What is “Specialty Coffee”?

Have you ever wondered what sets specialty coffee apart from your usual cup o’ joe? First off, there are generally two kinds of coffee: commercial coffee and specialty coffee. Commercial coffee is the glass jars of instant coffee that you typically find in the supermarket or that strong kopi that you enjoy at your local kopitiam.

When it comes to commercial coffee, not much is known about where the beans were grown and the taste is pretty uniform and predictable.

But oh, when it comes to specialty coffee… it is borne from the labour of each and every person that played a part in getting that coffee from tree to cup, with a variety of flavours to choose from.

As a term, “specialty coffee” was first coined in 1974 by Erna Knutsen in an issue of Tea & Coffee Trade Journal to describe beans of the best flavour which are produced in special microclimates. Follow us on the journey your specialty coffee takes to discover why it deserves to be called “special”.

The Bean

coffee cherries on a coffee plant
The Arabica species are considered the best in coffee bean quality. Photo from Rodrigo Flores

There are many types of coffee beans in existence, but in the coffee industry, there are only two main types which make up 98% of the world’s production: Arabica and Robusta.

Top-quality Arabica beans are considered the crème de la crème and reserved for the specialty coffee market, whereas commercial coffee tends to use lower quality Arabica beans or the cheaper Robusta. The countries that produce the most coffee beans are Brazil, Vietnam, Colombia, Indonesia and Honduras.

The Origin

When you buy commercial coffee, you wouldn’t know where your coffee beans came from – it’s a hodge-podge mix from all around the world.

Specialty coffee brands, however, ensure that the buyer knows which country the coffee comes from, even down to the region and farm. This is known as single-origin coffee.

What is single-origin coffee and is it worth the price?

Similar to the French concept of “terroir”, there are numerous factors that can affect the flavour of coffee beans, such as climate, soil and farming practices. Many coffee connoisseurs favour a specific country or region when it comes to their coffee preferences.

The Processing

Each farm has its own method for growing, picking and drying the cherries, and often, almost everything is done by hand to ensure the highest standards.

For example, coffee cherries are picked by trained workers who know how to tell when the cherries are ripe and how to select the best (or blemish-free). Once dry, the beans are then graded – only those graded 80 or above (out of 100) are selected for specialty coffee brands.

Graders will take a sample from a batch of beans and perform a cupping test to assess it on several factors, including aroma, acidity, flavour, balance and aftertaste.

The Roast

a coffee roasting machine dispensing roasted coffee beans
The roasting process is responsible for giving coffee beans its signature taste and aroma. Photo from Battlecreek Coffee Roasters

The roasting process is the magic that brings out the flavours of the coffee beans. You’ll notice that specialty coffee comes in light, medium and dark roast.

Commercial coffee often only offers dark roast, as commercial coffee beans are roasted in bulk, which leads to a burnt taste due to the tendency to over-roast. Specialty coffee roasters, however, will roast the beans in small batches so that they can get the perfect roast each time.

The Packaging

coffee beans in an opened zip lock bag
Coffee bean packagings are specially designed to protect the beans from sunlight, moisture, oxygen and other reactants that can reduce its quality. Photo from William Moreland

Specialty coffee is stored or delivered as whole beans, and it is recommended that you grind the beans just before it is brewed to experience the full body of flavour. From the moment you open your bag of coffee, it reacts to the air and moisture, affecting the taste.

This is why specialty coffee is sold in specially-designed bags that can keep out moisture and oxygen after you first open the bag. Even so, you should only buy your coffee in small quantities, as the flavour will peak after a certain amount of time after roasting.

Find out what is the shelf life of your coffee and how to store it properly to preserve freshness.

The Supply

Once you’ve tried a few varieties of specialty coffee and honed in on your favourite kind, you may want to have a stock of it handy all the time. However, depending on the bean, it might not be available all-year-round.

Some beans are seasonal, while others may be so popular that your local coffee supplier might not be able to get a hold of it. Some stores may even rotate the beans that they have on offer. But you could say that its limited supply makes it all the more special when you are able to savour a cup of your favourite specialty coffee.

Need a constant supply of your favourite beans? Here are our picks of subscription services to try.