What is specialty coffee?

What is specialty coffee?

Specialty coffee, served in specific bars and cafes, is a special, fine type of coffee, the production process of which is a collective effort.

Lately he hears about it all over the place, but understanding what it means is another matter. Specialty coffee is defined as a prized green coffee of the Arabica species, roasted in order to best express its aromatic and gustatory profile and extracted according to precise quality standards . Simple, but not super simple. This definition, if reread carefully, reveals in fact the different steps that a coffee bean must overcome (and successfully) to become specialty , or special. There are essentially 4 stages, and each of these puts the spotlight on a skill, which must be of a high level.

The 4 steps of specialty coffee


  1. It all starts with the farmer , who sows an extraordinary Arabica variety, cultivates it with care, harvests it and processes it appropriately. To give an example, think of the winemaker with wine. The grower pays more attention to quality than quantity.
  2. The second important link in the chain is the green coffee buyer . Following the tasting method of the SCA protocol, Brazilian cupping , evaluates the quality of the bean, any defects and assigns a score: if it exceeds 80 points out of 100 it is a specialty green coffee . The buyer’s task does not end in the plantation, it continues in the roasting to which he will give a lot of information on the uniqueness of the coffee purchased.
  3. The third very delicate step sees the roaster as protagonist . And here anything can happen. A specialty verde can become a coffee of the highest level, thanks to a respectful roasting, or turn into a charred, angular, too bitter or even bad coffee. Toasting is therefore an art that lies in the hands (and equipment) of roasting.
  4. An art that, however, could be spoiled by the carelessness of the barista , the last actor to enter the scene in the long gestation of a specialty coffee . Let’s imagine the scenario: we enter a bar and find (cheers!) A careful selection of specialties . But the steam wand for the milk is dirty, as well as the rest of the bar station, and the coffee, yes, it is already ground and ready for use. Unfortunately, the irreversible has happened: the bar has bought a coffee of the highest level, much more expensive than the classic bar, but the untrained staff has transformed it into a coffee that will be basically… mediocre. The barista’s professionalism is measured in these gestures and in the presentation of the product to the customer.

However, the definition of specialty coffee was not born with this meaning of collective work and interest in maintaining certain standards. A first draft of the concept dates back to 1974 ,a concept taken up, extended and perfectedwhen Erna Knutsen in the Tea & Coffee Trade Journal captured in these two words the fury of a sector that was reborn. It was an act of extreme synthesis, the result of a quick, brilliant mind. Erna saw it this way: special geographical microclimates produce coffees with unique aromatic profiles , which she called special coffees . The Specialty Coffee Association of America has taken up, extended and perfected this concept by inserting it in a very specific context, also formative. And which has led specialty coffees to be one of the most interesting food realities today.

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