What is Specialty Coffee and How is it Different

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Specialty coffee is often referred to as the highest grade of coffee available. Besides exhibiting flavorful traits such as a frothy mouthfeel and vibrant aroma, the term “specialty” describes green coffee beans having few or no primary defects and receiving a high cupping score.

A coffee expert or a certified Q grader grades the coffee beans before making them to the roaster. And for the coffee beans to be included as a specialty, they should be graded in altitude, visual inspection, and cupping and receive a high score.

For example, according to the Specialty Coffee Association (SCA), Arabica beans have been considered specialty coffee because they’ve been cupped with a cup score of 80+ points out of 100.

However, are these interpretations enough to classify your coffee as a specialty? In this post, let’s further discuss the things that contribute to a specialty coffee quality. Let’s take a closer look and learn more about it.

Focus what is specialty coffee

Where Does the Term “Specialty’ Come From?

The technical definition is specified above, but the truth is there’s more than to that. Sure, the SCAA defines specialty coffee in its green stage, whereas the coffee must pass the quality grading systems and cupping tests. In short, we define it as a coffee that has met all the instilled tests and standards for a specific condition from seed to cup.

However, how was this term created, and where was it came from?

In the coffee industry, Erna Knutsen is known as the godmother of specialty coffee. She was the first to coin the term “specialty coffee,” advocating for the values of quality, identity, and distinction in coffee.

The term ‘specialty’ was first conceived by Erna (of Knutsen Coffee Ltd) to refer to coffee in 1974. Aside from a coffee that’s being well prepared, freshly roasted, and properly brewed, the concept of it was quite simple.

In an issue of the Tea & Coffee Journal and her speech to an international coffee conference, she referred the term “specialty coffee” to high-quality beans with unique flavor profiles produced in special geographic microclimates.

Specialty Coffee Vs. Third Wave Coffee

Focus what is specialty coffee

Specialty coffee beans would always be freshly roasted and adequately brewed aside from the translation mentioned above. However, for others in the industry, roasters’ styles and baristas’ methods of brewing the perfect coffee fall under third-wave coffee.

Third wave and specialty coffee are often perceived as the same because they can both complement each other in reality. You can say that specialty is a third wave and vice versa.

But what’s really the difference between specialty and third wave coffee?

Remember that specialty coffee is the type of coffee they serve, whereas the third wave is just an expression or movement that compliments it. Let’s further discuss the “Third Wave Coffee” at this point.

The third wave of coffee can be a movement that acknowledges coffee as an artisanal beverage. It means that the coffee you drink is high quality rather than just being a commodity or low-quality.

Another interesting fact is some part of it is the customer service. So, if you’re a fan of drinking coffee at so-called “third wave coffee shops,” you will feel that you’re special.

Moreover, third wave coffee is sometimes all about sharing the story behind the cup. It’s more of a movement that highlights the relationships between coffee growers, traders, and roasters. And since this phrase involves a focus on all stages of production, the importance of every actor in the supply chain, such as the farmer, producer, importer, Q grader, roaster, barista, and consumer, is well recognized. 

But most importantly, third wave is also an evolution that appreciates the art, craft, and skillful roasting by roastmaters and coffee brewing by baristas at coffee shops.

If your interested on the “waves of coffee,” you can read our full discussion on third wave coffee for more details.

Specialty Coffee Vs. Commodity Coffee

Focus what is specialty coffee

All coffee beans are classified to different qualifications, whereas the beans are evaluated in terms of defects, moisture content, and cupping notes. This is why it’s also important that one must know and understand the difference between “specialty coffee” and “commodity coffee.”

Specialty coffee is all about the quality and taste profile, making it to be a significantly more prominent cup to enjoy. And since the beans are usually measured as high-grade, specialty coffee is expected to be more expensive than a commodity one. 

But behind that detail is the fact that it comes from several factors contributing to the cup. While the variety itself, the growing, processing, and so on influences the flavor, sometimes, it goes beyond these aspects. Specialty beans go also through extreme quality control and time-consuming sorting to provide few or even non-defective beans, allowing the coffee to receive a high cupping score.

