What is Specialty Coffee?
Erna Knutsen (1978) referred to “specialty coffees” as the beans with unique flavor profiles produced by special geographic microclimates. Underlying this idea of coffee appellations was the fundamental premise that specialty coffee beans would always be well prepared, freshly roasted, and properly brewed. This was the craft of the specialty coffee industry that had been slowly evolving during the twenty-year period preceding her speech.
The unique chain of custody of coffee dramatically impacts the ways in which we can recognize, develop and promote the specialty product. Unlike wine, the beverage we often use as analogous to coffee, there are typically many actors involved in the control of production and delivery of the final beverage. In the wine model, a single individual or company might well be responsible for the planting, husbandry, harvesting, initial processing, further processing and packaging of the grapes and ultimately the resulting beverage. Moreover, the service of wine is dependent on nothing more complex than extracting a cork and pouring the product into a suitable glass. Coffee, on the other hand, most often arrives in the final consumers hand after a long series of baton hand offs from farmer to miller to intermediaries to roaster to brewer, and the final experience is dependent on no single actor in the chain dropping the baton.
SCAA defines specialty coffee in its green stage as coffee that is free of primary defects, has no quakers, is properly sized and dried, presents in the cup free of faults and taints and has distinctive attributes. In practical terms this means that the coffee must be able to pass aspect grading and cupping tests. The development and application of these standards, also furthered through the work of the Coffee Quality Institute, has helped to define specialty coffee in its raw form, but much work remains to be done in refining these standards and adding new ones to help preserve the potential that the coffee bean embodies.
From the green stage to the final beverage there are other standards either currently in place or in the process of being developed. For example, the SCAA Brewing Standard for preparation of drip coffee defines the proper ratios of water to coffee, the proper extraction, brewing temperature and holding temperature and time. There is also a standard for espresso preparation and one for steeping is under development.
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 degustation. A coffee that delivers satisfaction on all counts and adds value to the lives and livelihoods of all involved is truly a specialty coffee.