15 January 2019 | pacts insight | Views:

What is speciality coffee, anyway?

Maybe your workplace supplies Pact Coffee already, or maybe the thought of tasty coffee on tap seems like #officegoals to you. Perhaps you’re prone to wandering into cool-looking eateries where avocado is the number one ingredient. Either way, you’ve probably heard the phrase “speciality coffee” pop up now and then. What does that mean to you?

To some people, speciality coffee is a phrase that conjures images of fixie-riding twenty-somethings in overalls. It means hipsters selling you ludicrously overpriced flat whites in cafés full of furniture made from repurposed copper pipes. We’re not saying there’s not some crossover… but there’s some things to clear up. Here’s the long and short of it:

The short story:

What speciality coffee is

  • Arabica coffee (a major coffee species) that scores 80+ out of 100 in cupping sessions with coffee experts
  • In green coffee form - free of primary defects, of a specific size and correctly dried
  • A term originating in a 1978 speech, referring to coffees from defined regions (each with specific characteristic taste notes) which are well processed, roasted and brewed

What speciality coffee isn’t

  • The same as ‘Third Wave Coffee’ (though are are, arguably, pretty closely related)
  • A meaningless term like “gourmet”

What speciality coffee is, unofficially

  • About quality assurance at every stage of the sourcing process, from growing to brewing
  • Coffee that improves the lives, financially or otherwise, of every single person involved its journey

The long story:

Baffled by the above? Or fascinated by these facts and desperate to know more? Here’s a little more information…

“Cupping sessions”? What?

Not a alternative medical treatment, “cupping” is the way coffee experts taste coffees - whether to assess their quality, determine their flavour profiles, or to compare with other varieties.

Coffee undergoes testing in its green, ground and brewed state. Unroasted green beans are examined for visible defects (whether insect damage, irregularities in size or discolouration from mold) - and any issues will result in deductions from the coffee’s overall score, as it indicates a lack of care and/or problems with that particular batch. Then comes the smelling of the grounds, to get a sense of aroma, before the main event - the tasting.

A set amount of freshly and lightly roasted coffee gets hot water added to it, and each cup’s aroma is observed. Using a spoon you’ve kept in a cup of hot water (so it’s the same temperature as the coffee), you then break the ‘crust’ after a couple of minutes - pushing the floating grounds down to release a strong burst of scent. After each coffee has been smelled again, it’s time to taste.

From a cupping spoon, the cooled down coffee is aggressively slurped into the mouth. It’s not a pretty sight, or sound, but it’s essential to ensure the tongue, throat and nose all get coated. And from there, expertly trained palates can start to assess the coffee for flavour, mouthfeel, acidity and more.

All these steps combine to help coffee professionals score a coffee out of 100 - and that’s the official way it’s determined whether coffee is speciality grade or not.

Third Wave Coffee - not (just) the name of a Shoreditch roastery

First wave coffee was people deciding to bring coffee to the mass market, making it accessible and conveniently packaged. And, crucially, making it a commodity item. But the second wave was when coffee lovers started to care about origin, roasting methods and brewing techniques - it was the birth of Starbucks barista, of franchised coffee shops, and complicated syrup-infused drinks that taste the same in cafés at different ends of the world.

Third wave was when coffee, as an artisan product, was allowed to speak for itself. When a filter coffee had the same intricate backstory as a glass of wine might, tracing its origins back to a particular patch of land rather than just broadly by country. Where you know the name of the farmer who grew the beans, how she processed them, what degree they were roasted to, and when they were ground. It’s about Direct Trade, and understanding where your coffee is from.

So, no. It’s not synonymous with speciality coffee. Speciality coffee exists in the world of third wave coffee, as something that is high quality and with a visible and traceable history. But they’re not quite the same thing.

The supply chain

While the specific definition of speciality coffee exists, we’ve also mentioned that the story from farm to cup also plays a large part of its identity. The quality aspect of speciality coffee could not exist in isolation to the care and commitment needed at every step of the supply chain, so they become intrinsically linked.

The coffee grower has to ensure best practice is kept - planting the right varieties in the right terroir, maintaining trees properly, harvesting cherries at their optimal ripeness… the list goes on. Once these cherries are picked, they need to be sorted and processed with the utmost care. This means a lot of different things depending on the processing method chosen, but there’s a constant risk of defects - like over fermentation.

And the effort doesn’t stop there. Once the green coffee is processed, a buyer will cup it to assess its quality. And as we’ve discussed, that’s no mean feat. Then it needs to be shipped safely and quickly to where it’s going to be roasted - avoiding the pitfalls of mouldy containers and water damage.

When it gets to the roaster, they need to examine the coffee carefully to determine how they’re going to roast it - it’s not as simple as bunging a chicken in the oven. The moisture within each bean and the rhythms of the roasting cycle need to be carefully monitored, essential for bringing out distinctive flavour notes

After that, it’s down to the person brewing the coffee. This, too, takes care and attention - water to coffee ratios, heat levels and extraction rates all have to be taken into account. It’s time and effort at every level. And essentially, the high level of care taken should be rewarded at every level - from a generous price for the farmer, to an excellent drinking experience for the consumer. That’s what speciality is all about.


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