Specialty Coffee. Not All Coffees Are Equal

All coffees are equal, but some coffees are more equal than others. We wanted to start by paraphrasing George Orwell, with this sentence taken from his satirical novel ‘Animal farm’, because it will help us understand what specialty coffee is.

All coffees are, in essence, coffee. That is, coffee is the drink that we get from the roasted seeds of the coffee trees.

But the coffee tree has about 120 different species of which mainly we use two: the Coffea arabica and Coffea robusta. And neither are these two the same nor are the hundreds of varieties.

Factors such as climate, altitude or terrain influence the fruit of the coffee tree and therefore the seed. The process of harvesting, roasting and brewing are also important in the final product: the cup of coffee that you brew -or someone brews for you- every morning.

All coffees are coffee, but not all coffees are equal. But let’s start at the beginning.

Erna Knutsen: a special woman and a special coffee

What is Specialty Coffee?
Erna Knusten coined the term “specialty coffee”
Erna Knutsen was not a conformist woman. Thanks to her love for coffee, her excellent tasting skills and her expert eye for business, she created a name for herself in a world that, in the United States of the 1970s, was men-only.

She started in the coffee world working as a secretary -officially, although she was closer to an executive assistant- to Bert Fulmer, who owned an old coffee trade house.

During her time at the company she realized that there were some batches of coffee, called “broken batches”, that big companies did not want. They were smaller in quantity and had special flavours. They also used to have a single origin.

Erna learned how to do cupping -which was not easy since only men were allowed- and used her skills to sell the “broken batches” to small roasters.

Creation of the term specialty coffee

In 1973 Fulmer promoted her to vice-president, and in 1974 Erna coined a term that has been with all coffee lovers ever since. In an issue of Tea & Coffee Trade Journal (https://scanews.coffee/2018/07/17/memoriam-erna-knutsen/), Erna used the term “specialty coffee” to refer to these “broken batches”. They were special coffees because of their cultivation, harvesting, processing and their unique flavours; they also came in small batches, usually from a single origin. For Erna, specialty coffee was not just that, it also meant a relationship and fair dealing with the farmers and looking after the product throughout the entire chain until it reached the final recipient: the consumer.

Since then, the term “specialty coffee” has become part of the coffee culture and is understood not just as a coffee with excellent qualities, but one which qualities are preserved from the producer to the cup.

But what does the term specialty coffee means in a technical sense?

Technical definition of the Specialty Coffee Association (SCA)

Cupping at Ineffable Coffee Roasters
Cupping at Ineffable Coffee Roasters
The Specialty Coffee Association is a “trade association built on foundations of openness, inclusivity, and the power of shared knowledge, representing thousands of coffee professionals.

The SCA purpose is to foster global coffee communities to support activities to make coffee a more sustainable, fair, and thriving activity for the whole value chain”.

This is how the SCA defines itself, and its work involves setting up and overseeing quality standards throughout the coffee production chain.

This definition gives us a very important detail to understand what specialty coffee is: it is not only that the coffee bean has special characteristics, but that the entire chain of production -from the producer to the barista- contribute to bringing out these qualities. And that everyone receives a fair benefit.

Currently, the SCA sets standards for green coffee, water, coffee tasting and brewing methods. These standards are quantifiable and qualifiable recommendations based on scientific evidence.

The SCA defines specialty coffee, at its green stage, as a coffee that does not have primary defects, nor quakers, its size is appropriate, has been adequately dried, it’s free of defects in the cup and has particular characteristics.

What this means is that the SCA has carried out experiments based on the scientific method and has established standards to know what are the characteristics and qualities for a coffee to be considered specialty.

Specialty coffee scoring

One of these standards, which reflects the cultivation process, is the score that a green coffee obtains. This score is an indicator that that variety, terrain, altitude and other factors that affect the coffee have specific characteristics. This is, perhaps, one of the most representative characteristics of a specialty coffee. Although, we should not forget that specialty coffee is not only a score but good practices throughout the entire chain.

