What is Specialty Coffee?

A few weeks back, we talked about “sourcing” coffee. “Sourcing,” it seemed, had been poorly defined--it was a buzzword that many just didn’t understand. So we got back to the basics, went to the source of things, and took some of the mystery away from coffee sourcing.

While we’re at it, we figured we’d tackle another titan of the coffee buzzwords: specialty coffee. This one isn’t so hard to figure out.

Specialty coffee is coffee that is, well, special.

Now, “special” doesn’t mean “better than all you other guys.” Specialty coffee is not a beauty pageant, a popularity contest, or a cooler-than-thou self-dubbed nickname. It isn’t tight jeans or hand-woven aprons or that dreaded h-word (hips**r).

The “special” in specialty coffee is measurable.

Coffees are graded on a 100-point scale--to be considered “specialty,” a coffee must score at least an 83 (if the talk of grades gives you 10th grade geometry-class-related PTSD, it does to us, too—here is a helpful guide to coffee grading). Specialty coffee costs more in the coffee market than commodified coffee--the price tag is higher for the buyer, and generally more profitable for the farmer.

To achieve that high coffee-score, and to be deemed worthy of its loftier price tag, the growing of specialty coffee necessitates great care. Farms like Don Miguel’s in El Salvador--a place with top-of-the-line equipment and expert farmhands who know the land--these kinds of farms become bastions of specialty coffee. From the terroir (farmers must plant coffee in certain climates, altitudes, and soil conditions for the fruit to fully mature) to the mill, specialty coffee holds itself to a higher standard.    

In this way, specialty coffee stands as the direct alternative to commodity coffee. Specialty coffee isn’t “right” (and commodity coffee isn’t “wrong”)--it’s just a wholly different way of approaching things. Commodity coffee (think Folgers, K-cups, and Maxwell House) purchases coffee en masse and sells it that way, buying with less concern for quality than caffeine. Commodity coffee sales still dwarf those of specialty coffee in the coffee market. It is fair to say that commodity coffee emphasizes quantity over quality.

Remember that Christmas when you were a teenager and you didn’t get as many gifts as you usually do? Instead of ripping open a ton of little presents from your parents and your aunts and uncles, you got one big gift? A PlayStation or something? And your mom said it was about quality over quantity? Specialty coffee is like that. It’s like finding a PlayStation in your stocking. Or a delicate, complex, fruity coffee in your cup.

So, what does the term “specialty coffee” mean for us at CREMA? It means we have a great responsibility, it means we continue the work that began with the farmers in, say, Costa Rica and the workers at their mill, it means we roast and grind and brew and serve with care and attention to detail, doing justice to the truly special coffees we receive, and upholding their already high standards. (Like other aspects of specialty coffee, our roasting and brewing standards are of course “measurable”--check out our brewing guides or our in-depth coffee classes.)

And what does “specialty coffee” mean for you? It means sitting back, taking a moment, and playing PlayStation--er, drinking coffee, and appreciating that gift of quality over caffeine.

1 Interesting Maxwell House fun fact: in 1892, Joel Cheek named his coffee “Maxwell House,” after the Maxwell House Hotel where it was sold. The Maxwell House was Nashville’s largest and most famous hotel before burning in 1961. Present day Cummins Station sits on the site of the old Maxwell House Motel. (Bonus fun fact: Joel Cheek married Mabel Wood. Their sprawling Nashville estate? Cheekwood.)