Commodity coffee, on the other hand, is the counterpart of specialty, which is considered as low-quality. Sometimes, it comes from the cheap and readily available beans that are easy to mass-produce at similarly low prices. Generally, commodities consist of Robusta beans, lower grade Arabica coffee, and coffee beans with many defects. 

Aside from low-grade beans, coffee from a poorly handled quality control can be classed as a commodity as well. That is because the production is often overlooked and thus proceeds to trade coffee beans with hundreds of defects. And we all know that defective beans are being disqualified in the specialty coffee status. If not, it’s always associated with a low cup quality condition.

How is Specialty Coffee Produced?

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The Specialty Coffee Association (SCA) said that specialty coffee is produced through the dedication, passion, and effort of not just one person but also all of those involved in the coffee value chain and coffee bean production. The farmers, producers, roasters, and baristas worked in harmony and made it their life’s work to continually make quality coffee their highest priority. 

Producing the best quality beans starts from everything that farmers and producers do. Since the coffee beans can’t have many defects, it all begins with how the beans from the tree are well taken care of and how organized farmers are in their work.

So, if you’re having trouble choosing the right coffee beans that suit your needs, start by finding local farmers, producers or roasters nearby.

As they always say, “the best coffee comes from people who care about it.” But who are they? They are the ones that have spent a lot of time perfecting their approach to sustainable farming in producing the highest quality coffee possible.

But of course, nowadays, specialty coffee is more than just production and processing. Indeed, from seed to cup, this is no easy accomplishment. Other coffee professionals, such as certified Q graders, also need to maintain a keen focus on standards and excellence from the start (seed) to finish (cup).

Are roasting and brewing also considered as a specialty? In my opinion, it’s a yes! Specialty coffee consistently exists because there are numerous specialty shops available right now. In the end, specialty coffee is also produced through roasters’ skill and baristas’ passion.

The dedications of those individuals, groups, or communities mentioned above make this coffee so special. 

Stages that Contribute to the Quality of Specialty Coffee

Focus what is specialty coffee

Specialty coffee is widely known to have unique flavor profiles. But behind that aspect is special geographic microclimates and quality grading systems that contribute to what we perceive as specialty coffee.

When it comes to beans being exceptional, the factors from the production such as improved soil, excellent climate, selected altitude, farming practices, and processing method greatly influences the final bean’s quality.

However, quality control and good work shouldn’t end up only at the production. These rules need to be done until the end of all stages of the supply chain. In short, all the way from farms to cafes!

Excellent Growing Conditions

Specialty coffees are grown from a place with climate and soil condition for better nutrient absorption. The microclimate and soil condition are some of the largest contributor to coffee’s flavor. 

Specialty coffee is not just about the bean itself; sometimes, the coffee’s characteristics are fixed to their geographical conditions. In a single-origin coffee, the distinct flavor is based on the area where it was cultivated.

So, if the ideal growing conditions for the coffee plants and the best soil is also considered to produce quality products, then all of these aspects translate into some of the most incredible and tasty coffee in the world.

Specialty Coffees are Grown at High Altitudes 

Another factor that contributes to the quality of coffee is the altitude to where it was grown. Altitude plays an essential role in determining if your coffee is considered a specialty or not.

For example, if your coffee only indicates that it has grown at a high elevation, that only means the coffee is Arabica, which is safe to say that the beans are high quality.

On the other hand, if it implies that it has grown at a low altitude, expect it to offer a low-quality product. That is because the higher the elevation is, the better the quality as well as the flavor.

Furthermore, we say that specialty coffees are different and more superior from others. We’ve mentioned before that Arabica beans are a specialty coffee because of not just the high cupping score alone, but because they’ve also been grown at the perfect altitude and harvested at just the right time.

Accepted Farming Practices

The start of having a specialty coffee is the step of selecting the best coffee variety and picking only the ripe coffee cherries to ensure that only the best cup is obtained. We’ve mentioned that the specialty coffee industry prefers beans evaluated in terms of taste and physical profile. But all those conditions reflect the best farming practices.

