Why Specialty Coffee is “special”, and why care about what’s in your cup…
As you’ve guessed, I am that coffee person, and yes, this entails a long ramble about coffee that I wrote at my own leisure. Whatever you’ve typed in your search bar to come across this post, makes you my audience, so I am extending a very warm welcome. Allow me to regale you with stories of coffee that are an amalgamation of facts and passion charged opinions. If you’ve assumed that I am an aficionado, you are right my friends, and I admit I have fallen hard for the fad. I hope you are as passionate as I am or at least interested in hearing the story of how and why coffee aficionados came to build an entire empire of likeminded people with stringent standards and processes all to honor a glorious bag of beans. Hear me out and please don’t hold me accountable if I offend. I have grown to love the fad and I can say that I have married the process that comes with preparing a cup of coffee. Specialty coffee to be specific.
I will start this very abruptly, just the way we fanatics do, and to sell it I’ll say, at least I’m not talking about CrossFit. Most adults in Today’s world (and some non-adults — something I don’t agree with but that’s for another post) would agree that coffee is a miraculous beverage. For many, it is the only way to start one’s day, and early on in this post I will state, that’s just about all I agree with when it comes to most of the global coffee consumption. A lot of people, when they visualize that ideal cup of coffee whether to start off a day or to reenergize midday, they think of an americano, an instant espresso, caramel latte, strawberry Frappuccino, the list goes on and on and on. These beverages are either packed with sugar i.e., one drink would provide you with a minimum of 42 grams of sugar and makes one think, are they in love with the coffee or have they gotten themselves an unhealthy sugar addiction? Or they come to love the ease with which we can make various forms of coffee that in their essence don’t hold the value of the bean. I speak from experience. Not long ago, I would eye the sweetest, least coffee tasting drink on a menu, because, well I mean coffee is bitter and gross. A friend of mine once described coffee as dirty water, and I couldn’t argue that description. In fact, it made me giggle and think, well it is dirty water… Back then though I hadn’t stumbled into the world of specialty coffee. I came across specialty coffee around 4 years ago when I first bought the very famous Chemex. I had seen it everywhere and thought it was the coolest looking thing and had to have it on my counter. At the time, I hadn’t a clue what I was doing as I was using pre-ground dark roasted coffee that just did not taste good and I didn’t get the hype. Since then, my opinion on coffee has significantly changed, and my friend who described coffee as dirty water? Yeah, she has an opinion on coffee now. She loves her medium roast single origin Ethiopian beans and she brews her own every morning, even if it means waking up earlier to do it, or on some days arriving late to work for a cup of “dirty water”. Impressive no? You see, specialty coffee isn’t a gimmicky marketing/propaganda scheme to sell brown water for $7. It is quite the opposite.
First off, let’s define our terms. What makes specialty coffee, “specialty”? I will preface by saying, I will focus on the production of coffee, one of many aspects of what makes coffee “specialty”. However, I would argue this is the most important aspect and one we should all care about. As end user consumers, it is our duty to bridge that disconnect from the entire cycle from which we get our products from, and this post will serve exactly that purpose. Specialty coffees can be traced to a single origin, region, and sometimes even micro-lot. They are harvested at their peak and are different to other coffee because beans are grown at the perfect altitude (usually 1500m+ above sea level), at the correct time of year, using the finest soil, and then picked at the optimal time. This translates to some of the most voluptuous coffee in the world. The term “Specialty Coffee” refers to coffee that is graded 80 points or above on a 100-point scale by a certified coffee taster or by a licensed Q Grader (professional coffee tasters who must pass rigorous training and countless tests) under strict cupping standards. The cupping standards are blind and test different aspects of the coffee from the dry aroma and fragrance, to the body, acidity, and finish of the cup. With these grades, the score is given with the highest scores only given to the most special of coffees.
While specialty coffee gained popularity rather recently, it has existed for a long time in one form or another. We think of specialty coffee as being a new trend, yet even as far back as the early 1900s, discerning customers like the Hotel du Crillon in Paris specified that their coffee was to be bought from select micro-lots on specific farms in certain regions of Guatemala. The term “Specialty Coffee” was first used in the 1970s in the Tea and Coffee Trade Journal, just a few years after the opening of the first Starbucks store. Thanks to stores like Starbucks and Peet’s, coffee went from a modern convenience to an experience. Since then, improvements in agricultural, roasting, and brewing technology, and an increased demand for high-quality coffee have put specialty coffee in the hands of coffee lovers across the world.
This brings us to the different types of coffee. Essentially, there are two breeds of coffee beans that we should all know — Robusta and Arabica. By no means are these the only breeds of coffee, but we will focus on them for simplicity. You can think of these as dog breeds, a Huskey vs a Poodle. Both are dogs, and that’s just about where the similarities end. Similarly, Robusta and Arabica, while both coffees, are not built the same. Robusta, known for its denser shape, is the coffee most people know and the coffee most of us have tasted. It is the reason for coffee being known as tasting “bitter” or “burnt”. While many people will vouch for this coffee bean and their satisfaction with it (more power to them), I’m here to boldly argue that it is by far the inferior breed.
Up until about 20 years ago, almost all coffee produced globally came from the Robusta plant for a few reasons. First and foremost, Robusta plants grow far quicker than Arabica plants. Second, they are easier to grow and require less care. Third, more caffeine. These are remarkable pros, but they come with costs. Robustas, while easier and less burdensome, and usually cheaper to grow, place a great burden on the supply chain segment of the process. More specifically, on farmers. To orient everyone, I must first touch on those involved in the supply chain process. It all starts with farmers who invest years of energy and focus into creating an adequate product with appropriate selling standards. They then sell their green beans to dedicated roasters who have built connections with the farmers to ensure quality and value. This hard work ends up in the hands of the barista, whose responsibility it is to give justice to this product. Finally, we can savor a delicious cup of coffee. Looking at this supply chain makes one wonder how coffee shops are profitable selling a cup at $7 after accounting for the cost of the green beans, the expensive roasting and brewing equipment, and lastly, the fair wages everyone receives in the process. I’ll leave this here for you to think about for now as I continue our discussion. However, if you’re interested in learning more about this, stay tuned for my next post where I’ll dive deeply into the topic.
