What Is Specialty Coffee And What Makes It....Special?

by Noah Brinker

The most common questions people ask us are about specialty coffee. What is specialty coffee? Why is it such a big deal?


Most people have probably heard the term specialty coffee, and maybe even associated it with “gourmet” or even “fair trade” coffee. While those terms are not necessarily bad, they are really just marketing terms that don’t tell you much about the coffee you’re actually buying.


Here’s the truth: Specialty coffee is the highest quality coffee in the world.


In this post we’ll attempt to shed light on specialty coffee and what makes it different from “gourmet” or “fair trade” coffee that you see being advertised. We’ll explain not only what specialty coffee is, but why you should be buying and drinking it. Our goal is that after you’ve read this post, you will officially be able to consider yourself a coffee snob.


Specialty Coffee Explained

Before we get too far into what specialty coffee is (and isn’t), and what you should do about it, let’s start with a definition.


Specialty coffee is defined as “the highest quality coffee in the world and is graded at 80 or higher by a licensed Q Grader”.


If you didn’t fully understand that yet, that’s ok. We still have a bit more to explain. A Q Grader is someone that is certified by the Coffee Quality Institute (CQI) as being able to analyze Arabica coffee (the most common type of specialty coffee) by taste and smell through a process called cupping. Many coffee professionals have a goal of becoming a Q Grader because it’s the highest credential you can get in the coffee industry.



We’re throwing a lot of terms at you, but we need to be clear on what specialty coffee is before we move on. If you want to learn more about these terms, you can find them in our coffee glossary.


Wait...what about third wave coffee?

You may have heard the term third wave coffee if you’ve been interested in coffee for awhile. Some people even use specialty coffee and third wave coffee synonymous with each other. It can be easy to confuse the two, but they’re actually referring to two different things.


Third wave coffee refers to a movement within the coffee industry. The third wave movement is all about increasing the transparency and sustainability in the coffee supply chain, with a focus on improving the quality of the coffee by focusing on an individual coffee’s characteristics. The ultimate goal of the third wave movement is to help consumers better understand what happens in the supply chain before they drink the coffee, and that each coffee is unique.


This movement is adopted by coffee shops and coffee roasters in a variety of ways. First, coffee roasters and importers emphasize building direct trade relationships with farmers in coffee growing regions. Through coffee education and better farming practices, coffee farmers are able to get a higher price for their crop than they would typically get on the normal commodities market, which is controlled by the market price, or “C price” for coffee.


Another way the coffee industry has advanced the third wave movement is by coffee shops and roasters focusing on the individual qualities of a specific coffee. For example, coffee roasters will include the details of a specific coffee they sell, such as the variety, country, region, processing, elevation, and more. Sometimes coffee roasters will even include the name of the farm or farmers, especially if they have a direct relationship.


The main difference that you need to understand is that third wave movement is focused on helping the consumer (that’s you and me) understand the unique aspects that coffee can have.


While the third wave coffee movement and specialty coffee are related, you should understand that there are some key differences between the two.


Gourmet, Fair Trade, and Organic Coffee

To many, the biggest challenge with understanding specialty coffee is making sense of the marketing terms that some companies throw around when trying to describe their coffee. Some of these terms do a better job than others, but in our experience it’s difficult to determine what they actually mean. All of these terms are used by plenty of coffee roasters around the world, but offer little more than coffee marketing jargon.


Gourmet Coffee

Take, for example, the term “gourmet”. If there’s a less descriptive word in the English language, we haven’t been able to find it. There are no standards when it comes to describing anything as gourmet, and the same goes for coffee. We googled “gourmet definition”, and it seems like even Google is confused.


Google Search


It would be just like calling a steak “delicious”, without any mention of the actual qualities of the steak. If you ever see this term being advertised, most likely they don’t have a better way to describe their coffee.