The quality of coffee comes not just from the variety itself but also from a significant engagement in the production area that affects the final cup quality.

Let’s take a look at Arabica coffee, for example. This coffee is known to be sensitive in a harsher and hotter climate and prone to pests and diseases. So, to produce the perfect cup of coffee possible, it must be raised with enough care and keep it healthy as always.

Processing Specialty Beans

The specialty coffee industry considers acceptable coffee farming practices and the best coffee processing approach. Coffee processing is not just a contributor to coffee’s flavor profile, but also a vital stage in obtaining coffee as a specialty.

Did you know that when it comes to “Specialty Coffee,” what determines its quality is not the type of bean itself, but the process?

That is because different processing methods can offer various taste profiles. Each technique can exceptionally influence your coffee, and Not choosing the appropriate one can change the unique taste of specialty beans.

But what is the appropriate method for specialty coffee beans?

Several coffee producers target the specialty market with the final product of the washed method. This technique offers less sweet flavors, but provides more fruity and floral qualities that are associated with a clean cup.

However, there are other processing methods that offer better results. There’s that Anaerobic, Carbonic Maceration, Giling Basah, and maybe many more. Examples are those winning coffees that are specially processed in a new, innovative and unique way. Indeed, if you’re aiming for a high-quality status, I think don’t just limit your processing approach on the washed and dry method.

Quality Control/Sorting

This stage is where the coffee goes through a time-consuming process. But the good thing about it is the coffee can be defined as Specialty Coffee at the end of this process. At this point, the coffee beans’ quality is controlled through the hulling process, quality control, and sorting.

When it comes to the hulling process, it is a mechanical process that entails removing the coffee skin from the bean once it’s dried. The parchment is normally hulled to produce a dry green coffee bean, and it’s usually done at the production site. However, of course, no one is perfect, and you will still need to inspect and remove the left peeled parchment from the bean.

Moreover, we’ve mentioned before that the beans are usually measured as high-grade if they are sorted and prepared to produce zero defects in specialty grade coffee.

With that being said, in this case, the beans are sorted by size and weight from a visual inspection. And any defective beans are removed from the batch to sell at higher prices in the market. So, specialty coffees usually are expensive due to this process.

Quality Grading System

Before making them to the roaster, we’ve mentioned before that a certified Q grader grades the coffee beans. These Q graders are certified by the SCA or the Coffee Quality Institute (CQI) as Licensed Q Grader.

So, once green coffee beans are produced, they are transferred to the green coffee buyer or retailer who may be a Q grader. Specialty coffees go through a process called the “quality grading system.” It is aimed to identify high-quality coffees from lower-quality ones. It’s usually an approach to describe your coffee and include as a specialty.

Most coffee beans are graded and perceived their quality via cupping or cup tasting. Brewed coffees are tasted or sampled by a Certified Coffee Taster. Also, through cupping, the cup quality’s score is determined by the taster, whether it is specialty grade coffee or not (that will be a “gourmet coffee”). 

The Roasting Process

The quality of coffee shines more through roasting. Coffee roasting consists of several stages where coffees are developed. This process is one of the most critical factors that contribute to the specialty bean’s quality.

Remember that we roast the coffee beans to develop different aroma compounds. But these compounds can make or break the final coffee flavor. 

It is highlighted before that a roaster’s skill is needed to maintain coffee as a specialty. High-quality coffees are expected to be achieved at the end of this phase. But that thing will happen if the specialty beans are skillfully roasted by a roaster who may be certified by the SCA.

Have you ever wondered why do we need to roast the coffee beans? The thing is, roasting is more than an art. At the same time, it’s also considered a science. And as a roster, having completed numerous hours of coursework and hands-on training guarantees a successful roasting development.

Furthermore, in terms of consistency, roasting results from several components’ reactions that contribute to the full development of coffee’s flavor and aroma. Simultaneously, this process enhances the coffee taste through the combination of heat, time, and patience. 

So, in the end, there’s no sense whether the beans are taken care of, properly handled, well processed, or sorted from the very start if the roaster will just ruin the beans at the end.

