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At the Artisan Coffee School, a very common question gets asked and that is “What the hell is specialty coffee?”. To be honest it’s not the easiest question to answer. There are plenty of definitions out there describing speciality coffee but let’s start with the technical one where all coffee beans are graded and given a final score out of 100 points. 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 be cupped by a certified Q grader and on top of that if too many defects in a 350g sample of green coffee beans are found then this will automatically disqualify them from having a 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.

What is more, speciality coffee producers must pay attention to quality at every stage. Since the beans can’t have defects, the coffee plants need to be carefully cultivated and harvested at the right time, producers must be familiar with the best processing practices, and storage protocols.

Okay, so what about roasting and brewing?

In 2009, Ric Rhinehart, Executive Director of the SCAA (which has since merged with the SCAE to become the SCA), officially said that specialtycoffee 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…. 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.

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

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.

For most people, specialty coffee just means great coffee. There are definitely different understandings or opinions on what good or great coffee means, how it should best be processed, roasted and brewed.

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 flavour profiles, roasters selecting different roast curves, or baristas carefully setting up their equipment, the aim is the same.

Until next time…