July 10, 2017

Coffee Professionals Discuss: What Is Specialty Coffee?


Consumers in the US believe that 48% of their coffee is specialty, according to the National Coffee Association of America (2015). But is that true? What actually is specialty coffee? And how is it different to labels like “third wave” and “gourmet”?

We reached out to several professionals in the specialty coffee industry, from producers to roasters, to ask them these questions – and more.

Spanish Version: Profesionales del Café Discuten ¿Qué es Café de Especialidad?

coffee farm

Coffee seedlings growing in Casabianca, Colombia. Credit: Herbert Peñaloza

Specialty Coffee: The Technical Definition

Before we start sharing the professionals’ opinions, let’s quickly look at the technical definition.

All coffee beans can be graded out of 100. This grading process is called “cupping”. And according to the Specialty Coffee Association (SCA), specialty coffee is Arabica coffee with a cup score of 80+ points.

The coffee must have been cupped by a certified Q grader. On top of that, too many defects in a sample of the green, unroasted coffee beans will automatically disqualify that coffee from specialty status.

This sets specialty apart from “gourmet” coffee, which has no strict definition. Gourmet coffee could be high-quality coffee, or it could just be marketing.

bean defects

Sebastián Villamizar (left) and Ben Schellack (right) analyse green coffee bean samples. Credit: La Palma y El Tucán

Is Specialty Coffee Just About The Beans?

Herbert Peñaloza, Quality Manager and Director of 575 Café in Colombia, explains that specialty coffee producers must pay attention to quality at every stage. Since the beans can’t have (many) defects, the coffee plants need to be carefully cultivated and harvested at the right time, producers must adhere to best processing practices, and storage protocols should also be followed.

But what about roasting and brewing? There’s debate about the extent to which these can be considered specialty.

In 2009, Ric Rhinehart, Executive Director of the SCAA (which has since merged with the SCAE to become the SCA), officially said that specialty coffee was about more than just production and processing. In a blog post on the SCAA website, he wrote, “The final experience is dependent on no single actor in the chain dropping the baton…. [We must] create a definition for specialty at each stage of the game.”

Brewing, espresso, barista and roaster skills… today, there are SCA standards or certifications for all of these.

Carlos De La Torre, Founder of Avellaneda Café in Mexico City, agrees. “Quality and good work need to be done at all stages of the chain, all the way from seed to cup!” (Translated from Spanish to English by the author.)

Yet for others, roasting styles and brewing methods fall under third wave coffee (or even fourth wave) instead.

slate coffee roasters

Baristas at work in Slate Coffee Roasters, a specialty coffee shop in Seattle, Washington. Credit: Ana Valencia

Specialty Coffee vs Third Wave Coffee

Specialty coffee shops, third wave coffee shops… you’ll hear people talk about these as if they’re interchangeable. But are they?

Kris Schackman, CEO of Five Elephant Coffee in Berlin, tells me, “Think of a film. Specialty coffee is the picture, the film you’re watching, and third wave is the cinema you’re watching it in.”

Confused? Viktor Dobai, Co-Founder of the coffee subscription service Bean Bros, gives a more concrete example: “Third wave coffee can be the movement that gives meaning to the coffee you’re drinking. You can learn where exactly the coffee grows, who the farmers are, what processing method they used after the harvest. It tells you the story behind it.”

If the coffee itself is specialty, the attitudes surrounding that coffee are third wave. As for how that coffee is brewed – well, the SCA gives recommendations about dosage, temperature, contact time, and more.

But the tendency towards manual brewing: is that specialty or is it third wave? The desire to taste different coffee varieties? The thrill that comes from a beautiful bloom, that moment when the coffee grounds react to the first dose of water? These points you could spend time debating.

fiveel ephant

Five Elephant in Berlin. Credit: Magnus Pettersson for Five Elephant Coffee

Does Third Wave Represent Specialty Badly?

While specialty coffee and the third wave don’t have to go together, they can complement each other very well. However, Kris says, “Some people find [the third wave] very unapproachable, something that’s not for them, and we don’t want that.”

He’s not the only person who is concerned about this. Sebastián Villamizar, Client Relationship Manager of La Palma y El Tucán farm and coffee shop in Colombia, tells me, “You can have a 86+ coffee and brew it perfectly, but if the consumer doesn’t understand what’s behind it, it doesn’t matter how good the coffee is. We need to have the tools and information to transmit it to others. We need to be informed.” (Translated from Spanish to English by the author.)


A coffee brews next to third wave equipment. Credit: Ana Valencia

Different Interpretations of Specialty Coffee

You’ll hear varying definitions of specialty coffee around the world. And while specialty coffee professionals adhere to the strict guidelines of the SCA, these different perspectives can help us understand the role of coffee in people’s lives and cultures.

Viktor tells me that he thinks, for most people, specialty coffee just means great coffee. He adds, “There are definitely different understandings or opinions on what good or great coffee means, how it should best be processed, roasted and brewed.”

Sajjad Navader is an independent reseller of specialty coffee and coffee equipment in Iran. He tells me that he thinks different countries have their own explanations of it.

And similarly, Carlos says, “If you talk about coffee as a drink, or as a place, a coffee shop, they’re definitely different – not only across different countries, but in one city!” (Translated from Spanish to English by the author.)

Herbert agrees, pointing as well to the differences between the understanding of specialty in coffee-growing countries and consuming-only ones. He suggests that there is a lack of information in certain places – among both producers and consumers.

Natural processed coffee

Natural processed coffees dry on raised beds. Credit: Octavio Ruiz.

SEE ALSO: What Is “Third Wave Coffee”, & How Is It Different to Specialty?

Communicating Specialty Coffee

Sebastián tells me that, when he speaks to other coffee producers across Central America, he believes they have the same understanding of specialty coffee. “We all speak the same language,” he tells me. (Translated from Spanish to English by the author.)

Yet he also thinks that, as producers, they have the responsibility to “educate” people about it.

He finds that that producers don’t usually have all the information and tools to evaluate their coffee’s quality.

This is something that Herbert believes as well. He tells me that quality control is often done by sight alone. “If the beans look good, they’re good – but that’s not enough!” (Translated from Spanish to English by the author.)

Sebastián tells me that it would be good if everybody understood coffee cuppings, brewing methods, and all that goes into producing coffee.

On the other hand, Kris tells me that’s it’s a personal challenge to explain the work behind a cup of coffee to someone who hasn’t visited a farm. “It’s difficult to know and understand if you haven’t experienced it,” he explains.

However, he finds that social media helps. It can show the consumer what’s behind the cup, and make it easier to communicate with producers.

And it’s that communication that, for Octavio Ruiz, founder of Almanegra Café in Mexico City, is key. “You get to build relationships with producers, farmers, buyers, etc. You build relationships with people who look for quality in coffee, and then you can perceive all the hard work in a cup.” (Translated from Spanish to English by the author.)

brewing coffee

About to grind and brew specialty coffee. Credit: Sajjad Navader

We’ve heard some complex definitions for specialty coffee, but in the end, it’s all about trying to create good coffee. Whether it’s producers carefully harvesting and processing their crops, Q graders looking for complex flavor profiles, roasters selecting different roast curves, or baristas carefully setting up their equipment, the aim is the same.

So my question is: what does specialty coffee mean to you?

Perfect Daily Grind
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