Waleed Alsaggaf

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Consumers in the US believe that 48% of their coffee is specialty, according to the National Coffee Association of America (2015). But is that true? What actually is specialty coffee? And how is it different to labels like “third wave” and “gourmet”?

We reached out to several professionals in the specialty coffee industry, from producers to roasters, to ask them these questions – and more.

Specialty Coffee: The Technical Definition

Before we start sharing the professionals’ opinions, let’s quickly look at the technical definition.

All coffee beans can be graded out of 100. This grading process is called “cupping”. And according to the Specialty Coffee Association (SCA), specialty coffee is Arabica coffee with a cup score of 80+ points.

The coffee must have been cupped by a certified Q grader. On top of that, too many defects in a sample of the green, unroasted coffee beans will automatically disqualify that coffee from specialty status.

This sets specialty apart from “gourmet” coffee, which has no strict definition. Gourmet coffee could be high-quality coffee, or it could just be marketing.

Is Specialty Coffee Just About The Beans?

Herbert Peñaloza, Quality Manager and Director of 575 Café in Colombia, explains that specialty coffee producers must pay attention to quality at every stage. Since the beans can’t have (many) defects, the coffee plants need to be carefully cultivated and harvested at the right time, producers must adhere to best processing practices, and storage protocols should also be followed.

But what about roasting and brewing? There’s debate about the extent to which these can be considered specialty.

In 2009, Ric Rhinehart, Executive Director of the SCAA (which has since merged with the SCAE to become the SCA), officially said that specialty coffee was about more than just production and processing. In a blog post on the SCAA website, he wrote, “The final experience is dependent on no single actor in the chain dropping the baton…. [We must] create a definition for specialty at each stage of the game.”

Brewing, espresso, barista and roaster skills… today, there are SCA standards or certifications for all of these.

Carlos De La Torre, Founder of Avellaneda Café in Mexico City, agrees. “Quality and good work need to be done at all stages of the chain, all the way from seed to cup!” (Translated from Spanish to English by the author.)

Yet for others, roasting styles and brewing methods fall under third wave coffee (or even fourth wave) instead.