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  • Writer's pictureAziza

What is Speciality Coffee?

Updated: Apr 21, 2022

At The Coffee Traveller we use coffee from Caravan Coffee Roasters and it is graded as ‘specialty grade’ coffee.

Only about 4-5% of all coffee grown worldwide can actually be graded as specialty. Making the opportunity to find great coffee very hard and the control of this even harder. But as the industry grows, and more farmers are aware of what they can do to begin to achieve specialty graded coffee, they are making the effort, and thus providing our industry with more product, leading to better coffee in more peoples cups.

“Speciality coffee” is a term that is commonly used now. The majority of people do not really know what it means as it is a term that if anything, is overused. It makes great marketing speak for even very average coffee. So let’s look at the origin of the term.

“Speciality coffee” was coined by Erna Knutsen in an issue of Tea & Coffee Trade Journal way back in 1974. Knutsen used speciality coffee to describe beans of the best flavour which are produced in special micro-climates but has gone to mean coffee of the highest grade, typically relating to the entire supply chain, using single origin or single estate coffee and to sophisticated and consistent blends. Most of the mainstream coffee chains use the phrase to mean one of their regular coffees with some syrup and cream added, but for people in the know it means something totally different!

The very best coffee is graded on a Coffee Review Scale and is a speciality coffee if it falls between 80 points or above on the 100-point Coffee Review Scale. The Specialty Coffee Association of America and the Cup of Excellence both began using 100-point system and is widely accepted within the coffee industry as the best system available to grade fine coffee.

The Coffee Review Scale:

Rating Interpretation

95-100 Exceptional

90-94 Very Good to Outstanding

85-89 Good to Very Good

80-84 Fair

75-79 Poor< 75 Not Recommended

I do need to emphasize here the tasters are trained and experienced at tasting coffee. They are the equivalent of trained and experienced wine tasters and they look for a balanced cup. Marking down the bitter flavours and making sure that there is not too much sour acidity. Tasting is a science in itself. Sour acidity is often felt on the front of your hard palate whilst bitter hits you at the back of your tongue and throat. A well balanced cup is a smooth and is tasted all over.

So what is the difference between a £1 self-serve coffee and a £20 high-end one prepared by dedicated baristas?

Country of Origin can define price:

One aspect that distinguishes a cheap coffee from an expensive one is the bean’s country of origin. In the past, Brazil held the crown as the largest producer of your average-priced milk-based coffee. At the other end of the spectrum, coffee connoisseurs got to enjoy something called Geisha coffee sourced from Panama. The latter was considered the pinnacle of coffee and was famous for its high turn florals, sparkling acidity and heady aromatics and flavours, thus putting it well ahead of the Brazilian sourced beans in terms of pricing. In 2018 a 45kg sack of Geisha coffee grown in Panama broke the world record by selling for US$80,300. However thanks to the internet and greater education in the coffee scene, these fancy Geisha beans are now being grown in Brazil, Colombia and Ethiopia and other countries around the world to respectable standards. As such, the price variance between coffees sourced from different countries are closing in on one another.

Where does a cheap coffee come from?

Cheap cups of coffee sold in non-specialist coffee outlets or even the large chains with their "famous brand of coffee" will be contracting beans from somewhere in the world where they can roast reasonably good commercial quality beans with a low labour costs. The key word here is ‘good enough’. So they’re just paying less for coffee but it’s still commercial quality coffee. Commercial coffee is just coffee that doesn’t reach a high quality standard and doesn’t have as much love put into it. There’s a lot less steps and labour and this is reflected in a cheaper coffee.

So why does your favourite high quality coffee from a barista cost anywhere from £2.50 to £20 or more?

Like anything made to high standards, there are lots of little things that contribute. To produce coffee to a high standard requires a careful strategy, the right technology, is labour intensive and takes time and care.

Obviously there’s less of it because it’s harder to make. Through supply and demand that will push the price up as well. With coffee, the longer and slower it can grow, usually the better quality it can get. Generally higher quality coffee grows higher up in the mountains where there’s less oxygen, and conditions are tougher. Coffee plants have to fight to survive, but in that process, it develops more layers in the bean, thus becoming a better quality product. This means that lower altitude grown beans (where it’s warmer and easier) can be grown in 4-6 months, while high grade stuff can be grown in 9-10 months (and that’s where the goodies come from).Then there are other variables, like picking it at the perfect ripeness, fermenting it to perfection and drying it slowly with full control over moisture levels.

Barista skills:

How much does a barista’s skill add to the price of your coffee? After all, you don’t want to pay for your cafe’s 50 year old, monk-coveted, Himalayan roasted special super favourite cup to be messed up by some second rate hipster to burn the beans. Who makes your coffee matters! This is such a huge topic I am leaving this for a blog all on its own. All I can say is we make sure our baristas are trained! Can a good barista save poor beans? I think anyone who understands coffee to a great level will be able to get something more out of it but it will still not be a great coffee. Do milk prices affect the final cost? Yes. People would pay 50p extra for soy, almond or oat milk. However, if you’re after regular cow's milk then the answer is no because it’s the industry standard. So why do we bother buying high-quality milk at The Coffee Traveller? Because you’ll (hopefully) love the coffee and visit us more often.

A final word on speciality coffee: What needs to be known is that when it comes to coffee there are many moving parts that people tend to forget. We get this incredible experience in a cup that’s pretty cheap considering all the moving parts to produce it. You have to farm it, pick it, process it, dry it and not mess it up. It then needs to be transported under the perfect conditions. Then it gets to a roaster who roasts it to perfection without messing that up. Then you have to put it in a bag to de-gas it for a week before use, give it to a barista who has to open it, grind it, tamp it, extract it and they have to not mess that up either. So many steps and those steps cost money.

On that note: it’s time for our morning brew.

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