Now for a tour behind the scenes, Robusta’s ease of growth and speed at which a harvest can be produced makes the bean abundant, which leads to a significant decrease in prices, forcing farmers to adapt by decreasing their costs for their green beans, in order to remain competitive. This in turn, crowds out smaller farmers. This bean sounds like the perfect business plan and has been produced on such a large scale by mega companies around the world. Looking at this we think, this is a win for us, we get a cheaper cup of our morning essential, but at what cost?
Food for thought here. To give you an idea of the scale of this difference in price, have a look below at the averages prices per kilo of Arabica compared to Robusta. The price for Arabica is on average more than double that of Robusta globally. One glance at this and it becomes clear how producers are getting cut short.
We spoke a lot about Robustas, but what are Arabica beans anyway? And why so special? Arabica plants are notoriously difficult to grow, are very susceptible to disease, and can take over 10 years to produce a single harvest. In fact, the plants that produce Arabica coffee beans are extremely climate sensitive. They tend to thrive at high altitudes within a narrow temperature band of 15–24 degrees Celsius and require plenty of rainfall and sunshine (two things that don’t usually come hand in hand). Even once all conditions are met, there remains a high risk of disease infecting the plant and rendering it useless for the next 20 years — a huge risk that farmers bear. People today will throw money at a good bottle of wine, but just as good wine is reliant on the terroir of the grapes to take its flavor, coffee is no different in that it is shaped and flavored by its surroundings and conditions in which it is grown.
Up to now, this is sounding like a terrible investment. Why on earth would anyone put in such effort when there are many easier ways to grow coffee? The answer is one word: passion. One can’t argue that Arabica plants are a huge burden on farmers, however, farmers are fully aware of the value returned from their patience and hard work. Which brings us to the most important question as consumers. Why should we care about the coffee we are drinking? In our modern consumer society, we are constantly diving away from quality products and more into cost saving products due to various reasons, and I can’t blame anyone for their reasons. But what about value? Your cup of Robusta blend coffee could be filled to the brim with cream and sugar for a couple dollars cheaper than a filter brewed black Arabica coffee, but here I would argue the value for money is not only better if you get that Arabica, but you can feel good about the producers you’re supporting. If an extra $2 can increase the pleasure you get from your morning brew, while simultaneously giving you the peace of mind that it’s going to a good cause, then who wouldn’t be all for it?
Now if I’ve piqued your interest and you’re thinking “I’m sold Jason, now tell me what to do next,” then read on for some next steps to dive deep into this coffee culture. I’ll start with tasting specialty coffee. If you’ve been drinking commercial coffee, you probably have come to expect notes of charcoal and wood in your cup. With specialty coffee, you’ll unlock a world of flavors that you didn’t think could exist in black coffee. Blueberries, stone fruits, cinnamon, chocolate, jasmine tea, berry jams, citrus, and way more, including one particularly interesting one — strawberry milk: a description made by my converted friend. The list doesn’t end there. If you’d like to dive deeper into the different notes of specialty coffee, you can look at the infamous coffee flavor wheel and I encourage you to have a look at this the next time you’re sipping your coffee, specialty or not. Close your eyes, smell your coffee, and keep track of the notes you instantly think of. Then take a small sip and check the notes again. My tip is to focus, and think of the flavors you already know and your mind will draw the connections and all you have to do is see where you are on this wheel.
Now what is this craze? There has in fact been a recent explosion of the specialty coffee industry. Up until only several years ago, it was rare to come across a coffee shop that didn’t serve anything but commercial grade coffee. This recent boom is due in part to the formation of the Specialty Coffee Association (SCA). The SCA, which was started at a very small scale in 1982, is now taking over the coffee world. The SCA is the reason we have coffee standards today and the reason “specialty” coffee shops exist. For a coffee shop to be a member of the SCA, there are several standards they need to achieve in terms of the quality of their coffee. There are no real rules on who can call themselves “specialty” but the SCA certifies shops which truly follow all the standards of specialty coffee. In addition to the conception of specialty coffee shops, the SCA is also a fantastic resource for all things coffee, including coffee communities that you can join in your area, as well as barista and brewing competitions around the world that you could attend.
I will leave you with a few closing words until my next post where I’ll continue my talking about what qualifies coffee as specialty. If you are reading this, and you are already on board with this new age coffee movement, then continue ma’am/sir, I encourage you to carry on exploring this enticing world and to take advantage of the many resources made available by the SCA. And if you are someone who has never tasted specialty coffee, I only ask one thing. Next time you come across a specialty coffee shop, refrain from your standard eyeroll reaction, and just try a cup. I promise you won’t regret it. Furthermore, there is no better time to connect with people who share this passion and I encourage you to go out and speak to your baristas, roasters, and coffee shop owners and ask them questions. As a fellow coffee connoisseur, I can promise you that they will welcome your conversation with open arms.
If you’re still reading, I first want to thank you for your support. This will be the first article of a mini-series on specialty coffee, which I will be following with articles on other aspects of what makes coffee specialty, as well as some at home brew guides and recipes. These will include coffee history about the many different techniques, my favorites, and the pros and cons of each.
Until next time,