The score that a green coffee obtains is based on the visual inspection of the beans -once collected and processed- to determine the percentage of faulty beans, and on the tasting of the beans once roasted. After this, the tasters, who have received thorough previous training, rate the coffee.

The scores are:

  • Less than 80 points: no score. It is not considered specialty coffee.
  • Between 80 and 84.99: very good
  • Between 85 and 89.99: excellent
  • Between 90 and 100: outstanding

Although it would be easy to define specialty coffee as a coffee that achieves a score greater than 80 points in the tasting, this is only one parameter –an important one, yes, but only one- that influences what specialty coffee means.

What do we understand today by specialty coffee?

Freshly picked specialty coffee cherries
Freshly picked specialty coffee cherries
Since Erna Knutsen first coined the term until today, it has evolved to mean a quantifiable and qualifiable standard throughout the entire production chain and fair dealing between all those involved in it.

In an article by Ric Rhinehart for the Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA), dated June 2009, updated and republished at the SCA’s website in March 2017, he proposes two terms that help us understand the role of all those involved in the production of coffee and its subsequent brewing: potential and conservation.

Potential is what each coffee bean hides as a promise of a delicious tasting experience.

For this to be possible, all those involved in the processes that may alter the qualities of the coffee must seek to improve the coffee and not worsen it, or, at least, to maintain its quality.

From picking up the fruits only when they are ripe, the fermentation and drying process to the roasting and brewing, each of these steps must be carried out carefully to extract the maximum potential from each coffee bean.

Conservation concerns those who are not directly related to the manipulation of the coffee -although often they might be the same people- and involves picking up the fruits at the right time, careful storing and transportation so that the quality may not be hindered, packaging and grinding.

The importance of the value chain

As we can see, for the potential and conservation of a coffee to be optimal, all those involved must carry out their roles with attention and care.

If a link fails, the entire chain falls apart. It becomes almost irrelevant that coffee has grown in excellent soil and at an adequate altitude if it’s fermented and dried poorly, transported improperly, roasted incorrectly or brewed without care.

For this reason, for Erna Knutsen, specialty coffee was not a term just to define a particular coffee, but it referred to the entire value chain from the coffee farmer to the consumer.

Maintaining such a chain implies that its members help and support each other, treating everyone fairly.

For us to understand how the entire process affects the coffee, we have to stop briefly on the factors that make coffee truly special.

Origin’s factors that determine a specialty coffee

African/elevated drying beds for specialty coffee in Matyazo, Rwanda
African/elevated drying beds for specialty coffee in Matyazo, Rwanda
There are many factors that coffee farmers must take into account to achieve a specialty coffee, from the variety of the plant or the type of terrain to the climate or altitude.

And all of these affect the final flavour of the coffee.

As for the variety of the plant, the coffee trees belong to the Rubiaceae family.

In this family, some are more privileged than others: the Coffea family, which has more than a hundred species. Out of these two are of special interest for us: Coffea Arabica and Coffea Canephora (or robusta)

The specialty coffee comes, almost exclusively, from the Arabica variety, with a few exceptions of high-quality robusta.

This is because the Arabica is more aromatic and flavoursome -and difficult to cultivate- than the Robusta and offers a more sophisticated experience to the palate.

Now that we know from which species we obtain specialty coffee, it is important to note that it has hundreds of varieties, each of them with specific organoleptic characteristics.

Among the many we might find: Caturra, Tipica, Bourbon, Geisha, Pacarama, SL28, SL34 or Mundo Novo.

Other important factors

Other important factors are the terrain and the altitude at which coffee is cultivated, the climate, the microbiology of the terrain and the topography. These factors are not mere curiosities but have a direct impact on the final product.

For example, we all know that a coffee from Brazil has different tasting notes than a coffee from Kenya. This is because of the variety of the plant and all the conditions aforementioned.

In general, Coffea arabica plants grow at high altitudes -between 600 and 2000 meters-, in cool weather -between 15 and 24 degrees- and with an average annual rainfall of 1500-2000 mm. The differences between these conditions and how the plants react to it give us the great and rich diversity of coffees.

