November 20, 2020

Do We Need To Redefine “Specialty Coffee”?

The term “specialty” was first used to refer to coffee in 1974 by Erna Knutsen in an issue of the Tea & Coffee Journal. She used the word to describe coffee that was produced in a microclimate with high-quality and unique flavour profiles.

Today, however, the word “specialty” is everywhere in the industry. It is used relentlessly on packaging and signage, and thrown around by baristas and roasters alike. 

Not only has the word’s definition has changed over the last 45 years since the term entered common use, phrases like “third wave”, “independent” and “gourmet” are also frequently interchanged with “specialty”. This only makes things more confusing.

To clarify this definition, and to learn more about why the term needs to be redefined, we spoke to several professionals in the coffee supply chain. Read on to find out what they said.

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What Is Specialty Coffee?

The definition of “specialty-grade coffee” is actually quite straightforward. According to the Coffee Quality Institute website, coffee is “specialty” when it is graded as 80 or above on the SCA 100-point scale by a certified coffee taster (such as a Q grader).

Coffees ranking from 90 to 100 points are “outstanding”, those ranking between 85 and 89.99 points are “excellent”, while 80 to 84.99 is “very good”. Coffees scoring below 80 are deemed to be commodity-grade, rather than specialty.

The SCA has a second set of further, more detailed physical requirements, stating that specialty-grade coffee must have:

  • No more than five full defects in 300g of coffee
  • No primary defects 
  • A maximum of 5% above or below screen size
  • At least one distinctive attribute in terms of body, flavour, aroma, or acidity
  • No faults or taints
  • No quakers 
  • Moisture content of between 9 and 13%

How Has The Definition Of Specialty Coffee Changed?

So, if a coffee scores above 80 on the 100-point scale and meets these criteria, it is specialty by definition. However, despite the fact that the SCA cupping scale and the physical grading system both provide objective definitions (with differing levels of detail), the definition of what specialty coffee is or rather, what it stands for, seems to have changed.

Today, the word “specialty” is often used synonymously with words like “artisan”, and is frequently associated with concepts such as transparency, traceability, and direct trade. It is also used interchangeably by some people with the concept of third wave coffee – which, unlike specialty, does not have an objective definition. Today, specialty coffee has evolved from an objective definition to encompass an ideal that caters to a “specialty coffee community”.

Yannis Apostolopoulos is the CEO and Executive Director of the SCA. He says: “[Specialty coffee] is a movement where people share the same values around what the coffee industry can be. For consumers, it’s the experience of enjoying a great cup of coffee.”

According to the SCA’s website, specialty coffee can “only occur when all of those involved in the coffee value chain work in harmony and maintain a keen focus on standards and excellence from start to finish”. 

Iordanis Iosifidis is the Managing Director of Kafea Terra, a roaster based in Greece. He says the term specialty is also used to refer to other factors which focus on the coffee “experience”. 

He says: “[These include] the skill of the barista, the preparation methods [used], and the quality of the professional coffee equipment… all of which are crucial for the final result in the cup.”

Keremba Brian Warioba is a coffee producer and the founder of Communal Shamba Coffee in the southern highlands of Tanzania. “The scoring classification is a great way to ensure quality is measured and maintained within specialty standards,” he tells me. “But it could go further in promoting social impact and change beyond coffee, throughout the value chain.”

This leads to one of the major discussions across the specialty coffee sector, which is the topic of sustainability.

Iordanis explains: “This past decade, specialty has been [especially] linked with sustainability challenges, including the impact of climate change, [coffee] price crises, and measures taken to support the [overall] livelihoods and [stability] of coffee producers.”

Challenges With The Current Definition

Despite the use of the word “specialty”, coffee is often also defined by its waves. The first wave marked the emergence of mass-produced, commonly-available commodity coffee; for instance, household instant coffee brands that you can find in supermarkets. Second wave coffee emerged in the 20th century, and was popularised by chains like Starbucks, with a new emphasis on espresso-based beverages.

Third wave coffee, however, moves away from the idea of commodification in favour of paying price premiums for higher quality coffees, and recognises that coffee has a problematic existence as a simple commodity. 

It focuses on the experience of drinking coffee, with a new appreciation for quality. It also prioritises transparency and traceability in the entire supply chain, often seeking to recognise the efforts of the producer.

