If you’ve spent any time in the world of coffee appreciation, you’ve likely heard about specialty coffee. To the uninitiated, the term can be, shall we say, a tad broad, since “specialty” can mean a great many things.

So let’s demystify the world of specialty coffee and take a deep dive into what it is, how it’s made, and what makes it so prized among coffee lovers.

What Is Specialty Coffee?

Simply put, specialty coffee indicates the highest quality of coffee, according to rigorous standards at every stage of the supply chain, from where it’s grown to how it’s processed, roasted and brewed.

Why the obsession with quality?

In the past 20 years or so, coffee has experienced a kind of renaissance, with a growing demand for coffee that is top tier in every way: beginning with beans that are grown ethically and sustainably in special microclimates and concluding with brewing methods that coax out the most compelling and nuanced flavors from the beans.

This renaissance, or “third wave of coffee” as it’s also known, comes on the heels of the first and second waves, which saw coffee first as a widespread commodity, with cans of pre-ground Maxwell House stocked in every home kitchen and endless free refills at restaurants and diners, and then as an indulgence, with Peet’s and Starbucks leading the charge with artisanal drinks.

As specialty coffee gains greater prominence, shifting tastes now prioritize uniqueness, both of place of origin and flavor, when it comes to the perfect cup.

As you can well imagine, the care and attention that goes into specialty coffee means that it comes with a price tag that reflects the effort required to produce it. And it’s typically not available just anywhere—you’ll want to visit your local roaster or coffee vendor to get the goods.

Where Specialty Coffee is Grown

All coffee generally comes from an area of the world known as the “bean belt,” a tropical region that has the necessary climate for coffee plants to thrive. Specialty coffee, however, tends to come from just three continents: Asia, Africa, and the South and Central Americas.

Kenya, Ethiopia, and Columbia are known as the superstars of specialty coffee, but that may change in the coming years. Coffee farms in other countries—India in particular is one to keep an eye on—are making a push to improve the quality of their crops to earn higher cup scorings and find a place as producers of specialty coffee.

What all specialty coffee growing conditions have in common, though, is that the beans are grown at just the right altitude and time of year, in excellent soil, and are harvested with the utmost care.

Standards, Standards, Standards

Now, the simple definition we provided above is just the beginning of the story. Specialty coffee earns its coveted title by scoring over 80 points on a 100-point coffee review scale established by the Specialty Coffee Association (SCA).

The quick version is that, at the green stage, coffee is evaluated through visual inspection and is then roasted and tasted through a process known as cupping. A small sample of beans (about 350 grams) is picked through and any defective beans are counted. Defects include things such black, sour, or broken beans. Then comes the cupping, which involves roasting and brewing the coffee and assessing its acidity, body, flavor, and aroma.

To sum up, the three main standards that specialty coffee must meet are:

  • If the beans are selected by hand at the proper stage of maturity;
  • Score 80 or above on the SCA scale; and
  • Contain a maximum of five defects per 350 grams.

The classification is also evolving to include matters of ethics and sustainability. Ric Rhinehart, executive director of the Specialty Coffee Association, puts it best when he says:

“[…] we are faced with the need to assess the sustainability of specialty coffee. That is, even if a coffee results in a great tasting beverage, if it does so at the cost of the dignity, value, or well-being of the people and land involved, it cannot truly be a specialty coffee.”

The Preservation of Quality at Every Stage: Everyone Plays a Role

Checking coffee beans while roasting

As simple as a cup of coffee may seem, it’s actually the product of several dozen (or hundred) people, all working in concert with each other. Truly, coffee is a team effort and specialty coffee requires the A-listers at every stage of production to play a role in either preserving, transforming, or unleashing quality.

Coffee growers kick off the process by ensuring conditions are ideal for preserving the quality inherent in a thriving coffee plant. Roasters then take the reins and are entrusted to not only protect the quality of the beans but to transform them to their highest potential through the roasting process.

Down the line, baristas preserve the quality that has been developed thus far and have the sacred duty of giving the beans their fullest and most nuanced expression of aroma, flavor, and body through expert brewing.

Now that you know the basics of specialty coffee, we recommend that you taste some! Reach out to us for our recommendations or join us for a cup at one of our four locations in Knoxville.