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What Is Specialty Coffee? The Art, Science, and Culture Behind Your Perfect Cup

Updated: Apr 20, 2023

Specialty coffee has become increasingly popular over the past decade, fueled by the third-wave coffee movement that has swept across the globe. The term "specialty coffee" may conjure up images of meticulously crafted lattes or single-origin beans sourced from remote regions of the world, but there is much more to it than just aesthetics or geography.

In this article, we will delve into the complex world of specialty coffee, exploring its definition, history, production process, and the various elements that make it stand out from the more conventional coffee offerings.

Defining Specialty Coffee

At its core, specialty coffee refers to the highest quality coffee beans, which are carefully selected, grown, processed, and roasted to create a cup of coffee with distinctive flavor profiles, aromas, and characteristics.

The Specialty Coffee Association (SCA) has determined some standards that coffee must meet in order to be considered "specialty." These standards cover a range of criteria, including the coffee quality of the green coffee beans, the processing methods, the coffee roasting, and the cup quality. To be considered specialty coffee, beans must score at least 80 points out of a possible 100 on the SCA's scale.

History of Specialty Coffee: A Deeper Look

The history of specialty coffee can be traced back to the origins of coffee itself, which began in Ethiopia. People say that Kaldi was a goat herder. He noticed his goats were more active after they ate the cherries from a certain tree. That's how he found out about coffee beans and their energy-giving powers. This led to the cultivation of coffee plants and the eventual spread of coffee consumption throughout the Arabian Peninsula.

The First and Second Waves of Coffee

The first wave of coffee refers to the mass commercialization of coffee, which began in the 19th century. During this period, coffee transformed from a luxury item to an everyday commodity, with brands like Folgers and Maxwell House becoming household names. However, the emphasis on mass production led to a decline in the quality of coffee, as it was often blended, over-roasted, and produced using lower-quality beans.

The second wave of coffee emerged in the 20th century, with companies like Peet's Coffee and Starbucks introducing espresso-based drinks to the masses. This wave saw a shift towards a more refined coffee experience, focusing on the variety of drinks that could be made from coffee beans.

However, it still lacked the emphasis on quality, sustainability, and the uniqueness of individual specialty coffee bean that would define the specialty coffee movement.

The Birth of Specialty Coffee

The specialty coffees' movement, often referred to as the third wave, began in the 1970s. Visionaries such as Alfred Peet of Peet's Coffee and later, Erna Knutsen, played pivotal roles in the development of specialty coffee. Knutsen is credited with coining the term "specialty coffee" and was a strong advocate for the importance of origin, quality, and flavor profiles in coffee beans.

The 1980s and 1990s saw the rise of roasters and retailers who focused on sourcing and roasting high-quality beans. Pioneering companies like Intelligentsia, Stumptown, and Counter Culture Coffee emerged during this period, championing the cause of specialty coffee and educating consumers about the nuances of high-quality beans and proper brewing techniques.

Global Expansion and Influence

The 2000s witnessed the rapid global expansion of the speciality coffee movement, as it spread beyond North America and Europe to other regions of the world. As the movement gained momentum, it sparked a resurgence of interest in single-origin beans, direct trade, and sustainable farming practices.

Today, high-quality coffee shops and roasters can be found in cities across the globe, each striving to showcase the unique flavors and characteristics of the beans they source and roast.

The Impact of Specialty Coffee

The specialty coffee movement has had a profound impact on the speciality coffee market as a whole, raising the bar for quality and ethical standards. The focus on sustainability and fair trade practices has improved the livelihoods of coffee farmers, while consumers have gained a deeper appreciation for the complexities and nuances of coffee.

Specialty coffee has also inspired a new generation of coffee professionals, from roasters and baristas to researchers and educators, who are dedicated to furthering the understanding and enjoyment of coffee.

As the speciality coffees' movement continues to evolve, it remains committed to the principles of quality, sustainability, and innovation that have defined its history. In doing so, it not only enriches our coffee experiences but also fosters a more responsible and interconnected global coffee community.