Fair Trade Coffee

Another example is the term “fair trade”. This one has a little more weight behind it, because calling a product “fair trade certified” requires upholding certain standards set forth by the Fair Trade nonprofit organization. However, concerns have been made in regards to fair trade in the coffee industry. This article, published in 2011 by a specialty coffee professional who left the fair trade industry, details a lot of the question marks with fair trade in coffee. Specifically, the market for coffee has changed quite a bit from when the fair trade model was created, and over time it became less helpful for farmers. The price for their coffee was higher on the open market than what the fair trade contracts allowed, so many of them defaulted on the contracts for a higher income by selling it on the normal market.


In fact, one specialty coffee roaster, Intelligentsia, guarantees to pay 25% higher than the Fair Trade price for all the coffees they buy. The reason they do that is because of the higher quality they aim for.


Organic Coffee

One more term you’ll see is the term “organic”. Farmers can get an organic certification by following a set of guidelines about the number of chemicals and fertilizers they’re allowed to use on their farm. This sounds great, right? Here’s the problem: a majority of coffee farms already meet the guidelines for an organic certification, but don’t have enough money to actually pay for the organic certification. In this scenario, only buying organic coffee can have a negative impact on farmers who aren’t able to afford the certification, even if they’re using organic practices.


Benefits of Specialty Coffee

You may be thinking: “So what? Why should I care if my coffee is specialty?” That’s a valid question. We didn’t create a website to list hundreds of specialty coffee roasters for no reason. We genuinely believe you should only buy and drink specialty coffee, and we’ve broken our answer down into three main pillars:


  1. Higher quality
  2. Better taste
  3. It improves the lives of coffee farmers and their communities


Each of these can (and perhaps, should) be a separate post on their own. But we’ll try to give you enough information so you can understand the benefits of specialty coffee and make an informed decision.


Higher Quality

You may think this one is subjective. What makes a coffee higher quality, anyway? To understand that we’ll need to take a look at what quality is. What makes coffee good.


Good coffee is technically always an opinion. You may love a coffee that someone else doesn’t like at all. Different people have different taste buds and preferences, which leads to some confusion about what good coffee is.


The obvious point here is a lack of defects. You may not have known, but green, unroasted coffee can have defects. One example of a defect is broken or chipped coffee beans. Sometimes coffee beans are damaged during processing by being broken. This can lead to uneven roasting, causing under-extraction or over-extraction. Another example is insect damage. The coffee berry borer commonly causes problems by eating the berry and causing damage to the coffee beans. These beans can taste earthy or have an unpleasant sour taste.


Green Coffee Defect


Another point in quality, if we think back to the third wave coffee movement, is that we know good coffee has unique qualities that are specific to that coffee. This includes its origin, elevation, processing, and roasting -- just to name a few. Quality coffee has unique attributes that we can try to highlight throughout the entire coffee supply chain. This even includes you, as the final consumer, and how you brew the coffee. You can have a strong impact on highlighting the unique attributes of a coffee depending on how you store, grind, and brew the coffee. 


It Tastes Better

Again, taste preferences can be subjective. But we know that coffee can have specific flavors and attributes that are unique to it. When we say it “tastes better” what we really mean is that we can taste the unique flavors that it has. Take a look at the Coffee Taster’s Flavor Wheel below.


This diagram helps us understand the flavors that can be found in coffee. You’ll see individual flavors on the outside that correspond to a flavor or taste category in the inner ring. To give you an example, naturally processed coffee grown in Ethiopia commonly has fruity flavors. This is caused by a variety of factors, but because we are able to taste the individual pleasant flavors, we can consider this coffee to be a higher quality.


Here’s another example, and something that many coffee roasters don’t want you to know. 


Some coffee doesn’t taste very good, and to hide those unpleasant flavors, they will roast the coffee darker and darker.


Why? Because the darker they roast, the more all coffee begins to taste the same. All coffee that gets roasted too dark tends to have smoky, bready, and nutty flavors. You could have the highest and most expensive green coffee in the world, but if you roast it too dark, the individual flavors from the coffee will be nonexistent, and your coffee will taste the same as any other dark roasted coffee.


Dark roasted coffee isn’t bad. There are some dark roasts that have good, complementary flavors. Coffee with a dark chocolate note can taste really good, especially if it’s paired with milk in a cappuccino or latte. The problem is when a roaster will take low quality coffee (often cheap coffee with defects) and roast it really dark to hide these unpleasant flavors.


