Is Starbucks Specialty Coffee?

There are at least a few Starbucks coffee shops in every continent of the world, and many coffee lovers patronize them. Starbucks is a household name in the coffee industry, and it is the first coffee shop you look for as a foreigner in a new country to ensure quality and similarity. However, since the introduction of specialty coffee in the world of coffee lovers, there has been an interest in defining Starbucks’s place in the specialty chain.

Starbucks coffee is not specialty coffee, despite having an excellent name in the coffee market and a semblance of sameness in taste around the world. Starbucks quality is more oriented to experience around great coffee beverages, that not necessarily are to be graded 80 or more by SCA.

In this article, I will give a detailed explanation of why Starbucks is not specialty coffee and what quality makes a coffee brand specialty. If you are interested in the exquisite taste of a specialty brew and the Starbucks brand, I’ll urge you to continue reading.

Is Starbucks Specialty Coffee?

Starbucks is a global empire that grew at an incredible rate. Due to this rapid growth, they placed more priority in customer experience and had to keep up with their demand chain. That meant getting coffee from farmers that did not sell A-grade coffee to keep up with the market need.

Starbucks places a priority on consistency in taste for the complete Starbucks experience—this is one of the reasons they refuse to franchise. Because they need to ensure transcontinental and interstate flavors are similar, they roast the beans to be reasonably dark for a uniform taste. 

Another target Starbucks has is to gain mass appeal. If they publish their flavors, they may earn the label of being a brand for snubs. So they do not include flavor labeling.

Starbucks has numerous drinks that the specialty community loves like a French press, pour-over brewers, and cold brew coffee. They also participate in the specialty coffee industry as their barristers take part in high-level competitions, their scientists speak at coffee events, and they sponsor the SCAA trade show annually. This participation indicates that Starbucks is indeed specialty-community oriented.

Due to the need for growth, Starbucks left out the potential for nuances in flavor, quality, and diversity that would have otherwise classified them as a specialty brand. However, Starbucks is currently at the forefront of quality and transparency. Their role in popularizing and supporting specialty coffee makes me believe they are worth a noteworthy mention in the specialty world.

Starbucks Role in Popularizing Specialty Coffee

Starbucks originated before the concept of specialty coffee. Specialty coffee is a relatively new idea that came about in the 1980s when cafes and roasters started being more transparent about their sourcing methods, intentional with annual brewing and roasting light-colored coffee beans.

Starbucks started the café culture and paved the path for more modern coffee trends and higher-quality coffee. They popularized espresso and the other espresso-derived drinks that people called specialty in its time (ironically). It is important to note that Starbucks beginning cafes and changing the coffee drinking pattern led to the knowledge that people can do more with coffee. It also made it more evident that proper brewing can change the game, which brought about ethical guides for specialty coffee.

Why Starbucks isn’t Specialty Coffee

Most people do not consider Starbucks as a specialty coffee for three main reasons.

  1. Their bags do not show roast dates, so you may buy their coffee when it has stayed for weeks or months.
  2. Their flavor notes are not specific; they tend to be general.
  3. Starbucks does not usually put their coffee’s origin information on the label.

Reasons Starbucks Can Pass For Specialty Coffee 

Although Starbucks doesn’t have many of the attributes that make a coffee specialty, they have one of the top traits—ethical sourcing. Most people consider Starbucks a leader in ethical sourcing because:

  • One can measure and quantify the impact of their sourcing methods on the environment and local economy.
  • 99% of their coffee has the “ethical” label on it based on a system developed by SCS global services called the Coffee and Farmer Equity Practices.

Some people have concerns about the efficiency of the SCS’s approach to defining ethics with due reason. However, this system encourages a level of accountability.

What is Specialty Coffee?

Around the world, specialty coffee looks different, and it is related to ” the third wave of coffee.” Defining specialty coffee clearly, it is the highest coffee grade available and refers to coffee from a single origin or a single estate. The approach of specialty coffee is in being globally conscious and ethical; it also appreciates global quality and diversity.

SCA Standard ListExpected Standard Other parameters 
Green Coffee StandardCategory one defects = 0Category two defects ≤ 5Water activity measurement < 0.7awSuitable lighting to grading, proper sample size, adequate grading surface
Cupping Standards 8.25g (±0.25g):150ml (coffee to water ratio)200°F± 2°F (temperature)70-75% of grinds should pass through a 20 mesh sieveVessel type, roasting time, roast level, room size, spoon, and table
Water StandardsOdor-freeChlorine-freeCalcium hardness of 50-175ppm CaCO3Alkalinity of 40ppmpH 7.0
Brewing StandardGolden cup standard 

For specialty coffee, there are several set standards for brewing, cupping, water, and green coffee by the Specialty Coffee Association. All these specifications place a bar for specialty coffee and allow only 0-5 defects per 350gr of milled beans. In addition to these standards, the SCA uses a relatively objective grading system to score specialty coffee, and it must be on a scale of 80-100 points.

Based on these standards I listed above, specialty coffee:

  • Prioritizes relationships have ethical sourcing and sustainable farming practices.
  • Has a global community of people interested in making coffee better (ethical and delicious).
  • Chases after quality

How to Identify Specialty Coffee

There are four necessary tests a coffee company should pass to check or confirm its investment in the specialty community movement. While a company does not need to meet all the requirements I’ll mention, the more they fail, the less qualified they are to be named a specialty brand. These four tests are:

  1. Origin Information: Is the packaging transparent about the coffee’s origin farm, processing method, and region? A roaster that shares enough information shows pride in its partner farmer.
  2. Do they offer a comprehensive flavor note? The best quality flavors for coffee roasting are blueberry and cinnamon.
  3. If the packaging states an exact roasting date and doesn’t only give use-by date information, it shows that the roasters prioritize you buying fresh coffee.
  4. Is the coffee black and oily? Excessive roasting to the point of burning destroys the natural coffee flavor and makes it bitter and dull.

Starbucks’s Limited Reserve

Since the coffee-loving community started to demand specialty coffee from Starbucks, they decided to indulge us with their limited reserve. This reserve is where Starbucks display exclusive coffee selected by Starbucks coffee buyers during their journey around the world. Since their buyers come across exceptional coffee when they travel, and some are too scarce to make them readily available, the limited reserve features them.

One notable specialty Single-Estate brand from the Mexico El Retiro estate (If you want to know more info on the Single-Estate concept, I have a post here detailing everything about it here). Others are from Tanzania estate and Sumatra Lintong. These specialty coffees are from growing regions in:

  1. Latin America
  2. Asia/pacific
  3. Arabia/Africa

Another unique feature is that they are available only for a limited time frame, after which a new stock will replace them. Starbucks selects this reserve based on seasonal taste appeal after roasting and the quality of the beans during harvest.


One of the world’s most expensive specialty coffee is the Panama Geisha Coffee, but the Starbucks limited reserve is worth watching for expectantly. Although Starbucks is not entirely specialty coffee, its specialty brands are worth trying.


Charlie McFarlane

Specialty Coffee Enthusiast. Hungry for knowledge in the art and science behind specialty coffee and decided to document my journey, while sharing it with the public. More than 10 baristas were interviewed; over 21 farms were visited across 5 countries. Almost 100 Coffee Shops. Bean of choice: Pacamara. Preferred coffee country: Panama. Preferred Brewing Method: Aeropress. Facebook | Instagram | Twitter

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