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What is specialty coffee?

These days, if you ask coffee professionals the definition of specialty coffee, chances are everyone has their own definition!
It's complex, very complex.
The concept of specialty varies according to times, cultures and regions of the world, it evolves all the time.
The SCA (Specialty Coffee Association) has enacted an updated definition which reads:
Specialty coffee is a coffee or coffee experience that is recognized for its distinctive attributes and which, because of those attributes, has significant additional market value. »


When we talk about attributes, we can split them into two main categories; either the intrinsic attributes or the extrinsic attributes.
Intrinsic attributes are what can be physically observed in coffee, for example:
  • His physical appearance and the low number of defects (green coffee)
  • Grain size and homogeneity
  • The quality of roasting
  • The degree of roasting
  • Aromas
  • The flavors
  • Etc.
With this empirical information, we can give coffee a result. According to the professional cupping methods, coffees with 80 points and above qualify to be specialty. However, this does not in any way guarantee that they are specialty, they must submit to the next test; extrinsic qualities.
Extrinsic attributes are data that must be communicated, for example:
  • His origin
  • Altitude
  • The drying process
  • Certifications
  • The name of the farm or cooperative
  • The reputation of the producer
  • Etc.
Thus, it becomes obvious that if we need this last information to qualify a coffee as being specialty, the notion of transparency and traceability becomes an element required.
We can therefore say from the statements above that a coffee that is excellent tasting, certified Fairtrade, but with no traceability information communicated or transparency, would not qualify of specialty. On the contrary, if we take a coffee that displays excellent communication on its origin and certified organic that we see beans of poor quality and that tastes bland, the latter would not be qualified as a specialty.

So here's a concrete example
A coffee with few attributes would be:
  • Dark roast coffee from Africa, chocolate and roasted taste.
  • Visually, many grains are broken, cut. They are also very oily.
  • On the taste, there is barely a toasted and smoky taste. The finish is short and dry.
  • Finally, the coffee is sold on a grocery shelf and there is no roast date.
With little information on its origin and poor intrinsic qualities, this coffee can be classified as convenience.
A coffee with a lot of attributes would be:
  • Light roast coffee sourced from M Guzman's 2021 harvest from 20 small families, from the village of La Cañada, in the Oaxaca region of Mexico.
  • The altitude of the farm is 1550m to 1650m and the variety is Typica and Azteca. Also, the beans have been fully washed to bring out the unique qualities of the terroir.
  • Visually, the beans are beautiful, whole and smell good. There is no oil on the roasted beans.
  • On the nose, you can smell an almond scent and citrus notes. On the palate, it is round, sweet and drinks black so easily. The finish is persistent, it is excellent.
  • It is sold on a roaster's website highlighting the history of the coffee and sometimes even other traceability information.
  • As soon as it is ordered, it is freshly roasted with the date stamped on the bag.
  • Finally, it is certified organic.
With so much information on its origin and high intrinsic qualities, this coffee can be classified as a specialty.
The definition of specialty coffee is evolving and above all different depending on the place in the world. A Japanese might have a different notion of what quality is in a coffee, unlike a Finn or a Canadian. Moreover, perceived tastes are subjective and vary across different cultures. There is therefore no clear answer, but there are beacons on which we can rely, such as the notion of attributes explained above. You are now able to more easily recognize the attributes of a specialty coffee. 🌞

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