Coffee makes you want to get out of bed in the morning, gives rhythm to your days, comforts you, and brings you with your friends. It is, for many people, that little essential pleasure in everyday life, but would you pay 100 bucks for a cup of specialty coffee? That’s right, one hundred dollars for ONE tiny little cup of black nectar; so what makes it so expensive?
Producing specialty coffee is labor intensive. Every stage, from plant, harvest, selection, processing, roast to cup, is more meticulous. The handle and care for each phase product is crucial, packaging needs to be pristine, and brewing culminates a chain of excellence. Price covers all nuances.
In this article, we’ll cover what exactly specialty coffee is, the factors that make it so expensive, and the main differences between commercial coffee and specialty coffee. Let’s dive in.
What Is So Special About Specialty Coffee?
Do you see or hear this term more and more? This is a good thing! Like wine, coffee has many levels of quality, but what exactly is specialty coffee?
The term first appeared in 1974. Erna Knutsen, the Tea & Coffee Trade Journal author, used it to describe quality coffees with more distinguished flavors grown and harvested under ideal conditions. Coming from specific terroirs, they are often available in small quantities.
The Specialty Coffee Association (SCA) was created to standardize, organize and promote these exceptional coffees. This is what defines a so-called “specialty” coffee today.
How Is Specialty Coffee Selected?
Specialty coffee is selected according to the international standard imposed by the SCA. Q-Graders (coffee experts) test each coffee in a cupping session, which involves tasting the coffees and rating them. Only 5% of the coffee produced globally reaches the coveted title of specialty coffee.
Here are the various stages of the SCA protocol:
The Quality Score
All coffee is graded with a quality score out of 100 points. Professional and certified tasters called Q Graders note every particularity of a coffee (aroma, taste, texture, uniformity, etc.) in a process called “cupping”. If coffee is rated over 80 points, it can be classified as specialty coffee or “Specialty Coffee.”
An (Almost) Flawless Coffee
In addition to this score, the batch sample must show only a minimal amount of defects, classified into different categories. If there are too many faults, the cafe is automatically disqualified.
Several techniques throughout growing and harvesting can be employed to limit these defects:
- Rotten fruits and green fruits can’t be harvested. This often necessitates harvesting and sorting by hand.
- Pieces of wood and stones must be removed.
- Defects such as diseases or taste defects can sometimes only become apparent after roasting.
- Some still pass through the cracks, such as mold defects. A single affected grain will totally ruin the brew in which it is used but not the rest of the beans’ batch. Fortunately, these are relatively rare.
You can see examples of faults found in green coffee beans here.
For a coffee to be a “specialty”, you must also be able to trace the entire production chain back to the farm (or cooperative) that grew it. This is why you will have information on a specialty coffee bag that you will not find on supermarket coffee. This information also gives you clues about the aromatic profile of a coffee.
The barista also plays an important role in this whole process. He prepares the coffee following almost scientific precision rules designed to respect the product and bring out all its taste value. Without the right skills, the best specialty coffee can be undrinkable. Specialty coffee is quite an art!
What Are the Differences Between Specialty and Commercial Coffee?
- Commercial coffee: This is the coffee you buy at your local grocery store. You can buy it in bulk, ground, or in grains. In general, this type of coffee can be found in almost all stores.
- Specialty coffee: It is typically sold in bean form and in bulk. You’ll usually find it small in specialty stores or small local cafes, but not necessarily at your local grocery store or Dunkin Donuts.
Why Is Specialty Coffee More Expensive Than Commercial Coffee?
Coffee is a fragile product, and each step (harvest, roasting, and storage) can impact the final quality (and the cost) of the product. Several factors explain the price difference between these two types of coffee:
Harvest and Selection of Coffee Beans
Commercial coffee is mostly made from blended coffee beans to keep costs down. Usually, the blend is made from Arabica coffee beans and Robusta coffee, which contain very different aromas and flavors. On the other hand, specialty coffee comes from a specific bean, usually Arabica, so there is no mixture of grains.
Also, commercial coffee production is more industrial and is specifically focused on sales and mass consumption. This helps keep costs low, so the general public can easily include these products in their monthly budgets.
Commercial coffee has a uniform, often bitter taste, and it’s hard to taste anything special. In the case of specialty coffee, you can usually distinguish notes of nuts, wood, chocolate, and other delicious flavors. Also, the taste of specialty coffee should not exceed specific acidity points, and allow the consumer to distinguish the delicate aromatic characteristics of a good coffee.
Harvest and Selection of Coffee Beans
The process of harvesting and selecting coffee beans is also different. In the case of commercial coffee, the harvest and selection are a little less careful. It’s not just the best beans that will be harvested, as commercial coffee focuses on mass production. Specialty coffee, on the other hand, emphasizes that only the best beans are chosen, eliminating those with flaws.
Obviously, roasting is one of the fundamental steps in making good coffee. Commercial roasting of coffee is industrial, without a selection of beans and with little care. On the other hand, the roasting of specialty coffee is more elaborate: it checks for any beans’ defects and eliminates any problems.
Finally, the packaging is entirely different. Commercial coffee is produced massively and often shipped in bulk to supermarkets and stores. The difference with specialty coffee is that its packaging is special and unique. It is made with the utmost care to avoid any problems or dirt in its process, ultimately protecting its taste with techniques that only coffee specialists know.
For all these reasons, specialty coffee is indeed more expensive, but also of much better quality. The production and careful selection of grains make it a coveted product and destined for a niche market.
If you want a drink of excellence, do what the coffee experts recommend and treat yourself to a great cup of specialty coffee.
- Specialty Coffee Association: Make coffee better
- Wikipedia: Specialty coffee
- Coffeesearch.org: Defective coffee beans
- CNBC.com: I tried the world’s most expensive coffee — it costs $100 for just one cup
- NationalGeographic: The Disturbing Secret Behind the World’s Most Expensive Coffee
- Mare Terra Coffee: SCA Scoring Protocol