The truth is, specialty coffee is quite special, once you begin to understand it. If you have ever been confused about how some coffee is $6 a bag and some $27 a bag, it's okay you're not a lone. It wasn't that many years ago, before I started my journey into coffee roasting, that I felt the same way.
Sticker shock is not uncommon when you first dip your toes into the world of specialty coffee, but fear not! Take a deep breath and relax a minute, you're just getting started. Not all specialty coffees are $27 a bag.
What Is Specialty Coffee?
Specialty coffee is the term used to describe the highest grade of coffee available, typically relating to the entire supply chain, from seed to cup, using single origin (country of origin) or single estate (farm) coffee.
The SCA (Specialty Coffee Association) sets standards for specialty coffee at every stage of the coffee production, including allowable defects in green beans, water standards, and brew strength. The SCA also sets clear standards on the coffee grading process. A minimum requirement for a specialty coffee is the number of defects allowed: to be considered specialty, a coffee must have no more than 5 defects every 350 grams (12.3459 ounces) of milled beans.
Specialty coffee quality is defined by a numbered scoring system from 0-100 called the Coffee Review scale. Coffee must score 80 points or above to be considered "Specialty". Additionally, it must be hand picked by selective picking of mature beans. Coffee scoring 80-84.99 is graded "Very Good", coffee that scores 85-89.99 is graded "Excellent" and coffee scoring 90-100 is graded "Outstanding".
A Brief History Of Specialty Coffee
The modern history of coffee in the United States is widely understood in the industry as having three distinct “Waves” of transformation. The First Wave of specialty coffee in the U.S. began with John Arbuckle when he made coffee easily accessible in the home. Coffee quickly became a staple of American life in a brand new way as it shifted from being a product consumed primarily in coffeehouses and taverns, into the comfort of home kitchens across the America.
The Second Wave was ushered in by Alfred Peet, when coffee became artisan again. Peet took coffee roasting back to small-scale production and focused on cafes and coffee shops once again. It was in the Second Wave that we began to appreciate different roasting styles and started paying attention to the origins of each coffee, as well as develop an appreciation for espresso and milk-based espresso drinks. The names of Peet’s and Starbucks became household names. They boomed in the Second Wave, but began to operate under a bit of “sameness”, much like fast food of today, as they made coffee accessible to a new breed of the American masses. We know they were hugely successful, but this sameness, and a desire for uniqueness and variety, created a rebellion that we credit the launch of the Third Wave.
Third Wave coffee began around the mid 1980s to early 1990s and is primarily understood as a craft movement. Adventuress roasters began roasting coffee lighter, drinking it black, appreciating the nuances and flavor notes in each cup. A further focus was put on origin - where the coffee comes from, who produces it, how it’s processed, what type of coffee varietals it comes from. The third wave today, has morphed into more of a tsunami that some are calling a fourth wave. But whatever you call it, at it’s core, specialty coffee is a demand for quality, taste and transparency in the coffee industry. The willingness of coffee lovers to blindly accept a bitter, nameless, faceless brew has been nearly eliminated.
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