Specialty vs Commercial Coffee: What are the Differences?


Coffee is the most beloved beverage in the world. It is drunk the world over, with an immeasurable number of coffee shops all over the world offering different types of coffee-based drinks. The number of fans that this drink has is ever-growing, with many statistics saying that it will only continue growing for years to come. 

Specialty Coffee refers to high-quality coffee graded 80 or higher on the SCA scale with special flavors, such as caramel, citrus, fruity or even floral (exotic coffees); Commercial Coffee revolves around flavors from cacao, chocolate and nuts, potentially different beans and from different sources.

The reasons for this can be many: the delicious flavor of coffee, the caffeine that makes you feel stimulated, or the social occasion that constitutes drinking coffee with your friends and family. Whatever the reason might be, people love coffee. This makes coffee very valuable. 

In the last century, the coffee industry amounted to millions of dollars worldwide; this century, coffee has become the second most valuable traded commodity, only second to petroleum (gas). 

This increase in popularity, of course, means that the market is flooded with subpar coffee, commercial varieties of coffee that offers only a shadow of what coffee can be. So, in this article, we will talk about the differences between commercial coffee, the kind you usually see in supermarkets, and specialty coffee, the one you can get from specialty coffee shops prepared by a barista, or even at your front door for your custom brewing method.

Specialty coffee is very important among the community of coffee lovers. Many people dedicate themselves to making good coffee, whether this means growing, roasting, or brewing better coffee. 

The most important difference is that commercial coffee is largely made up of robusta coffee beans, while single-origin and single estate coffee is composed only of arabica coffee beans. 

Key differences in flavor

Commercial Coffee has a bitter taste, joined by regular coffee flavors, such as:

  • Cocoa and Chocolate
  • Nuts (almond, coconut, pecan, and hazelnut)
  • Vegetable Aromas

Specialty Coffee has a wide variety of flavors and aromas, such as:

  • Sweets: sugar cane,
  • Citrus: Orange, Tangerine, Lime, Berry
  • Fruits: Strawberry
  • Floral (exotic coffees)

What is the difference between these two beans?

Arabica Variety

The arabica variety is the most famous variety of coffee beans. This is the one that we see in our mind’s eye when we think of coffee beans; a perfect bean. Robusta beans are chunkier and round instead of oval-shaped like arabica beans.

Arabica has a much lower caffeine content than robusta. Caffeine, while precious, has one big downside: it has a bitter taste and it contributes to acidity. This is why arabica coffee -single-origin coffee and single estate coffee in particular- have a much milder, sweeter, gentler taste. While the caffeine is still more than enough to wake you up, it does not negatively affect the taste. 

Arabica has many sub-varieties. Some of them can only be found in certain countries, while some are easier to grow no matter where. Ethiopia, the birthplace of coffee, boasts of the highest number of naturally-occurring varieties of the coffee plant. Knowing a little bit about varieties can help you form an idea of how a certain coffee could taste. 

A famous Arabica variety is the Geisha, native to the country of Panama. This variety remained largely undiscovered all through the last century, and it was only relatively recently that it was rediscovered. The taste is so unique that it went from being unknown to being the most expensive coffee bean in the world, with prices going as high as $2,000 per pound of roasted Geisha coffee beans!

Other popular arabica beans are:

Bourbon

Bourbon, thought to have originated in Yemen, is one of the oldest, most cultivated coffee beans in the world. It was grown solely in Bourbon Island and shipped to the mainland where it became so popular that entrepreneurs sought to have their Bourbon plantations. Now they are to be found in Rwanda, and many countries of South America. 

Bourbon is, for many, the standard of good coffee. 

Coffee made from roasted Bourbon beans is buttery and has hints of dark chocolate. 

Mocha

Mocha coffee beans, native to the nation of Yemen, are some of the most delicious in the world. They are small, round, have a slightly different color than other beans when unroasted. 

Yemen is a nation that has been through many hardships, and the original Mocha beans were thought to have been lost for more than a decade. Recently, thanks to the support of the international coffee community, farmers in Yemen have progressively been able to make the transition to coffee. Mocha beans of the highest quality possible are once again available for anyone who can afford them! 

Mocha coffee is nutty with hints of chocolate. It is often found in blends that add sweetness to the flavor of Mocha, turning it into a delicious combination of flavors.

Robusta Variety

These beans are the ones more commonly used in commercial coffee. Blends, pre-ground coffee, and such products are usually full of robusta beans. Instant coffee, for example, is 100% robusta beans. But if robusta is much less tasty than arabica beans, why are they used?

They pale in comparison in terms of taste and aroma, but they have one very important thing going for them: they are more profitable. 

Robusta not only endures more extreme temperatures without becoming stressed, but it also needs less care from farmers. Harvests are usually more plentiful.

So instead of being limited to growing coffee in elevated locations, humidity, etc, this type of coffee can be grown in other locations which, though still tropical, are harsher. With a lot of shadows and the right care, you have black gold.

Robusta provides you with a taste of coffee. Not as subtle, not as rich and rather bitter, but coffee indeed. More importantly, robusta beans are high in caffeine, which is one of the main reasons many people drink coffee in the first place. 

