What’s All the Fuss About Specialty Coffee?
on Apr 17, 2023
If you’re a coffee lover, you’ve probably heard the term “specialty coffee”, but if you’re like most people, you probably don’t know exactly what it means. So that you can show your stuff at trivia night or the next time you take your best mate out for coffee, we’ll explain what specialty coffee is and why you should care.
WHAT IS SPECIALTY COFFEE?
Specialty coffee describes a particular type of coffee made from the most premium coffee beans – also known as ‘specialty-grade’ beans – grown in ideal conditions and with tender loving care.
A ‘specialty-grade’ rating refers to high quality coffee that scores 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). Q-Graders generally use the cupping method – which involves grinding, brewing and tasting the beans – to evaluate the coffee’s aroma, flavour, acidity level, sweetness and aftertaste. It’s a rigorous test that ensures only the highest-quality coffees earn a ‘specialty-grade’ label – and can therefore be used as specialty coffee.
While the official qualification score is 80, some businesses set their standards higher, requiring scores of at least 85 to pass the test.
WHY THE SUPPLY CHAIN IS CENTRAL TO SPECIALTY COFFEE
In simple terms, the coffee supply chain refers to everything that happens from the farm where coffee beans grow, up to the moment you take your final sip. The journey from farm to cup is one filled with many hands dedicated to upholding the high standards for specialty coffee.
The farmers who grow and cultivate the beans with utmost care are the first link in this supply chain. These growers work hard to ensure the quality and flavour of their coffee is maintained and pick only the ripest and best-quality beans. Once the beans are processed, they arrive at the mill and undergo other quality tests before being shipped to coffee roasters like us.
We first receive a pre-shipment sample that we cup and test to ensure it meets the standards we set for our speciality coffee. If we’re happy with the results, we’ll receive a full batch for roasting. Each of these coffee bean batches is cupped and tested again to make sure it’s of the same quality we approved before. If it’s not up to scratch, we reject it. If it passes the test, it’s on to roasting.
At Will & Co, we have a state-of-the-art roastery that allows us to control every step of the process. We roast our beans using Probat Drum roasters, which are known for being slower and more controlled and each roast is in accordance to the coffee roasting recipe for that given blend or single origin in order to bring out the best flavours it has to offer. Click the following link to learn more about our coffee roasting process.
One step in the specialty coffee supply chain that isn’t often thought of is the person brewing the coffee – whether a barista or yourself. The brewer’s role is just as important as the farmer and coffee roaster and can have a big impact on the end result of the coffee you enjoy. Because of this, we put a lot of effort into training baristas and provide as many brewing tips as possible for those of you who enjoy your coffee at home. If you haven’t already, check out our coffee brewing tips blog and our brewtorials page for more information.
“We understand the importance of an efficient, transparent and ethical supply chain, and buy only the highest-grade specialty coffee,” says Josh Passaro, Head of Will & Co. “This might mean we have to travel farther, pay more for our beans and spend more time cupping and sampling, but it’s worth it. It means we build strong relationships with farmers, suppliers and café partners and can deliver our customers a damn fine cup of coffee every time. As a business built on mateship, we take great pride in these relationships.”
SPECIALTY COFFEE VS. COMMERCIAL COFFEE
If a coffee scores below the 80-point threshold, it’s considered ‘commercial coffee’. At a surface level, this tells you the overall taste and quality of commercial coffee is lower, but the differences include much more than that.
While specialty coffee requires a very involved and precise supply chain, commercial coffee often doesn’t. Often, commercial coffee is sourced from various and ever-changing producers and goes through a much simpler roasting process before it hits the market.
Additionally, there is little quality control involved, meaning each cup – and maybe even each sip – is inconsistent. For specialty coffee roasters, quality assurance is a very big deal.