Having briefly seen how the topographic and weather conditions affect coffee, we can understand that coffee is a seasonal product. In most coffee-growing countries, the harvest is collected once a year (except for some countries where conditions allow for more than one harvest).

The quality of the harvest depends on factors such as weather or rain, but especially on the expert hand of the collectors and their subsequent correct processing.

Coffee processing and other factors

African/elevated drying beds for specialty coffee in Sao Silvestre, Brazil
African/elevated drying beds for specialty coffee in Sao Silvestre, Brazil
Adding to the factors we have mentioned, over which coffee farmers have little direct control, there are others over which they do have direct control. These are the way they care for, harvest, sort, process, store and transport the coffee beans.

Regarding cultivation practices, everything the coffee farmer does, from the use of fertilizers or shade management to the planting patterns and the pruning regime, will affect the final result.

A particularly important practice for coffee quality is harvesting. As with other crops, coffee is at its best when harvested at the right maturity, but, of course, coffee cherries do not ripen all at the same time.

This means that, for best results, they must be hand-picked by trained workers. This entails greater dedication and workload, which achieves better quality and, consequently, impacts the price.

Commercial coffee, by contrast, is generally harvested by machine, with the consequent loss of quality.

Types of coffee processing

As for coffee processing, we find three principal methods: natural, washed and “honey”.

The natural process is letting the coffee cherry dry with the seed. It requires little machinery and water, but a lot of work and knowledge to obtain good results. Once dried, it is threshed to separate the seed from the shell.

The washed process consists of pulping the cherries by a mechanical process, separating the cherry from the seeds. In this process, the mucilage is completely removed in the fermentation and washing tanks. Afterwards, it is left to dry until the desired humidity is achieved.

The “honey” process means that, after pulping the cherry, the seeds are left to dry with the mucilage, which gives the final product different characteristics than those achieved by the natural and washed process.

The way coffee is processed will affect its final flavour. As an example, washed coffees tend to have higher acidity than natural ones, with clean and fruity notes.

Finally, how coffee beans are selected once they have been dried to rule out those that are faulty or the shape and temperature of storage and transport, are all factors that can slightly alter the chemical composition of the seed and, therefore, its flavour.

As we have seen so far, quality coffee demands special conditions and handling. For coffee farmers to do this, the entire production chain has to take them into account so they receive a fair payment for their work.

The impact of specialty coffee in origin countries

Coffee farmer from Sao Silvestre farm, Brazil
Coffee farmer from Sao Silvestre farm, Brazil
Coffee is a commodity sold in the futures markets with a total industry value, according to the OEC, of thirty billion dollars in 2018.

It is not the second most traded commodity (as sometimes is mentioned), not even the first traded agricultural product, which would be oats, but it is on the list of the most traded commodities and has an economic impact that, in some countries, reaches 7% of GDP

Because coffee is sold in the futures markets, it is subjected to all kinds of speculation detrimental to coffee farmers. For this reason, specialty coffee is based on direct trading.

Importers of specialty green coffee deal directly with farmers or cooperatives to buy their production.

This ensures that coffee farmers receive a fair price since the number of intermediaries is cut down.

Furthermore, those who buy this type of coffee appreciate it and understand that a quality coffee requires special attention and care, and this is only possible when those who cultivate it receive a fair price that enables them to have a decent life.

Impact of specialty coffee vs commercial coffee

To understand the difference between the impact of specialty coffee on exporting countries and coffee farmers versus commercial coffee, we can draw a parallel with buying vegetables in a supermarket or a farmers’ cooperative.

In the first case, it is the supermarkets that have the monopoly and set the prices, often with large numbers of intermediaries, so the farmer hardly has a fair compensation for his work.

Whereas, if we buy from a cooperative, the money we pay goes almost fully to the farmer which allows him to have a more dignified life and carry out his duties properly.