The Production Process

specialty coffee trade

The journey of specialty coffee begins with the selection of high-quality beans, which typically come from the Arabica species. Factors such as altitude, climate, and soil composition contribute to the unique flavor profiles of the beans. Additionally, many specialty coffee producers practice sustainable farming methods, which help preserve the ecosystem and maintain the quality of the beans.

Once harvested, the beans undergo a meticulous processing method, which can be either wet (washed) or dry (natural). The choice of processing method impacts the flavor profile of the final product. After processing, the beans are dried and sorted, with any defective beans being removed.

Roasting is the next crucial step, and it is here that the complex flavors and aromas of specialty coffee are developed. Roasting profiles can range from light to dark, each imparting a different set of characteristics to the beans. The roasting process requires skill and precision, as the slightest variation in temperature or roast time can dramatically affect the final product.

The Art of Brewing Specialty Coffee

To fully appreciate specialty coffee, it is essential to brewing it correctly. There are numerous brewing methods, each with its own set of variables, such as grind size, water temperature, and brew time.

Some popular methods include pour-over, French press, and espresso. Regardless of the method used, it is important to use fresh, properly ground beans and the appropriate water-to-coffee ratio to achieve the desired flavor profile.

Specialty Coffee Culture

The specialty coffee movement has fostered a vibrant and diverse culture, with coffee shops, roasteries, and events dedicated to celebrating the craft. This culture emphasizes the importance of sustainability, ethical sourcing, and direct trade relationships between growers, roasters, and consumers. Specialty coffee also encourages creativity and innovation, with baristas constantly pushing the boundaries of brewing techniques and latte artistry.

The Future of Specialty Coffee: New Horizons and Challenges

specialty coffee

As the specialty coffee movement continues to expand and evolve, it faces new horizons and challenges that will shape its future. From technological advancements to pressing sustainability issues, the specialty coffee industry must adapt and innovate to maintain its commitment to keenly identify coffee quality and ethics.

Innovations in Technology

Technological advancements are playing an increasingly significant role in the specialty coffee industry, with new tools and methods being developed to enhance various stages of coffee production and brewing.

For example, advances in precision agriculture, such as drones and satellite imagery, are helping farmers monitor their crops and optimize growing conditions. In the roasting process, innovations like data-driven roasting machines and roast profiling software are enabling roasters to achieve greater consistency and control over their craft.

Additionally, specialty coffee enthusiasts can now access a wide array of brewing devices and gadgets designed to elevate the home-brewing experience. These innovations not only improve the quality and consistency of coffee but also empower consumers to explore the full potential of the beans they purchase.

Final Thoughts

Specialty coffee is more than just a product; it is a celebration of the art, science, and culture of coffee. From the meticulous selection and processing of beans to the craft of brewing and the vibrant community that surrounds it, specialty coffee represents a commitment to excellence in every aspect of the coffee experience. As the specialty coffee movement continues to grow and evolve, it brings with it a deeper appreciation for the rich, diverse flavors of the coffee bean, the farmers who cultivate it, and the baristas who bring it to life in our cups.

The appeal of specialty coffee lies not only in its exceptional taste but also in the knowledge that each cup is the culmination of hard work, dedication, and passion from everyone involved in its journey from seed to sip. As we enjoy our perfectly brewed cups of specialty coffee, we can savor not only the complex flavors and aromas but also the stories of the people and places that have contributed to creating this unique experience.

Ultimately, specialty coffee has transformed the way we think about and enjoy coffee, elevating it from a simple commodity to an artisanal product with a rich history and culture. By supporting the specialty coffee industry, we are not only rewarding ourselves with a superior coffee experience but also contributing to a more sustainable, ethical, and interconnected global coffee community, such as coffee lovers, local coffee bar, and coffee drinkers.

So, the next time you find yourself in a specialty coffee shop, take a moment to appreciate the art, science, and passion behind that perfect cup. Consider the journey the coffee beans have taken, the skill and precision of the roaster, and the craftsmanship of the barista. Specialty coffee is truly a testament to the power of collaboration, innovation, and the pursuit of excellence in the world of coffee.

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