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Coffee Basics

What Is Specialty Coffee & Why All the Fuss?

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Espresso shot sitting in the center of the Specialty Coffee Association flavor wheel

If you’re an avid coffee drinker, you’ve probably come across the term “specialty coffee” a time or two. But even if you haven’t, there’s a good chance it’s what made you fall in love with coffee in the first place.

But what is specialty coffee? And why is it such a big deal?

In this article, we not only answer both of these questions but provide some tips for how to get the most out of your specialty coffee when brewing it at home.

What Is Specialty Coffee?

Q Grader cupping and scoring different specialty coffees
Raka Bayuwana/Adobe Stock

The specialty coffee classification was developed by the Specialty Coffee Association to denote coffee produced from the highest-quality beans. 

In more specific terms, it’s defined as coffee that has scored 80 points or higher out of a possible 100 by coffee professionals certified in the sensory evaluation of green coffee, known as Q Graders. 

ScoreGradeSpecialty Coffee
90 – 100 pointsOutstandingYes
85 – 89.99 pointsExcellentYes
80 – 84.99 pointsVery GoodYes
Below 80No GradingNo

It’s estimated that only about 10% of all coffee produced globally meets the rigorous standards required for specialty grade.

The attributes being graded and that contribute to the overall score a coffee receives include fragrance/aroma, flavor, aftertaste, acidity, body, uniformity, balance, clean cup (indicating the coffee is free of defects), and sweetness.

In addition to achieving a score of 80 or higher, to be labeled as specialty coffee, green coffee beans must not possess any Category 1 defects (e.g., full black, full sour, or fungus) and have no more than five Category 2 defects (e.g., partial black, immature, or broken beans). 

While any species of coffee can technically qualify as specialty coffee, Arabica beans have almost completely monopolized those earning the specialty label. This is due to their smoother, sweeter flavor compared to their Robusta counterparts, which tend to be more bitter and earthy.

How Is Specialty Coffee Different From Other Coffee Classifications?

While specialty coffee holds the top spot in terms of quality, there are other coffee classifications that are commonly used, with the two primary being commodity and gourmet.

Commodity Coffee

Also known as commercial coffee, commodity coffee is the lowest grade of coffee. It’s often mass-produced, resulting in inconsistent quality and defects. 

To mask its flaws and achieve a more uniform flavor, commodity coffee is typically roasted much darker than specialty coffee. Unfortunately, this almost always leads to a more burnt-tasting and bitter cup of coffee.

Commodity coffee is also frequently blended with other coffees to cut costs and increase volume. This is why it’s the type most commonly found on supermarket shelves and served in chain coffee shops (yes, even the most popular ones!). 

Gourmet Coffee

Unlike specialty coffee, gourmet coffee doesn’t have a strict definition or an official grading system. In fact, it isn’t even a recognized classification. 

Gourmet coffee is just a generic marketing term for coffee that’s higher in quality than commodity coffee but hasn’t earned the specialty coffee label.

It’s most often used to describe coffee beans that have had additional flavorings added post-roasting to enhance their aroma and taste (e.g., peppermint, salted caramel, or peanut butter).

Why Should You Care About Specialty Coffee?

First and foremost, because of how it tastes

More time, effort, and care are put into growing and processing specialty coffees. In many cases, producers (and their families) have spent generations perfecting their approach to cultivating the highest quality coffee possible.

While you can still find a nice-tasting cup made from coffee that doesn’t have the specialty label, you don’t have to be a “coffee nerd” to recognize that specialty coffee tastes noticeably better. 

The other big reason you should care about specialty coffee is because of its impact on the supply chain.

The growth of specialty coffee hasn’t just been good for our taste buds, it’s also led to more awareness and transparency across the industry. This has played a critical role in enhancing the livelihoods of producers and their workers. It’s also driven innovation into more sustainable farming practices and investment in better equipment, systems, and processes.

All of this works together to create a virtuous cycle that benefits everyone impacted by coffee, from its production to its consumption.

How Do You Make Specialty Coffee at Home?

Home barista brewing specialty coffee in a Kalita Wave brewer
Microgen/Adobe Stock

While making specialty coffee doesn’t require that you possess any special skills or own expensive brewing equipment, specialty coffee beans alone don’t guarantee a perfect cup of coffee.

To ensure you’re maximizing the quality and flavor of your specialty coffee, it’s important to incorporate the following tips when brewing:

  • Pay attention to roast date: Coffee beans are at their freshest within one to two weeks of roasting but start to lose their freshness over time, leading to a stale, less flavorful cup of coffee.
  • Grind your own beans: Grinding coffee beans just before brewing ensures the flavors and aromas are preserved until the very last moment, resulting in a much fresher and more flavorful cup of coffee.
  • Choose the proper grind size: Your grind size should always match your brewing method. For example, a finer grind is essential when making espresso, whereas a coarser grind is ideal for French press.
  • Know your coffee-to-water ratio: The amount of coffee used in relation to water is key to achieving the right balance between under and over-extraction. This, too, will vary based on the brewing method. For example, a 1:4 ratio is typical for cold brew, whereas the ratio for pour-over can range anywhere from 1:15 to 1:18, depending on preference.
  • Use quality water: Using filtered water is one of the easiest ways to improve the taste of your coffee. It removes impurities, chlorine, and other unwanted flavors commonly found in tap water.

Final Thoughts

While specialty coffee beans are more expensive than their non-specialty counterparts, the tradeoff is definitely worth it. If you think a cup of coffee from a large coffee chain is about as good as it gets, we strongly encourage you to give specialty coffee a try. We promise you won’t be disappointed!

Lastly, if you’d like to continue furthering your coffee knowledge or if you’re looking for ways to improve your home barista skills, be sure to check out our brewing guides and the coffee basics sections of our website. 

Frequently Asked Questions

One of the easiest ways to know if you’re buying specialty coffee is to look for labels indicating the coffee has earned certifications such as Fair Trade, Rainforest Alliance, or Specialty Coffee Association (SCA) or has a score of 80 points or above. Additionally, almost all specialty coffees provide detailed information about their origin, variety, processing method, and tasting notes.

Yes, specialty coffee is almost always more expensive than commodity coffee. As mentioned above, this is due to the extra time, effort, and care required at every stage of the production process to produce coffee that’s not only high-quality but has a well-developed flavor and aroma.

Specialty coffee can most often be purchased from artisanal coffee shops, specialty coffee roasters, and through online retailers dedicated to selling high-quality, ethically sourced beans. Local farmers’ markets or specialty grocery stores may also carry specialty coffee. These merchants typically offer more education and detailed descriptions of the coffee’s origin, processing method, and flavor profile.

Specialty coffee shops focus on serving high-quality, specialty-grade coffee, often sourced directly from specific regions or farms. These types of coffee shops prioritize coffee education, quality, and utilizing more precise brewing methods. Baristas are also typically well-trained to highlight the unique flavors of each coffee.

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AUTHOR

Hey there! I'm Michael, founder and editor-in-chief of Filtered Grounds. In addition to being an entrepreneur, I'm also a bit of an endurance sports junkie. Whether it's working toward my business goals or training for my next Half Ironman triathlon, a good cold brew or cup of French press plays a role in fueling my performance.