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What’s so special about specialty coffee?

Take a walk along your nearest high street and alongside the usual suspects, the ubiquitous major coffee chains,  you will almost certainly also find a ‘specialty coffee’ shop. Go back to the turn of the millenium and, outside of London, specialty coffee shops were few and far between. Specialty roasters were similarly rare with only a few dotted around the country.

Fast forward 18 years and the major growth area of the coffee industry is in the speciality sector. The number of artisan coffee roasters has increased exponentially and espresso machine manufacturers are releasing ever more technologically advanced machines. This gives baristas the tools to achieve better quality and consistency in the coffee they serve.

You would expect such advances to be viewed universally as a positive step but this is not always the case. McDonald’s recent ad campaign to promote their McCafe line, for example, is a richly drawn send-up of modern artisan coffee culture – what my mum calls, “posh coffee” and points to the inaccessibility of specialty coffee and the terminology around it.

Whether you agree with their rendering of a pretentious, self-indulgent contemporary coffee industry, it clearly draws on a belief that there is both a lack of understanding of specialty coffee in the wider consumer society and a frustration, even exacerbation with its prevalence.

It’s a term most contemporary coffee drinkers will have heard, regardless of how much interest they take in coffee, and the idea of superior quality coffee being special compared to a generic ‘cup of joe’ is not a complex one. Defining what really makes specialty coffee, special, is not so straightforward.

Firstly, it is useful to view specialty coffee in the context of wider coffee consumption in the last 100 years which is most often described in three waves:

  • The first wave (1900 – 1960’s): Consumption of mass-marketed coffee increases later driven by innovations such as vacuum packaging and freeze dried instant coffee, making it more accessible for consumption in the home.
  • The second wave (1970’s): Profitable retail coffee houses are established such as Starbucks and Costa with coffee consumption increasingly seen as an enjoyable and desirable social experience. Consequently, interest in coffee quality and provenance grows and gives rise to the phrase “specialty coffee”.
  • The third wave (1990’s to present): More and more emphasis is placed on quality, origin, and processing and on educating consumers through improving levels of service. Centred on artisan roasting practices, lighter roasts, preserving the flavour characteristics of small geographically specific lots of top quality graded coffee

What did ‘specialty coffee’ mean when the term was first coined?

The earliest use of the term dates back to 1978 in a speech delivered by Erna Knutsen (a coffee industry professional) at an international coffee conference in Montreuil, France. For a long time the concept was recherché, its definition narrow and its understanding reserved for those working in the industry. Simply put, it was the idea that specific geographical microclimates yield coffees with differing and very specific flavour profiles and that when produced, roasted and delivered in the cup with skill and care, these coffees should be considered speciality.

More recently a formal codified definition of what qualifies a coffee as specialty, and by extension special, is the internationally recognised Specialty Coffee Association 100 point cupping scale. This is where coffees are evaluated by qualified professionals (Q-Graders) in a set number of areas to yield a final score. If a coffee scores 80 points or above it qualifies as speciality, but does that really make it special?

I’ve tasted a lot of perfectly good, if not somewhat prosaic coffees, that have scored 80-85 points on this scale but no matter how good a coffee is, a clumsy unskilled barista can very easily destroy its potential.

Ultimately, specialty coffee is defined separately at each stage of its journey; as green coffee, roasted coffee beans and finally a prepared beverage. Perhaps then, what is most truly special about a genuine specialty coffee is that its potential has endured every step of the journey from field to cup. The meticulous sorting and processing, careful storage and transportation, the roasting precision needed to develop flavour and bring the best out of the coffee, and finally in the preparation of the beverage itself.

Speciality coffee can be a unique offering for your business, but to truly understand it’s history and what it provides to consumers is what it takes to become a specialty coffee shop.


Adam Hartshorne is head of innovation at wholesale coffee machine, equipment and bean suppliers, Coffee Central

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