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What Makes Specialty Coffee Special?

Posted on August 12 2021, By: Woodnote Coffee

Woodnote Specialty Coffee

Specialty coffee. Chances are you've heard this term quite a bit in the coffee world. Specialty beans are all the rage, especially if you're a serious coffee drinker. But have you ever wondered what makes "specialty" coffee so special? Where did this term come from, and is this type of coffee worth all the attention? 

When it comes to quality, coffee is evaluated during a process called cupping, in which it is rated on a scale of one to 100. The Specialty Coffee Association (SCA), the authority on this rating process, dubs a coffee as specialty if it earns a rating of 80 or higher. 

Brief History of Specialty Coffee

The phrase "specialty coffee" was first coined in 1974 by coffee pioneer and early cupper Erna Knutsen. She believed coffee should be preserved from farm to cup, with proper care taken during each step of the process to assure high-quality beans worthy of the specialty label. 

The Determining Factors

Farmer: The farming process provides the base for quality coffee. Many farms nurture the coffee plant for years before a single harvest. Farmers take detailed step-by-step care of their crop to produce high-quality, ethically grown beans. The crop is grown within ideal altitudes and climates, while the soil and shade are monitored and adjusted as needed. The coffee fruit is picked at peak ripeness, sorted and inspected for defects, then husked — either washed or sundried, depending on the region — to maintain the quality.  

Roaster: The coffee roast also contributes to the quality, as it can add to or take away from the beans' flavor profile. Roasters go through rigorous training to monitor the entire process and ensure an even roast, or at least a roast that complements the particular bean and how it was farmed. In general, lighter roasts have more unique original flavors, which the roasting process seeks to preserve. Darker roasts tend to have a similar flavor profile, containing more caramelized, smoky, and slightly bitter notes. 

Cupping: Cupping is the final step in determining whether a coffee is truly specialty. It's a delicate way of brewing coffee, meant to extract the most flavor from each cup. In a similar way to Turkish coffee, cupping involves leaving the coffee grounds in the cup, and cuppers will use a spoon to slurp the coffee. Full immersion allows them to taste the coffee at its fullest. A panel of judges rate the coffee according to factors such as defect, balance, overall profile, acidity, sweetness, and cleanness. If the beans score 80 and above, the coffee is considered very good. A score of 90 and above, however, is outstanding — some of the top coffee in the world.  

Brew: Baristas, home enthusiasts, and coffee connoisseurs all go through their own variation of brew training, whether attained through YouTube or official certification. Regardless of the training, though, each brew method can alter the coffee flavor profile. An espresso shot will taste different from drip coffee brewed in a pot, which will taste different from a pour over. All of this is taken into consideration for specialty coffee.

There you have it! Who knew that so much went into making specialty coffee? The name is well earned. Next time you drink some specialty coffee, take a moment to appreciate the detailed process that went into producing the cup in your hand. All so you could enjoy coffee at its best.