What Is Specialty Coffee? Everything You Need To Know

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If you’ve ever wondered why some coffees are labeled ‘specialty,’ it’s because they meet high standards, scoring at least 80 out of 100 points based on taste, aroma, and purity.

Unlike regular coffee, which is often a mix from various sources, specialty coffee comes from specific regions known for exceptional beans.

It’s not just better than your average cup; it’s a different league, where quality and care define every sip.

Unlike ‘premium’ coffee, which may sound fancy but lacks strict grading, specialty coffee guarantees a top-tier experience with every brew.

Let’s dive deeper into what makes specialty coffee truly special.

The Rich History of Specialty Coffee

Specialty coffee has a fascinating history that begins with Erna Knutsen in 1974.

She coined the term to describe beans of the best flavor which are produced in special microclimates.

This concept revolutionized the coffee industry by focusing on the unique characteristics and higher quality of coffee beans from specific regions.

Since its inception, the specialty coffee trend has grown significantly.

It surged in popularity during the early 2000s, reflecting a shift toward high-quality, ethically sourced coffee.

Coffee lovers began to seek out these superior beans that not only tasted better but also offered a story of their origin and processing.

This trend has continued to grow, with more cafes and roasters dedicating themselves to the craft of making exceptional coffee.

Today, specialty coffee is not just a product; it’s a global movement that emphasizes quality, sustainability, and the art of coffee making.

This evolution has made specialty coffee a key player in the coffee industry, appreciated by connoisseurs and casual drinkers alike.

What Makes Coffee ‘Specialty’?

Understanding what elevates a coffee to ‘specialty’ status starts with the Specialty Coffee Association’s (SCA) criteria.

According to the SCA, for coffee to be classified as specialty, it must score 80 points or above on a 100-point scale.

This scale assesses various aspects of the coffee, such as aroma, flavor, aftertaste, acidity, and balance.

Each factor contributes to the overall quality and experience of the coffee.

Q-graders play a pivotal role in this process.

These trained and certified professionals use their expertise to evaluate coffee beans rigorously.

Their job is to ensure that each batch of coffee meets the high standards expected of specialty products.

They look for any defects and evaluate the sensory qualities of the coffee beans.

This rigorous scoring process is what sets specialty coffee apart from regular coffee options on the market.

Achieving an 80+ score isn’t easy. It requires high-quality beans, expert roasting, and precise brewing.

Each point on the scale represents a step towards perfection in the world of coffee, where even a single point can make a noticeable difference in taste.

This focus on quality and detail is what makes specialty coffee truly special and highly sought after by coffee lovers around the world.

The Comprehensive Process of Making Specialty Coffee

Creating specialty coffee is an intricate process that involves four critical steps: farming, buying, roasting, and brewing.

Each stage plays a vital role in ensuring the final product meets the high standards of specialty coffee.

Coffee Farming

The journey of specialty coffee begins with farming.

Arabica beans are primarily used for their sweeter, more complex flavors compared to Robusta beans.

These beans thrive under specific conditions—typically at high altitudes and within a narrow temperature range.

The soil must be rich and well-drained, often found in mountainous regions.

The climate affects the beans’ growth and flavor, making the geographical location crucial for producing the distinctive taste profiles characteristic of specialty coffee.

Green Coffee Buying

Once the coffee is harvested, the next step is green coffee buying.

This stage is critical for maintaining the quality of specialty coffee.

Buyers look for beans that are free from defects and adhere to ethical sourcing standards.

They ensure the beans have no more than five Category 2 defects and absolutely no Category 1 defects.

Now, you might be thinking, what on earth are category defects?

In specialty coffee, defects are categorized into two primary categories: Primary Defects and Secondary Defects.

These categories are used to evaluate the quality of green coffee beans and ensure that they meet the standards for specialty coffee.

Ethical sourcing also considers the welfare of the workers and the sustainability of farming practices, which are essential for the long-term health of the coffee industry.

Coffee Roasting

Roasting is where the unique flavors of the coffee are developed.

Through various techniques, roasters aim to enhance each bean’s natural flavor profiles.

This stage requires precise control over temperature and timing to achieve the desired roast level—whether light, medium, or dark—while avoiding under or over-roasting.

Each roast level brings out different flavors and characteristics in the coffee, tailored to highlight its unique qualities.

Specialty Barista

The final step in the specialty coffee process involves the skilled hands of a specialty barista.

This role combines art and science, requiring a deep understanding of brewing techniques and a meticulous approach to coffee preparation.

Baristas adjust variables such as grind size, water temperature, and brewing time to extract the best possible flavors from the coffee.

Their expertise ensures that each cup of specialty coffee provides a remarkable and memorable drinking experience.