But when it comes to good coffee, we have to toss robusta beans aside. It is only Arabica beans that will deliver nuance in flavor, the type of beans that can be compared to wine in its refinement of flavor. That taste that makes you fall in love with coffee is only found in Arabica beans. 

And arabica beans, for the most part, are found in specialty coffee. Specialty coffee is -basically- premium coffee, of a much higher quality than others. It is often grown at higher altitudes, which gives the beans a boost in natural sweetness, and it is grown by experts who have been growing coffee all their lives. In many cases, the knowledge is passed down from generation to generation. 

There are two kinds of specialty coffee: 

Single-origin 

Single-origin coffee is that which comes from just one country. While most blends have beans originating from, at the very least, two different countries, single-origin blends consist only of coffee beans grown in a single country. This gives the coffee a very authentic, original taste. Single-origin blends consist of different beans grown in different parts of the country, and there’s no limit to the different varieties that these blends can include. 

Single-origin is not only superior in terms of quality, but it also helps certain communities thrive. If single-origin coffee weren’t a thing, it would be easy for single companies to hold a monopoly over their country’s coffee production, and exports. But because of the appeal of single-origin, different beans from different growers are valuable. It’s not just about price and quality, but also about variety and different flavors. Just like there isn’t a right and wrong answer in philosophy, there isn’t a better or worse bean in specialty coffee; only different. 

This allows for small communities, like Bolivian indigenous people, to keep on selling coffee despite their lack of infrastructure and, therefore, higher costs. 

Single Estate 

When you want to get even more specific than single-origin, you choose beans from a single estate. These beans are grown in close proximity, under the same climatic conditions. The beans are usually of a very high quality and are given very special care during growing. Single estate coffee doesn’t only mean quality, but also a very distinct taste that is almost impossible to find in other types of coffee. Single estate coffee -that tastes good- is very hard to provide unless you’ve been in the game for a long time. Typically, only estates with 50 or more years of coffee-growing experience provide this type of coffee. 

No other coffee is as hard to come by like this one. Some estates closely guard their beans, to the point of being incredibly hard to find certain varieties except for one place. This is the case with Geisha coffee beans, mentioned earlier— the most expensive coffee bean in the world. There is currently one estate in the world that produces it, and you can be sure that they intend to keep it that way. 

Differences when Brewing

Brewing coffee isn’t a science. Except it is! Particularly when brewing good coffee i. e. Single Origin and Single Estate. While coffee isn’t particularly hard to make —very hot water and some sugar usually do the trick— good or great coffee can be really hard to achieve. This is why a lot of guidelines and rules have been established for brewing coffee that might not be all that important when brewing regular coffee, but are actually really important when brewing specialty coffee. 

A few of these are:

●     Water temperature. Hot means nothing— the correct temperature is between 194 and 204 degrees Fahrenheit or 90 to 96 degrees Celsius. 

●     Time. Each different brewing method has its brewing time, and sticking to it can make the difference between too bitter and just right. A timer must be used. 

●     Weight. Eyeballing quantities of both coffee and water are close to blasphemy among some coffee circles. The use of a kitchen scale -there are also coffee scales- is common even at home. 

●     Concentration. Coffee concentration is of particular importance because one of the most sought-after things for coffee lovers is consistency. Coffee refractometers —measure how much light travels through your brewed coffee— are a common sight among baristas and professionals, particularly in tasting events and competitions. 

●     Grind size. Usually, you don’t have to trouble yourself a lot with the grind size of your coffee. It’s either fine, coarse, or in between. However, there are grinders out there that have more than one hundred different grind settings which are, to say the least, overwhelming. Professionals can spend a lot of time arguing about the exact grind size that yields better results. 

One notable exception is cold brew coffee, which is usually almost as costly as other beverages and touted as high-quality. The catch with cold brew is that to make it you need a lot more coffee than most other methods. The average coffee-to-water ratio hovers around 1:15; cold brew is at a whopping 1:4. 

This results in cold brew being treated as specialty coffee, being carefully prepared as such, but using either all robusta beans or a blend which is mostly robusta. 

Conclusion

Specialty coffee vs. Commercial coffee. As expected, specialty coffee trumps commercial coffee both in taste and aroma. Taking into consideration a lot of factors, it ends up being a better idea -though not in all cases- to buy specialty coffee because of this. 

However, commercial coffee is highly convenient and the cheap price is a major incentive for people to keep buying this type of coffee. Further, commercial coffee has a higher percentage of caffeine and while this can cause acid reflux and heartburn, caffeine is the one major factor for coffee consumption, besides its taste. 

Fortunately, awareness of specialty coffee is at an all-time high. This is not only better for our palates, as we now have a wider selection of specialty coffee from which to choose, but this also benefits the coffee economy, with more money going to growers that would otherwise have no income because they’d be undercut. Specialty coffee is beneficial for the worldwide supply of coffee, while also being delicious. 

We certainly don’t need to drink specialty coffee exclusively, but it’s good to have specialty coffee available whenever we feel like tasting something nice. If you want coffee from the mountains of Peru or the highlands of Panama, it’s something that you can now easily find.

Charlie McFarlane

Technology professional with 20 years in the industry providing solutions to customers based on IT. Recently got interested in the art and science behind of specialty coffee and decided to document this journey, sharing it with public.

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