Because of this, promoting specialty coffee is not only a matter of taste, but it also has ethical reasoning.

Because the number of intermediaries is reduced, each of them -those who are necessary-, play a very important role.

The specialty coffee production chain, in a simplified way, is as follows: coffee farmer – cooperative/importer – roaster – coffee shop – consumer.

In this chain, the roaster plays a very important role as the link between the origin -the coffee farmer- and the final recipient -the consumer-.

The role of a specialty coffee roaster

Roasting day at Ineffable Coffee Roasters
Roasting day at Ineffable Coffee Roasters
The specialty coffee roaster plays a very important role in the coffee production chain. It is the point of union between importers or cooperatives that deal with the product in its origin and the coffee shops that deal with the final recipient.

Their principal job is to select coffees from among the varieties that importers/cooperatives offer and to roast them precisely to bring each coffee to its optimal point.

As we said before, the roaster’s job is to enhance the raw material that comes to them through the roasting process.

Different coffees and roasting profiles

Each roast is different depending on the characteristics of the coffee, such as altitude, variety or type of processing. Factors such as roasting time or temperature will also affect the final product.

For example, a coffee with a light roast will have more acidity and more fruity notes than one with a medium roast. But it will be the type of coffee, density, humidity, etc. and the roaster itself who will determine what kind of roasting best suits a particular coffee.

It is increasingly common that roasters will sell their specialty coffee online –and this might be a good thing for the consumer- but it does not mean that specialty coffee shops are no longer relevant.

Drinking coffee has been for centuries, and will continue to be, a social activity. Coffee shops have an essential role in this chain. They present the best opportunity to show the value of the entire production chain to the consumer.

The role of the specialty coffee shop and the barista

Specialty coffee shops are a very important part of the process
Specialty coffee shops are a very important part of the process
If we had to define three roles that impact the most the quality of the coffee, the first would be the coffee farmer, the second the roaster and the third the specialty coffee shop and barista.

We have looked briefly to the role of the coffee farmer and the roaster. Let us give a quick overview of the specialty coffee shop and the barista’s role.

The specialty coffee shop is where the journey of the coffee seed ends and where the coffee experience might reach its peak.

To give due justice to the coffee chain it is very important that the barista -the person in charge of brewing the coffee- has extensive knowledge of coffee and brewing methods, and that he constantly updates them.

Barista skills and knowledge

Each farmer will exert himself to get the most out of their plants and get a quality coffee. The roaster will roast it trying to respect the tasting profile. Each coffee has a roasting point at which it feels at is best; at that point, the work of the farmer, the unique qualities of the land and the conditions in which it grew stand out.

The barista will have to know the variety of coffee and the type of roast to develop a recipe that extracts the maximum potential of the coffee.

For this reason, he must know all the brewing methods: espresso machine, filter, infusion methods, etc. He should also know how the different parameters, such as grinding size, water temperature, the ratio of water/coffee etc. affect the final product (check our coffee brewing guides for different methods here)

And finally, he should also be able to transmit this knowledge to the clients, so they may better appreciate the coffee and be aware of the effort and work that goes into that cup of coffee.

Social role of coffee and specialty coffee shops

Specialty coffee shop, Rebel Café, Madrid
Specialty coffee shop, Rebel Café, Madrid
Traditionally, in countries like Kenya or Mexico, coffee has always been a social ritual to strengthen human relations. In today’s globalized and urbanized society, coffee shops may fulfil this role.

A pleasant environment, with good service and great coffee, might be the perfect setting so that customers go from seeing a coffee shop as the place where they get their quick fix to feeling comfortable and inspired.

The specialty coffee community in Spain keeps growing and expanding. Every day there are more roasters, coffee shops and people that want to enjoy the exquisite taste and social experience that specialty coffee can offer.

They also understand that our consumption habits affect our planet and the people that live on it and try to support projects that take this into account.

We, as specialty coffee roasters in Seville, want to continue being part of this beautiful community built around the love for coffee.

Would you like to join us?

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