What is specialty coffee?

Coffee is my favorite beverage most of the time, except when I begin craving the good old Milo or Bournvita. Been loving coffee since I was a kid, with a knack for dipping my bread-butter into my mom’s coffee cop instead of my own bournvita (Did anyone else do that?) And then sometime last year, a whole new world of knowledge opened up for me when I participated in a coffee cupping and roasting at Blue Tokai Coffee Roasters in Mahalaxmi, Mumbai. And that is where I discovered what I am going to talk about today – Specialty Coffee.

But before I tell you what is Specialty Coffee, I need to tell you what is the SCA.

What is SCA?

The Specialty Coffee Association or SCA is a trade association built on foundations of openness, inclusivity, and the power of shared knowledge. Its purpose is to foster global coffee communities to support activities to make coffee a more sustainable, equitable, and thriving activity for the whole value chain. Their members range from coffee farmers to baristas and coffee roasters. The SCA acts as a unifying force within the specialty coffee industry and it works to make coffee better by raising the standards worldwide through a collaborative and progressive approach. The association strives to build an industry that is fair, sustainable, and nurturing for all.

Source: SCA.com

The SCA has a 100-point scale that is used to score coffee on different physical and sensory attributes. Coffees that score above 80 on this scale during the cupping process, are identified as specialty coffee. Sounds complicated, isn’t it? I’ll simplify it, read on. Let’s first talk about the three waves of coffee.

The three waves of coffee

The concept of the three waves of coffee was inspired by the idea of the three waves of feminism. Yes, there have been three waves of feminism, but right now, let’s focus on the coffee.

The first wave of coffee is the era where the focus was on providing accessible, low-price, consistent cups of coffee to the masses. During this era, the people did not differentiate in the coffee based on origin or type. Coffee, was just that – coffee. So, instant coffee, grocery store canned coffee, diner coffee, all types and sorts of coffee were just coffee – nothing more, nothing less.

The second wave of coffee is the era that saw the beginning of artisanal sourcing, roasting, blending, etc. and is considered to have begun around the late 60s. The country of coffee origin and their signature roast profile was given importance. This is when coffee began going beyond a generic cup of coffee.

And then, there is the third wave of coffee. This is the wave where the concept of ‘specialty coffee’ was born.

The term ‘specialty coffee’ was first used in 1974 in the Tea and Coffee Trade Journal, to describe beans of the highest quality. Do not confuse ‘specialty coffee’ with ‘gourmet coffee’. The latter has no standards as such, where as the former has to adhere to strict guidelines to qualify as specialty coffee. Not everybody can grade and call any coffee as specialty coffee, the beans have to be graded by certified coffee tasters, called Q-graders.

Specialty Coffee – The Q-grade Score Sheet

ScoreGradeSpecialty – Yes/No
90 – 100OutstandingYes
85 – 89.99ExcellentYes
80 – 84.99Very GoodYes
Below 80No gradingNo

For grading, the green coffee beans are first visually inspected, then cupped after roasting. The defects are classified as primary (such as black beans, sour beans, etc.) or secondary (such as broken beans). Coffee can be classified as specialty coffee only if it has zero primary defects and less than five secondary defects. After a visual inspection, the coffee sample is roasted and brewed. Then the coffee is evaluated (cupping process) for different attributes like acidity, body, flavor, and aroma. Once the scores are assigned to each attribute, they are totaled up. The maximum possible score is, of course, 100. Based on the grading sheet table I’ve shown above, the coffee falls into different grades and is graded as specialty coffee if it scores above 80. Anything below 80 is regarded as commercial coffee and does not qualify as specialty coffee.

What does Specialty Coffee mean for the consumer?

When you buy specialty coffee, you are guaranteed to receive the very best of the coffee experience. Needless to say, specialty coffee will always be priced at a premium over commercial coffee. But when you buy a bag of specialty coffee, you are supporting the tireless efforts of coffee growers, roasters, and everyone in the coffee value chain. It takes a lot of effort to grow, process, and sell specialty coffee, and every bag you buy, whatever roaster or store you buy it from, is your contribution towards more sustainable, more good quality coffee production and processing. Simply put, you can buy low-priced commercial coffee which will be of lower quality, which would be processed to cover the defects and shortcomings of the lower quality coffee. When you buy commercial coffee, you get just coffee – dark and bitter to cover the defects. The good flavors, oils, antioxidants, everything gets stripped. When you buy specialty coffee, you support the coffee value chain, and in turn get a valuable coffee experience. There is a whole world of treasures to explore when it comes to specialty coffee. When they said a lot can happen over coffee, I feel they were definitely talking about specialty coffee.

Is the specialty coffee experience only about coffee growers then?

No. Of course, not!

The experience a consumer has with the coffee is dependent on multiple factors, and it is definitely not only about the coffee growers. Every player in the coffee chain has to be extremely mindful and committed to delivering the best possible coffee experience for the consumer to have an outstanding specialty coffee experience. Once the coffee is grown, there are so many processes that take place before the coffee reaches your cup – harvesting, processing, roasting, grinding, brewing – and every step leaves its mark on the coffee that you will experience in your cup in some way or the other. Any drop in the chain during any stage will also leave its mark on the coffee. So, everyone has to be on their toes to make sure only the best output goes ahead to the next stage. And that’s why you should buy specialty coffee. Its like buying the finest quality of Alphonso mangoes – because you want to make sure that your mangoes are organically produced, naturally ripened, and are not damaging to the environment or to your health in any way.

Hope that helped you understand the phenomenon that is specialty coffee? The specialty coffee scene in India is growing and developing. The coffee estates in India are doing some amazing work growing outstanding coffees, adopting newer innovative and experimental techniques for processing the coffee. There are also a lot of outstanding coffee roasters that offer a wide spectrum of great specialty coffees. Go ahead, get exploring!

One Comment Add yours

  1. bhavipatel says:

    Reblogged this on blackbeautyandme.

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