Improving Coffee Growing Communities

Coffee farmers are generally beholden to the spot price for coffee. As we mentioned earlier, coffee has traditionally been considered a commodity and thus the price is driven by supply and demand. In the commodities market, the price is referred to as the C price. Let’s take a step back for a second and ask the question: what is a commodity?


A quick lookup of the definition tells us that a commodity is “a basic good used in commerce that is interchangeable with other goods of the same type”. Wait a second...we just spent the last 10 minutes explaining how coffee is unique and can be higher or lower quality. Then why is coffee treated as a commodity when it’s specifically not interchangeable with any other coffee?


This is the third benefit of specialty coffee. By growing specialty coffee, farmers are able to get paid more for their coffee. And when consumers like you choose to purchase higher quality specialty coffee, roasters are able to pay farmers more, leading to better lives for their families and their communities.

Another way specialty coffee improves coffee growing communities is by providing direct sales for their coffee. Many specialty coffee roasters have direct relationships with farmers as a way to improve the quality and help farmers get paid more for offering a higher quality product. These roasters often help farmers get access to services they need to process and sell their coffee.


A great example of this is the Long Miles Coffee Project. Ben and Kristy Carlson started Long Miles coffee because they saw Burundian coffee farmers being taken advantage of in the coffee supply chain.


Long Miles Coffee Project


The project started as a way to help the coffee farmers in the coffee growing regions of Burundi by building washing stations closer to their farms. By providing these washing stations, they are improving the coffee quality and thus the farmers income. Ben and Kristy have helped farmers in Burundi earn a higher wage and improved living standards. You can buy coffee from the Long Miles Coffee Project at a number of roasters, and they usually have a list on their website.



What This Means For You

Now that you know what specialty coffee is, and why it is the highest quality coffee in the world, what are you supposed to do with this information? Let’s start with the basics: Find and try specialty coffee. We must warn you, though. Once you do, it will be difficult to go back to any other coffee. It’s possible you’ll be hooked.


Try Specialty Coffee

We could sit here and give you a ton of products and gadgets that can help you in your coffee journey, but to get started you really just need three tools.


  • Brewing device
  • Kettle
  • Burr grinder


Brewing Device

We recommend one of two simple brewing devices: a french press or an Aeropress. They are both simple to use, easy to clean, and are great for beginners learning about specialty coffee. An Aeropress has hundreds of possible recipes and ways to make coffee. A great resource for finding new Aeropress recipes is AeroPrecipe.com.


Kettle

A kettle is just a simple way to heat and pour water. If you already have one at home, you’re set. When you’re set on brewing high quality, specialty coffee and know that you’ll want to go deeper, you can get a gooseneck kettle. This lets you transition to other brewing devices, such as a manual pour over.


Burr Grinder

We specifically called out a burr grinder here. There are other types of grinders, such as a blade grinder. We won’t get too far into the weeds here, but you should know that a burr grinder gives you a more uniform grind size (all the coffee grounds are the same size), which leads to a more even extraction, and ultimately ends in a better tasting cup of coffee. Even though we included this last on the list, it’s one of (if not the) most important aspects of making great coffee.


Find Specialty Coffee

It’s difficult to find specialty coffee roasters, especially with all the marketing terms that are thrown around -- gourmet, fair trade, organic, and more. Sometimes coffee roasters will tell you they only roast specialty coffee on their website. Other times they don’t mention it, even if they do roast specialty coffee only.


This is the entire reason we created Roaster List. We wanted an easy way to find new specialty coffee roasters all over the world. So we scoured the internet making an enormous list of specialty roasters that we found, and adding them to our list. Then we realized that others may want to find these roasters too, so we built a website. After that, other people started adding roasters to the list, and soon we had over 200 specialty coffee roasters.


View the List


If you’re having trouble choosing, or want to find a specialty coffee roaster near you, you can head to our Discover page to find more cities or search for your location.


If you’d like a personal recommendation, we send out weekly recommendations to our email list, and would love to have you!