All About Specialty Coffee: 8 Common Questions (and Answers)
on May 12, 2023
If you’re new to the specialty coffee game, you’ve probably heard a bunch of words being thrown around: tasting notes, Arabica, single origin, light vs. dark roasts, caturra vs bourbon etc. It might feel a little overwhelming, but fear not. By the end of this blog, all your questions about specialty coffee will be answered and you’ll have a great foundation of knowledge to show your stuff the next time you chat to your local barista. You might even teach them a thing or two...
1. Does coffee actually contain almonds, cherries, chocolate, etc., if these things are called out in the tasting notes?
As with wine, tasting notes are used to categorise a coffee’s flavour profile. In other words, they’re a means of describing how the coffee tastes and smells – not ingredients. Tasting notes are influenced by things like origin, soil and the altitude at which the beans are grown, plus processing methods and more. This means there’s a lot of variety and great coffee for you to try. How good.
One thing to keep in mind is that tasting notes are a bit nuanced. Say one of the tasting notes is “grapefruit” – the coffee might not actually taste like grapefruit (unless your brain plays funny buggers on you), but it may have a citrus acidity that’s reminiscent of grapefruit.
On the rare occasion, coffees are fermented with fruits or aged whiskey barrels, but this is different to the tasting notes you’ll find on bags of specialty coffee and it would be clearly called out.
Though it can seem a bit confusing, becoming familiar with tasting notes is worth your while so you can understand the types of coffee you like best. If there’s a tasting note or two that continuously pop up in your favourite specialty coffees, you’ll know to look out for it – and in turn drink more of what you love, and less of what you don’t.
A good way to become more familiar with tasting notes is to check out the Specialty Coffee Association flavour wheel to see how the pros do it.
2. What constitutes “specialty coffee”?
Long story short, specialty coffee describes a particular type of coffee made from the most premium quality coffee beans – also known as specialty-grade beans – grown in ideal conditions and with tender loving care.
A speciality-grade rating refers to Arabica coffees that score 80 or more on a 100-point scale assessed by professionals known as Q-Graders, who are skilled in sensory evaluation of green coffee (they’re basically the wine sommelier equivalent to the coffee industry). If you really want to get technical, specialty coffee must have less than five defects for every 350g of beans.
Short story even shorter: specialty coffee is the best of the best.
If you’re keen to learn more about specialty coffee, check out our blog, What’s all the fuss about specialty coffee?.
3. What’s the deal with Arabica beans? What does that even mean?
Arabica beans are one of the two most common coffee bean types grown in the world – the other’s Robusta.
Arabica beans are widely thought to have a better taste than Robusta beans. They’re often described as being sweeter and smoother, with more nuanced flavours like tropical fruits, berries and chocolate, and decadent floral or nutty aromas. This is due to their higher levels of sugar, lipids and minerals, and because they tend to be grown at higher altitudes, which enhances their unique flavour profile. Arabica beans also contain less caffeine vs Robusta which means less bitterness and more flavour for consumers.
Robusta beans are grown at lower altitudes and have a much stronger taste, due to their higher caffeine levels. Robusta coffee tastes earthier and more bitter and is often found in instant coffees as it’s less expensive. Generally speaking, any coffee that contains Robusta isn’t considered specialty due to the lower bean quality. Coffee roasters typically favour Arabica beans when crafting their coffee blends.
At Will & Co, we use 100% specialty grade Arabica in all our blends and single origins. That’s a big part of our mission to share the world’s greatest coffees with the world’s greatest humans.
4. What’s a blend vs. single origin?
A blend is a coffee made up of beans from two or more origins. For example, Will & Co’s signature coffee, Eight-O-Eight, is a blend of beans from Brazil and Guatemala.
Blends allow roasters to combine beans with different flavour profiles to create something unique. It takes a mix of art and science to find the perfect balance and determine the right roast level to bring out the best of the blend, but it’s well worth the work. Blends are generally the coffee of choice for milk-based drinks in cafe’s but can also be enjoyed black.
A single origin is a coffee that comes from one specific origin or country. We’ve offered single origins from Kenya, Indonesia, Nicaragua, Colombia and heaps more. Typically, single origins have unique stand-alone aromas and flavours, hence why you want to appreciate them by themselves. They’re often roasted lighter to let their tasting notes do the talking and are best enjoyed black - either as filter coffee or espresso.
5. What’s the difference between a light and a dark roast, and which is better?
First, some background info: When coffee is delivered to us from origin, it comes as a green bean (green in colour, we don’t mean the veggie). Before it’s ground and used to make scrumptious coffee, it needs to be roasted. Roasting is the process of heating the beans at super high temperatures to release the aromas and flavours that make your coffee so enjoyable. The entire process is quite quick, with each batch spending between 9 – 12 minutes in the roaster.
A light roast is coffee that’s been roasted for a shorter period of time, resulting in a caramel-coloured bean (versus the bordering-on-black of a dark roast) with floral or fruity flavours, more acidity and slightly more caffeine.
As you probably guessed, dark roast coffee is roasted for longer, and typically has more caramel, chocolate and nutty flavours, and less caffeine. It’s what your nonnos and nonnas probably drank back in the day, and still do.
Not all coffees fall into light or dark roast categories. A bunch of coffees are roasted somewhere in between, including our signature blend, Eight-O-Eight, which is a medium-dark roast.
Although some people think that one type of roast is the best, no single roast is necessarily superior. A lighter roast may work better for one blend or origin, while a darker roast may be better suited for another. Ultimately it comes down to personal preference.
6. I had a coffee at a cafe that serves Will & Co but can’t seem to replicate the deliciousness at home. What do you recommend?
Don’t beat yourself up – cafes have high-grade, commercial espresso machines that deliver a consistent water temperature and consistent pressure, which is tricky to replicate at home without spending thousands of bucks. That being said, you can still make a damn fine coffee at home with these simple tips and tricks.
Our first recommendation is to check the recipe of the coffee you’re using. Each Will & Co coffee has its own instructions regarding the dose, yield, and how long the shot should run for - you can find this info on each product page. If your shot runs too long, you’re likely over-extracting and need to adjust the grind to be coarser. If your shot’s running short, you’re probably under-extracting – a finer ground should help.
Additionally, make sure you clean your machine on a regular basis, as build up can impact the taste of your brew. We know it’s an annoying task, but tending to your machine once a month should do the trick and save you money in the long term by improving the longevity of your beloved brewer.
For more coffee brewing tips, see Will's Tips for Brewing Better Coffee At Home.
7. What’s the best coffee to use for cold brew?
We’d always recommend a lighter style coffee for cold brew such as our Three oh Three blend. Many of our cafe partners use our rotating single origin coffees, which will ultimately deliver balanced acidity and enhanced flavours.
At the end of the day, it’s all what you prefer, so have fun and experiment – and let us know if you discover something extraordinary.
8. What blend or origin would you recommend for how I drink my coffee?
For black coffee drinkers, Three-Oh-Three is our top pick as it’s a lighter roast with nice acidity. It works perfectly as an espresso but is also a good choice for alternative brewing. You should also try our rotating single origins for a bit of fun and variety.
If you prefer your coffee with milk, we recommend our signature Eight-O-Eight blend. It’s a darker roast than Three-Oh-Three, so it cuts through the milk and has notes of hazelnut, caramel and dark chocolate. Yum. That being said, we designed Eight-O-Eight to be dynamic, so it also works well as a black coffee.
Have a question we didn’t answer? Shoot us a message and we’ll help you out.