Many people see the ideal of “specialty coffee” as synonymous with coffee’s third wave. However, specialty coffee can be objectively defined by the use of standards, such as those set out by the SCA. 

Today, however, we have two distinct, separate definitions of what the word “specialty” is: one that is an ideal, and one that refers to a grading system.

This is an issue. The more we add to the definition of what specialty actually means, the more coffee can be labelled as specialty. Consequently, if we move away from agreed standards and start using “third wave” as synonymous with “specialty”, we lose objectivity.

Keremba adds that the word “specialty” predominantly adds value at the consuming end of the supply chain. This means that the producer who grows specialty-grade coffee according to a scoring system ends up being disconnected from the roaster, barista, and consumer, who subscribe to a second, different definition of what “specialty” is.

Coffee producers may well work tirelessly to produce specialty-grade coffee in line with the grading system. However, if buyers, roasters, and consumers are working on a different definition entirely, this causes an understanding gap.

“[These phrases] are sometimes loosely used as marketing jargon that doesn’t translate to the reality at farm level,” Keremba explains. “The specialty coffee value chain needs to refine its standards for sharing information, communicate better factual information, and dignify farmers as partners in the wider value chain.”

How Should The Definition Change?

“It is a very complex subject,” Iordanis says. “It needs to be addressed by a broad group of coffee professionals. The most important thing is having a common interpretation of the term, and we need to work towards that goal.

“The SCA [cupping] form and [systems set out by the Coffee Quality Institute] are globally acknowledged as the proper ‘tools’ for green coffee evaluation, [but] there is always room for improvement.”

Samuel Demisse is the owner of Keffa Coffee in Maryland. He tells me that the definition is not inclusive enough. “I think the word isn’t making a big difference on the livelihoods of the farmers,” he says. “For farmers, what makes the difference is when [people] go out and meet them in person… when they feel what they go through to produce that coffee.”

For Yannis, standards of the past indicate that the industry will naturally adapt. “[The] World Barista Championship created standards that influenced and changed how espresso equipment is manufactured today, leading to innovation in energy management and precision,” he says. “I believe now we have the opportunity to influence the [specialty coffee] industry to become more sustainable and equitable.”

Keremba says: “We are seeing more collaboration in the sector, such as coffee authorities in producing countries and the SCA creating an inclusive community, but it is also important to create platforms to share information,” Keremba says. “This can be achieved through [founding] SCA chapters in producing countries, and affordable membership options for co-ops and farmers.” 

The reality is that the word “specialty” has too broad a remit in common use throughout the coffee sector today. Some have suggested that specialty coffee could be a label for coffees that only score 85 or above. While these would consequently be more “special”, is that fair on the producers who have invested in growing coffees that score above 80 but below 85, and anticipate premium sale prices as a result?

Similarly, this could pose a huge problem for larger roasters and coffee chains who have built their brand on the word “specialty”, only for the industry to adopt a new definition altogether. They may then be rejected as specialty by consumers, forcing previously specialty coffee companies to end up being redefined as commercial brands.

Elitism is also an issue. Even though a coffee chain and an independent café might both use coffees that score 80 or above (and therefore are specialty) the disparity in definition can mean that one considers themselves to be “more” specialty than another.

Finally, there is the argument that we need new definitions within the word “specialty”, rather than redefining the term. This is because there is effectively a significant “gap” between the lower and upper ends of specialty coffee, given the disparity between what producers are paid for 80 and 90-scoring coffees, for example.

Specialty, third wave, independent, or chain, coffee continues to change and evolve. We must be open to how it changes by continuously adapting our understanding of what certain terminology means. 

When Erna Knutsen first coined the word “specialty” more than 45 years ago, it’s unlikely that she knew how it would evolve over the decades that followed. Today, despite the existence of an objective definition, it is often used interchangeably with a number of industry buzzwords that coffee professionals use on a daily basis.

To truly progress as a sector, we need to demystify, develop, and clarify what we mean when we say “specialty”. By doing so, we will improve cohesion and improve understanding for actors at every step of the coffee supply chain – from seed to cup.

Enjoyed this? Then read What Is “Third Wave Coffee”? And How Is It Different To Specialty?

Photo credits: Issa Milanzi, Specialty Coffee Association 

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