What Is a Specialty Coffee?

A specialty coffee has a grade over 80 points.

More and more consumers are hearing this: “Specialty Coffee” and even though it’s not something new for people who work in the coffee industry, a lot of people don’t know very well what it is about. Is it an exclusive type of coffee? Why is it more expensive? How can it be differentiated from commercial coffee? To define Specialty Coffee we need to look at it from various angles.

Special from the beginning

The coffee farmers have two ways of working: make money by quantity or look for markets dedicated to high quality. If they choose the latter, they will dedicate more care and money to good farming practices, new coffee varieties, fertilization and more, with the goal of obtaining a better coffee.

What are they looking for? For example, they want the fruit to concentrate more sugars, the plant to be well nourished, less defective fruits, to collect mature cherries only… all of this guarantees better quality in their coffee flavor.

A lot of special coffees are also appreciated because they come from arabica varieties that are not very common. You have probably heard about the Geisha coffee, an arabica plant that requires very special care but produces an extraordinary coffee: with a very intense flower scent, bergamot and exotic fruit flavor.

Special process and roast

Once it has been harvested, coffee then starts the milling process. The coffee mills are facilities where a group of machines will separate the cherries from the debris, extract the grain (seed) from the fruit and then wash it and later take it to dry.

Each step of milling is critical if we really want specialty coffee: if the best cherries aren’t separated, the defective grains aren’t taken away, if the fermentation takes too long or the drying process is incorrect, all these factors will affect the quality of flavor.

In Costa Rica, where the Fudi&Co coffee comes from, they use the wet process, the specialty coffee is tracked and worked separately. The Costa Rican producers have innovated by introducing different kinds of milling:

  • Traditional: the whole grain is washed from the pulp.
  • Honey: some parts of the pulp are left on to varying degrees.
  • Natural: the grain is not extracted from the pulp at all and it’s dried with the whole cherry.
  • Anaerobic: the grains are left inside a covered container with water to be fermented without any air interfering.

In the drying stage it is also possible to distinguish the specialty coffee from the commercial coffee. The coffee farmers, in their effort to bring up the best flavors use different drying methods:

  • African tables (also called raised tables)
  • Patio sun drying (the most traditional method used in Costa Rica)
  • Machine drying (ovens)

The purpose of the drying stage is to bring the moisture of the grain down to 10% – 12%, because too much moisture can cause a mildew taste, a serious defect in coffee.

After drying, the green coffee goes through different sorting systems by density and size. The high quality coffee has good density and a certain size, without broken or defective grains that at the time of roasting could ruin the whole work previously made.

Let’s talk about roasting. In Spain and many other places in the world, specialty coffee is proposing a change: to get rid of the dark roast with burnt taste and go for a medium roast, free from additives like sugar and other substances or flavors that a good coffee does not need. Don’t forget that roasting with additives is used to mask the defects of bad quality coffee!

Roasting can either bring out the best of the coffee or ruin the whole process as we have explained. Today, thanks to specialty coffee, the number of roasters is increasing:  these are people and companies that study the characteristics of their coffee to then roast them in the best way possible so that we can experience its flavor to the fullest.

Specialty Coffee Grading

How do you define the quality at the end of all this process? Here’s where the coffee tasters come in. They are tasting professionals who find coffee’s defects and qualities, after that they assign it a grade.

When a taster examines a coffee, first he or she starts by studying a sample of green coffee (unroasted) to know if it has any imperfections. Then takes a look at the roasted grain and then proceeds to taste it: the taster grades its acidity, flavor notes, complexity, body, fragrances, scents…

The tasters who can give a valid grading are called Q graders and have passed very comprehensive tests to be certified as such. The Q graders taste arabica coffee and they all have the same grading system established by the SCAA. Something similar to what happens with wine grading.

What’s the grade of a specialty coffee? In the coffee market a specialty coffee is defined as one that has a grade over 80 points. This is the coffee that everyone should drink.

Under that qualification are the commercial coffees, those of less quality (lower flavor complexity, more defects in their grain and taste). Over 85-86 points are the more exclusive coffees.  The ones that win first place in the auctions like the Cup of Excellence or the Presidential Award are graded with 90 points or more.

Logically, the coffees with the best grades are the most scarce. The ones with lower grades are abundant. Because of this and all the effort invested in the process, specialty coffee has a much higher price.