New to specialty coffee? What’s all the fuss about?
If you’ve been to a coffee shop, you might well have heard the term “Specialty Coffee” used to describe the coffee the barista is serving up. Sounds good! I mean it’s got the word “special” in it, so it must be, well, special, no? But what exactly is so special about Specialty Coffee and what should you expect when ordering a cup of joe from a Speciality Coffee shop?
In the most basic sense, Speciality Coffee refers to the number of points a coffee has received from a qualified “Q Grader” (the coffee equivalent of a sommelier). Coffees are blind-tasted or “cupped” using a “Brazilian Cupping method” which entails coarsely grinding a specific amount of coffee, brewing it with a specific amount of water and then slurping and smelling it after specific time periods to ascertain the coffee’s underlying flavours and aromas.
The coffee is then graded from a score of 0-100, with 100 being the best, most flawless god-like coffee imaginable, and 0 being the equivalent of you not being able to tell whether what you’re drinking is potato water or coffee (no offense meant to the potato lovers out there). A coffee is regarded as specialty if it scores 80 points or more, though many in the business have now set the bar unofficially at 85 points or more.
The description above is a gross simplification of what Speciality Coffee is and only really represents one of the many hurdles that a coffee has to overcome to be regarded as specialty, but it nonetheless is an acceptable definition if someone is looking for something concise.
If you’re interested in more detail dear reader, and want to strut your stuff to that cute barista at your local coffee shop, please read on!
Needless to say, it all starts with the coffee plant itself. Coffee, like wine, has many types of varieties, but just like wine, some are more popular than others. The most commercially available coffees are Arabica and Robusta, and within those two broad categories of coffee you have hundreds of sub-varieties and hybrids (more on that some other time). While Specialty Robustas (referred to as “Fine Robustas”) are an emerging segment of the coffee industry, it is generally agreed that Arabica coffee varieties are the only ones that can currently achieve specialty status. This is because Arabica coffees tend to have more delicate notes and pleasant acidities compared to Robusta’s more vegetable and bitter notes.
Assuming terroir, planting methodology and weather all go the farmer’s way, the next crucial step is the harvesting technique. Coffee beans are, in fact, the seed of the coffee fruit, which are called “cherries” given their semblance to that fruit. Specialty Coffees tend to be hand picked, with pickers only choosing ripe coffee cherries, discarding overripe fruit and allowing juvenile onesto continue to mature. Coffee cherries do not all ripen at the same time, so this picking process is very selective. Commercial coffees on the other hand, tend to strip the plant mechanically once the majority of the coffee is ripe, which leads to a mix of cherries at all stages of maturity – with twigs and debris included in the mix. This can give the coffee a bitter, astringent or even cheesy taste.
This is perhaps the most crucial stage of the whole coffee process at origin. After picking, the coffees are then sorted again with skilled workers picking out any leaves or twigs that may have accidentally fallen into the baskets during the harvest, and further selecting coffee cherries to make sure they are perfectly ripe.
The farmer then has 3 options to choose from with regards to the processing of the cherries and the coffee bean that resides inside it: they can choose the washed process (coffee cherry is hulled, and the mucilage removed from the bean with water before drying), the semi-washed/honey process (coffee cherry is hulled and then the bean is left out to dry with mucilage still on) or the natural process (coffee cherry and bean are left out to dry without doing anything to them). Each of these processes takes about 2-4 weeks and greatly influences the final flavour.
Green Bean Selection
After the beans have dried and been rested for up to 3 months in their parchment (a protective layout layer of “skin” on the bean), the parchment is removed and the beans are further selected again by hand. The latter is done to check for defects such as insect damage, black beans, chips and sour beans. In many countries the beans are further sorted by size as an additional part of the sorting process. It is at this point that beans are first graded based on their appearance alone, with green (unroasted) coffee samples sent to green coffee analytic centres to count defects in the sample. Too many physical defects and the coffee won’t be considered for specialty grading.
After the coffees have passed the physical inspection, it’s time for the first tasting, or “cupping” of a sample. The coffee is lightly roasted, then tasted to identify any flavour defects. A combination of a lack of defects (not too bitter, no mouldy, earthy notes etc), the presence of at least one identifiable and unique aroma (like an obvious jasmine aroma) and balanced flavour notes will usually help a coffee reach that 80+ point threshold.
I say first cupping, because the coffee will be cupped at least one more time once it arrives at its destination. If the coffee has deteriorated during the trip, well then, too bad, it can no longer be classified as specialty. This is why the next step is also very important.
How coffee beans are shipped is imperative in preserving quality. Commercial coffees tend to be shipped in yute bags without any internal covering. Containers can be overfilled, which can cause condensation, mould and other defects during the months-long voyage to Europe or North America – where the bulk of coffee is consumed. To protect all the hard work the farmers have put in, Speciality Coffee is usually shipped in specifically designed bags like Ecotact, which further protect the coffee from external changes in humidity and moisture.
Once the beans arrive at their port of destination they are cupped again. Coffees that have deteriorated too much during the voyage, are declassified as Specialty and sold on at a commercial grade, while those that have managed to keep their flavours are sent to specialty distributors and then on to coffee roasters to sample.
You’ve got your specialty-grade coffee beans, now we need to roast them to make that coffee brew we all know and love. Enter the Speciality Coffee roaster. Normally, Speciality Coffees are roasted lighter than commercial coffees to keep as much of the flavour of the beans as possible. Darker roasts burn off bad flavours in the coffee, but they also burn off the good ones. Given that specialty-grade beans go through rigorous quality controls at every stage of the production process , a good roaster shouldn’t over-roast his beans, in order to preserve those lovely aromas. Even if a roastery bought specialty-grade green coffee beans, if it’s not roasted properly, a cupping by a Q-grader would likely downgrade the quality of the coffee.
The final stage of the coffee’s journey is the transformation of the bean into a drink. Coffee can be brewed many different ways: with an espresso machine, a Chemex, an Aeropress, a French Press – the list goes on. No matter what the brewing method, there is an objectively “correct” way of extracting the coffee. Over-extracted coffees are usually bitter and astringent, with under-extracted ones watery and overly acidic. Even if all the previous steps were adhered to perfection, if you don’t extract the coffee correctly, it won’t taste good.
So what have we learnt? Specialty Coffee is more than just the 80+ points given by a Q-grader. It’s a laborious process from start to finish, involving several precise and delicate steps, each of which is vital to realizing the coffee’s full potential. Deviation at any stage of the production chain can downgrade the final product to commercial-grade coffee. Given all these factors, and the meticulous care taken at every step, when you do experience a great cup of coffee, cherish it. Stop and wonder at the sheer improbability of it all, because it really is something special.