How to tell if coffee is specialty?

October 21, 2017

How to tell if coffee is specialty?

Coffee Shop

Imagine entering a small cafe. You aren't met with the usual comfy looking couches, dark roasted coffee, and endless supply of syrup flavorings lining the walls. You instead find yourself in a sterile environment. Baristas expertly pour calculated streams of water into strange mechanisms. The menu is deceptively tiny, only offering choices of drip coffee or espresso with milk. You see bags of whole bean coffee that list the names of farmers who grew it and the various locations around the world they originate from. The customers around you delicately sip their espresso - not for a caffeine boost, but out of enjoyment! You realize that this is a different kind of coffee experience.

Entering the realm of craft/specialty coffee can be overwhelming.

For many years, coffee was used as a caffeine agent. It helped us get up in the mornings and stay alert for daily tasks. Now, coffee is a complex beverage. Becoming a specialty barista takes vigorous training and research.

Things have changed, to say the least.

This article will discuss the meaning of Specialty/Craft Coffee. First we will look at the history of Specialty Coffee, and then we will observe ways of deciphering the good from the bad.

These tips should aid your home brewing adventures, so sit back, and enjoy!

A Brief History of Specialty Coffee

Organized, scientific studies on coffee began around 1952 with Dr. Ernest Lockhart. At this time, bitter coffee was being consumed solely for its caffeine effects (some may have enjoyed the taste, but coffee wasn't widely known as "delicious”). Dr. Lockhart's research sparked further study and infatuation.

In 1978, the term "specialty coffee" was used for the first time by Erna Knutsen. She essentially stated that specialty coffee was grown in particular geographic microclimates that produce beans with distinctive flavor profiles.

Around this time, flavorings and sweeteners were popular. They masked the bitterness of the black brew. However, as the coffee craft evolved, additive flavors and sweeteners became scarcer, and coffee became tastier, with people appreciating the complexity and flavor inherent in the coffee.

Specialty coffee is now appreciated as an extension of the culinary craft. Professional baristas and foodies observe coffees as they would a fine wine. Even though coffee is a lesser-known subject matter of the food world, it is growing. Shops are popping up like mad, and we are seeing the inception of small batch specialty roasteries more and more, improving access to great coffee. It's an exciting time!

The Definition of Specialty Coffee

So what exactly is "Specialty/Craft Coffee"?

The SCAA (Specialty Coffee Association of America) holds to Erna Knutsen's definition: that specialty coffee is grown in particular geographic microclimates that produce beans with distinctive flavor profiles. These distinct growing regions produce coffee crops that pass specialty grading and cupping tests.

Rhinehart of the SCAA describes specialty coffee as "drawn from the appropriate intersection of cultivar, microclimate, soil chemistry and husbandry."

In simple terms:

1) Coffee must pass specialty quality grading tests.
2) These coffees have unique tasting notes that are palpable and replicable. Complex flavor notes could be described as fruity, sour, or savory.

If the coffee passes quality tests, it's specialty.

Keep in mind that this coffee should be brewed carefully and intentionally. Poorly brewed coffee tastes bad no matter how "specialty" it is.


How Can I Tell if Coffee is Specialty?

Let's go over some of the ways to tell if coffee is specialty. It can be difficult for the new home brewer to tell. But don't fret! We have your back.

Bag Attributes
The coffee's packaging is a HUGE indicator of coffee quality.

Things you should see:

Coffee region / farm
Listing the region or farm or both is a transparent way for the roaster to prove their integrity. It shows whether or not they source from viable coffee growing regions. It also points out the company's or the importer that they use relationship with farmers.

When companies or importers source traceable lots of coffee by working directly with coffee farms, the quality skyrockets. These direct partnerships ensure killer coffee as well as ethical farming and business practices.

Varietals are taxonomic ranks of a plant species. In coffee, they indicate geographic characteristics, taste, and molecular makeup. Understanding varietals can give baristas and people in general an insight on flavor and brewing approaches.

Roast Date
This is a must. Coffee that exceeds 40-60 days past roast will either hit its peak flavor, or it will expire. This also only holds true if you store your coffee well, otherwise expect it to stale a lot quicker! Remember, coffee is organic. Just like your produce, coffee is perishable.

Packaging Material and Design
Different packaging methods affect the way coffee ages.

Flimsy paper bags are a bad sign. With paper material, the oxidation process becomes more of a risk. Air gets in and does its dirty work on coffee freshness (oxidation breaks down organic compounds - causes it to stale).

Look for a carbon dioxide release valve on the bag, and make sure the contents are sealed up tight. Some bags even have zip lock pockets to maintain freshness after opening. Specialty coffee purveyors yearn to keep the coffee as fresh as possible after roast. Make sure to buy from those individuals.

Bean Quality
Let's rip off the band-aid here...

"Dark roast" coffee isn't good. It's not. Why? Coffee beans are essentially seeds of the coffee cherry. They are organic, and thus, can be cooked. In coffee, "cooking" is called "roasting." The aim in coffee roasting is to caramelize natural sugars, bringing out the many wondrous flavors of coffee.

Typically, "dark roasts" are burned batches of coffee. Specialty roasters carefully dial in the roast process. Instead of burning the product, they carefully roast it to bring out the fruity and savory flavors, basically they look to bring out the unique flavors of all of the coffees that they work with.

Look for:
1) A lighter roast
2) Consistent color in the beans (light to medium brown)
3) Beans that ARE NOT oily

Company Website
This one is easy.

Make sure the roaster actually cares about the farmers they get their beans from. If nothing is said about the supply chain process, there is something wrong. Good coffee companies follow proper protocol and treat those around them fairly. This industry is based on community and working together.

Taste / Smell
What does the coffee taste like? Maybe you're new to this whole coffee brewing thing, and you don't know what "good coffee" really is.  Remember this, it should not taste metallic, of cleaning product, moldy, or potato-like tastes and smells, be sour, leather-like, or have burnt toast tastes or smell.

Go over the taste notes on the coffee, these are just indicators, if you can’t taste the “caramel” or “earl grey” flavors mentioned on the bag don’t be disheartened. Understanding the world of coffee takes time. Just stick with it, and you'll catch on. As long as your don’t taste any of the “bad” flavors mentioned, you’re well on your way!

Good luck on your coffee brewing journey! Find the best coffees you can!


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