Specialty vs. Commercial Coffee

When comparing specialty coffee to commercial coffee, the differences are clear in terms of quality, sourcing, and production methods.

Specialty coffee is renowned for its high quality, which is ensured by rigorous standards from the Specialty Coffee Association.

As mentioned earlier, it must score at least 80 out of 100, with evaluations based on flavor, aroma, and absence of defects.

Commercial coffee, on the other hand, often falls below this score, largely due to mass production practices that prioritize yield over quality.

In terms of sourcing, specialty coffee beans are typically sourced from specific microclimates ideal for growing the highest quality beans.

These beans are often grown at high altitudes in rich, volcanic soil, contributing to their unique flavors.

Commercial coffee beans might be sourced from a wider range of locations and often include beans of varying qualities mixed together to achieve a consistent, but less distinctive, flavor.

Production methods for specialty coffee often involve meticulous attention to detail at every stage.

This includes the careful selection of ripe coffee cherries, precise control during the roasting process, and expert brewing techniques to best express the coffee’s character.

Commercial coffee production, in contrast, is usually automated and designed for efficiency and cost-effectiveness, which can lead to a sacrifice in flavor and overall quality.

Furthermore, specialty coffee often aligns with ethical and sustainable practices.

Many specialty coffee producers engage in direct trade, paying farmers above-market rates and supporting sustainable farming practices.

This not only improves the quality of the coffee but also promotes a healthier ecosystem and better working conditions for farmers and their communities.

Commercial coffee production can sometimes lack transparency, with less focus on the welfare of workers or environmental sustainability.

Global Footprint: Where is Specialty Coffee Grown?

The major coffee-producing countries include Brazil, Ethiopia, Vietnam, and Colombia, each known for their rich coffee-growing traditions and unique flavor profiles.

  • Brazil, as the largest coffee producer globally, offers a vast range of flavor profiles from nutty and chocolatey to sweet and fruity, depending on the region.
  • Ethiopia, considered the birthplace of coffee, is famed for its complex, aromatic coffees with floral and fruity notes.
  • Vietnam, mainly known for robusta production, is also making strides in producing high-quality arabica, which is essential for specialty coffee.
  • Colombia is another heavyweight, celebrated for its consistently mild, well-balanced coffee beans that are a favorite among specialty coffee roasters.

Newer regions like Rwanda and Costa Rica are emerging in the specialty coffee scene as well.

These countries have begun to gain recognition for their unique coffee qualities, with Rwandan coffees often exhibiting sweet and fruity flavors, and Costa Rican coffees offering a clean, balanced cup with bright acidity.

Geographical Factors

We briefly covered this earlier but geographical factors play a crucial role in the flavor of specialty coffee.

The altitude at which coffee is grown can affect the bean’s development, with higher elevations typically producing denser, more flavor-concentrated beans.

The climate—temperature, rainfall, and humidity—affects the growth cycle of the coffee plant, influencing the overall flavor profile of the beans.

Additionally, the soil type can impart various minerals and nutrients to the coffee, further affecting its taste.

Gourmet, Premium, and Specialty: Clearing the Confusion

The coffee industry often uses terms like “gourmet,” “premium,” and “specialty” that can be confusing.

Each of these labels has different meanings, and understanding them can help you choose better-quality coffee.

Distinctions Between These Types of Coffee

Specialty Coffee is a term for coffees that score 80 points or above on a 100-point scale by certified coffee graders, known as Q-graders.

This score is a guarantee of high quality, focusing on the bean’s flavor, aroma, and overall cup cleanliness.

Premium Coffee often sounds high-quality but actually has a less strict definition compared to specialty coffee.

Premium coffees do not have a specific scoring threshold and can include a range of qualities, but they are generally better than your average grocery store blends.

They might have more defects than specialty coffees, and their production isn’t as rigorously controlled.

Gourmet Coffee is a marketing term that isn’t regulated by any strict criteria.

It suggests a superior taste or quality, which might not always be true.

The use of “gourmet” can be purely promotional, aimed at capturing the attention of consumers looking for high-end coffee without any guarantee regarding the beans’ actual quality.

Consumers might believe they are purchasing top-tier coffee, when in fact, the quality could vary widely.

Unlike specialty coffee, which is backed by a quantifiable scoring system, gourmet coffee doesn’t require adherence to specific quality standards or inspections.

Practical Guide to Enjoying Specialty Coffee at Home

Making specialty coffee at home is a rewarding experience that allows you to savor the unique flavors of high-quality beans right from your kitchen.

Here’s how you can get started with the right tools and techniques, along with tips on buying and storing your coffee.

Essential Tools and Methods

To brew specialty coffee at home, you don’t need complicated equipment.

