1. Does the seller clearly convey information about the process? You should be able to know the origin region and processing method with little effort. If not, it’s possible the roaster or vendor has something to hide.
  2. When was the coffee roasted? Is the roaster prioritizing freshness or just keeping up with “best-by” date requirements? 
  3. Is there a specific flavor profile listed? Higher quality coffee roasters will be proud of the specific notes that define their blends.

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