Debunking specialty coffee labelling

Terms like “rich” and ‘intense” ‘French Roast’ or ‘Italian Roast’ are familiar to most of us when thinking about coffee packaging. Lifestyle marketing phrases such as ‘Classic Breakfast’, ‘After Dinner’ or ‘Lazy Weekend’ are other common descriptions pertaining to somewhat outdated ideas of coffee. As a mass market commodity however, coffees differ only moderately in flavour and perceived strength.

UK consumer habits are changing though. The Allegra World Coffee Portal report of 2015 found that Britain’s coffee artisans are bringing more high-quality speciality coffee to a larger audience than ever before. “Consumers will drink more speciality coffee at home”, they predict and the figures support this.

Of the estimated 180 speciality coffee roasters in the UK today, just over 60% have been in business for less than two years. Their labels are peppered with exotic sounding place names, obscure descriptors and weird and wonderful flavour notes. Although this information is invariably genuine and correct, it can be guilty of making assumptions of consumer understanding.

So what does it all really mean? What are the important things to understand when buying specialty coffee, and why do these details matter?

Roast level vs Strength

Specialty coffees are roasted carefully from light to medium, and sometimes a little further to develop the flavour compounds within the beans. Roasting too far detracts from those flavours and it’s worth noting that darker roasts are not found in specialty coffee as these are generally considered burnt.

The relationship between roast level and strength can be easily misunderstood as the strength of a roasted coffee is often communicated on a scale from one to five. One is the light roasted and five is the dark roasted. However, the actual strength of a brewed coffee is determined by the amount of dissolved coffee solids in the water used to make the coffee.

The darker a coffee is roasted, the more bitter it will taste and this bitterness is often conflated with the idea of strength. The bitterness is a more noticeable and prominent taste, but the coffee itself is not really ‘stronger’ and will actually contain less caffeine as it is burnt off in the roasting process than a lighter roasted coffee.


Coffee is firstly an agricultural product. The seeds from the cherry fruit that grows on the coffee tree must be separated from the fruit and the methods used in this process produce different flavour characteristics. This is why they would appear on your specialty coffee label. There are 3 main processes:

  • Natural – The beans are dried in the fruit and no water is used.
  • Pulped Natural/Honey – The skin and pulp of the cherry is removed using some water
  • Washed – All fruit is removed from beans using high amounts of water

Naturally processed coffees will be more sweet and fruity, Washed coffees clean and bright, with Pulped Naturals an in between with a more muted acidity, creamy body and with some of the sweetness of a natural.


Specialty coffee will always be Arabica but there are many varieties of coffee and they have different flavour characteristics. Bourbons, for example, are usually sweet and balanced, Caturras bright in acidity and low in body, with the heirloom varieties of Ethiopia tea-like with delicate floral and citrus notes.


The origin tells you where your coffee is from, as well as telling you whether your coffee is a blend or a single origin. Generally, single origin coffees are higher quality with distinctive flavours and aromas but look for coffees from specific geographical localities and farms. Coffees made up of crops from many farms within a country can be described as single origin and these are often lower grade. There is a huge difference, for example, between Colombian ‘Excelso’ which might be described as a single origin and a washed Caturra from a single estate farm. Increasingly roasters will use the name of the Coffee Farmer/Owner instead of the farm itself to better acknowledge the hard work and expertise of the coffee producer.

All of these factors interact in the production of a specialty coffee to make them all different and genuinely unique. Of course, the more information that is on the label to help the consumer make an informed choice, the better. Clearer explanations on the labels as to why that information is there will go a long way to making specialty coffee even more accessible to a wider audience. In my opinion that can only be a good thing.

By Adam Hartshorne, business development manager of commercial coffee supplier, Coffee Central

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