Here are some popular methods:

  • French Press: Known for its simplicity and rich, full-bodied coffee. The French press allows the coffee oils and fine particles to remain in your cup, enhancing the flavor.
  • Stovetop Espresso Maker: Great for those who love a stronger brew. This method uses steam pressure to pass water through coffee grounds, producing a concentrated shot.
  • Pour-Over: Ideal for highlighting intricate flavor notes. This method involves pouring hot water over coffee grounds in a filter. The water drains through the coffee and filter into a carafe or mug.
  • Aeropress: A quick and versatile brewing method that combines the best of espresso and French press techniques, suitable for making smooth, rich coffee.

Tips for Buying and Storing Specialty Beans

Buying Tips

  • Purchase Fresh: Look for beans that have been roasted within the past two weeks for optimal freshness.
  • Know Your Preference: Decide if you prefer single-origin (which highlights specific regional flavors) or a blend (which balances multiple origins for a complex profile).
  • Buy Whole Beans: Always opt for whole beans rather than pre-ground to ensure you get the freshest flavor by grinding them just before brewing.

Storage Tips

  • Keep It Airtight and Cool: Store your coffee beans in an airtight container away from sunlight and heat. Avoid the fridge, as it can introduce moisture and odors.
  • Use Quickly: Try to use your coffee beans within a month of purchase to enjoy them at their best.

Why Opt for Specialty Coffee?

Choosing specialty coffee is about much more than just enjoying a superior taste; it’s also about supporting a process that has profound social and economic impacts.

This choice influences not only your morning routine but also the lives of people involved in every step of coffee production.

Benefits Beyond Taste: Social and Economic Impacts

Specialty coffee often comes from farms where growers are paid fair wages for their labor.

This is crucial in countries where coffee is a major economic activity but income from traditional farming can be low.

By opting for specialty coffee, consumers help ensure that farmers receive a better income, which improves their quality of life and allows for sustainable farming practices.

Moreover, specialty coffee promotes ethical sourcing practices that include direct trade.

This method of sourcing helps eliminate unnecessary middlemen, ensuring more of the profit directly benefits the coffee growers.

It also encourages environmental stewardship, as many specialty coffee growers implement sustainable farming methods to maintain their high standards.

Personal Stories from Farms to Cafes

Each bag of specialty coffee comes with a story.

For instance, there might be a family in Guatemala who has been growing coffee for generations and has recently begun to gain recognition through specialty coffee markets.

Their success can lead to better educational opportunities for their children and improvements in local infrastructure.

On the other end, baristas in cafes around the world take great pride in their craft.

They often form direct relationships with roasters and growers, understanding the origins of the beans they use.


The future of specialty coffee looks bright, driven by both ongoing innovations in the industry and a growing appreciation among consumers.

As trends evolve, we see more emphasis on sustainability and technology, enhancing how we grow, brew, and enjoy coffee.

Innovations like precision agriculture and eco-friendly processing methods are making coffee production more sustainable.

These advancements help preserve the environment while ensuring that the coffee industry can thrive for generations to come.

Meanwhile, consumers are becoming more knowledgeable.

There is a rising interest in the origins of coffee and the stories behind the beans.

This growing awareness is creating a more informed consumer base, which in turn demands higher standards from coffee producers.

It’s a positive cycle that benefits everyone involved—from the farmer to the barista to the consumer.

As we look forward, the connection between coffee drinkers and the coffee itself will deepen, fostering a global community that values quality, sustainability, and transparency.

This is the promising path that specialty coffee is paving for the future.


What is considered specialty coffee?

Specialty coffee refers to coffee that scores 80 points or higher on a 100-point scale assessed by certified coffee graders known as Q-graders.

This high score reflects exceptional quality in terms of flavor, aroma, and overall cup cleanliness.

What is the difference between regular coffee and specialty coffee?

The key difference lies in the quality and care involved in production.

Regular coffee might be mass-produced with less emphasis on unique flavor profiles and more on yield.

In contrast, specialty coffee prioritizes high-quality beans, meticulous farming practices, and precise roasting to enhance distinct flavors.

How do you identify specialty coffee?

You can identify specialty coffee by looking for labels or certifications from the Specialty Coffee Association (SCA) or similar organizations.

These coffees are often marked with their scoring information or details about the farm and processing methods.

Additionally, reputable specialty coffee sellers provide transparency about the origins and quality of their beans.

Is specialty coffee expensive?

Specialty coffee tends to be more expensive than regular coffee due to its high quality, the meticulous processes involved in its production, and often ethical sourcing practices.

The extra cost also supports fair wages for farmers and sustainable farming practices.

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Jacob Harris

Jacob is a coffee enthusiast who turned his passion into a career. As the owner and editor of Karma Coffee Cafe, he shares his extensive knowledge and recommendations, captivating fellow coffee lovers.

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