Here’s a list of some of the steps we take at Will & Co to drive quality at our roastery:
- Professional cuppers evaluate all coffee multiple times throughout the roasting process to ensure only those with excellent qualities are available for you to enjoy – upon arrival, after each batch is roasted, and again at key milestone dates to test freshness and quality over time
- Every batch of coffee is cleaned, de-stoned and passed through a metal detector to extract any foreign objects before roasting
- Our roasters have a unique roasting recipe for every blend and single origin that will bring out the unique flavour profiles of each origin
- They also adjust the roasting parameters depending on the moisture content of each batch to ensure optimal flavour
- We use a gravity separator to remove any unfit beans from the batch
- Before each bag of coffee is sealed, we flush it with nitrogen to remove any leftover oxygen, so it stays fresher for longer
- Each bag also features a one-way valve to allow carbon dioxide to escape and the decadent flavours and aromas to stay
ARABICA vs ROBUSTA BEANS - ONLY ONE CAN BE CALLED 'SPECIALTY'
Arabica and Robusta are the two most popular types of coffee bean, but the quality of the cup they make is quite different. Arabica beans are widely thought to have a better taste than Robusta and are often described as being sweeter, smoother and more complex. This is due to their higher levels of sugar, lipids and minerals, and because they tend to be grown at higher altitudes with less caffeine, which enhances their unique flavour profile. Arabica beans also contain a less intense caffeine form that’s more palatable for consumers.
Conversely, Robusta beans are grown at lower altitudes and have a much stronger taste due to their higher caffeine levels. Coffee roasters often favour Arabica beans over Robusta when crafting their coffee blends, and it’s important to note that only Arabica beans can be labelled as ‘specialty’.
HOW DO I KNOW IF I'M BUYING REAL, SPECIALTY COFFEE?
With a never-ending list of coffee brands available in-store and online, it’s important to take note of origin, taste profiles, roaster credentials and price.
Specialty coffee should state exactly where it was grown. Similarly, roasters won’t shy away from listing their credentials and being transparent about their processes.
In terms of taste profile, specialty coffees have a developed flavour you won’t find in commercial brands. If you find yourself enjoying the flavours and being reminded of things like chocolate, caramel, red berries or citrus fruit, you’re likely in good hands. If the coffee tastes watery or harsh, it’s probably not specialty.
Then there’s the oldest trick of the trade: you get what you pay for. Specialty coffee tends to be more expensive than commercial brands, but it’s worth it. Take one sip and you’ll know.
For more information on buying the right beans, see How to choose the best coffee beans for your favourite brew.
GOURMET COFFEE VS. SPECIALTY COFFEE
While gourmet is a generic term used to describe any food and drink of a high standard, coffee included, specialty is an official label that can only be used when the product is certified by the Specialty Coffee Association (SCA).
Commercial brands often use the words “gourmet”, “boutique” and “premium” to market their products as superior when they’re not. If you see someone using these labels and aren’t sure if it’s a marketing gimmick or not, check to see if they also use the term ‘specialty’.
Specialty coffee beans have been tested and regulated by the SCA and are certified to meet strict quality standards. While all specialty coffee is gourmet, not all gourmet coffee is specialty.
WHAT SETS WILL & CO SPECIALTY COFFEE APART?
There’s a lot of great specialty coffee out there, but we think ours is top notch – and for good reason. Here’s what our fearless leader, Josh, had to say:
“Our commitment to quality is unparalleled and evident in every link of the supply chain. From only partnering with producers that use strict selection criteria to constantly pursuing innovative means to improve our roasting techniques, we’ll stop at nothing to deliver the best product we can for our customers.”
Click the following link to check out our story.
WHAT DO I NEED TO START MAKING SPECIALTY COFFEE AT HOME?
Though you don’t need fancy equipment to make good coffee, an espresso machine is a great choice for making café-quality brews. If that’s not on the cards, you can use a plunger (French press), Stovetop or V60 – some of our favourite alternative brew methods. We’d also recommend picking up a hand grinder to grind your beans. Many low-cost electric grinders use blades instead of burrs, which can lead to an uneven grind.
When it comes to coffee, we’d recommend Eight-O-Eight coffee beans, our signature blend pouring daily at café partners across Australia. It’s a silky smooth blend especially if you’re a milk based coffee drinker. If you primarily drink your coffee black or enjoy something a little bit lighter, Three-Oh-Three will be your jam.
Shop and enjoy our full range of specialty coffee products now.