The Brewing Process

Of course, you can’t perceive a specialty coffee if you can’t taste it. At this point, the roasted specialty beans reach the coffee shops, cafes, and retail market.

After the specialty coffee beans passed the levels of inspection and quality control, as well as roasted to develop the flavor, the coffee must be ground. 

The aroma is one of the essential traits of specialty beans, and sometimes it is the first thing you lose when grinding it. Therefore, to maintain the best coffee quality, from seed to cup, grinding is best done as close in time to brewing as possible to ensure you’re getting the most out of it – its smell and natural taste.

Moreover, when it comes to the size of the ground particles, it’s important to choose a grind size according to how exactly you will be brewing it. It’s essential paying attention to how fine or coarse the coffee beans are ground. The grind size is necessary for the taste of your coffee and should fit the brew method. Otherwise, you may not get the consistency that you want in a coffee.

In the end, to brew the perfect specialty coffee, it’s all down to the barista, who may also be certified by the SCA. Passion is good, but sometimes, it’s not enough. And just like a skilled roaster, having completed numerous hours of coursework and hands-on training as a barista ensures that you’re brewing the best coffee.

Why Specialty Coffee?

Focus what is specialty coffee

There are many reasons to delve into specialty coffee. Indeed, this is an excellent opportunity that only some people can experience. 

Specialty Coffee Focuses on Quality

The most important consideration in specialty coffee is the quality, not the quantity.

Since you need to consider a lot of things just from the production alone, such picking only the ripe coffee cherries before continuing to the next hands to obtain the best cup possible, the availability is already sacrificed for the sake of quality.

And it doesn’t end there. You also need to make sure only beans free of defects are being picked. Perfecting the highest quality coffee available is more important than devoting and focusing on quantity alone. After all, quality is almost the core of anything that has experienced a high degree of specialization.

But at the end of the day, it will reflect on your cup. Since the beans have undergone several stages, the final result gained a high extent of perfection. All thanks to those who created and maintained specialty coffee from seed to cup.

Specialty Coffee is “Special”

Specialty Coffee involves the ability to communicate with consumers engagingly. Aside from its special and distinct taste, smell, acidity, body, and complexity, its information makes it more “special” than the standard or commodities coffee in the market. 

The good thing about it is the detailed information consumers can have about the bean’s quality, as well as the rare “specialty” experience. And that rarity is now easily accessible nowadays, all thanks to those dedicated professionals, making this opportunity creates numerous specialty coffees and coffee shops across the globe.

So, why is specialty coffee special?

Besides your coffee being of a higher quality, it makes you more appreciative of those specialty coffees around you. While engaging in specialty coffee is a great experience, you’re also gaining details and knowledge about what makes a coffee special. You’re also delving into the hard work poured in creating your beloved drink.

After all, you’re getting the best experience that only a few people can access and appreciate.

Ethically Sourced Coffee

These specialty coffees you encounter worldwide are the result of those involved in the entire coffee value chain.

If we say “specialty coffee,” it goes beyond the quality of the bean. Remember that all the actors in the entire supply chain should make a profit, and support individuals, families, and communities around the world.

And paying an exceptional price for green coffee beans is not just an encouragement for farmers, but also the start of producing high-quality coffee.

What’s most important is the ethical practices between farmers and roasters, or producers and retailers.

It cannot truly be a specialty coffee if farmers are exploited because of the high price that specialty coffee earns locally and abroad.

A great tasting beverage is an excellent thing, but not at the cost of the people’s dignity or well-being and land involved. Instead, everyone in the coffee value chain should help liberate farmers from economic and systematic oppression. 

That is why it’s imperative to implement a direct trade between farmers and roasters. Being able to connect with quality-minded buyers and having a closer eye and first-hand experience by both producers and farmers will impact the crops’ aspect. Then, in the end, expect that farmers will invest their time, knowledge, and money to produce the best specialty coffee possible.


There you have it! When you hear the word specialty, you’ll think that it’s all about quality. But remember that behind that quality, the beans go through several stages where proper care, inspection levels, and quality control occur.

Specialty coffee exists until now because of individuals, groups, or communities that continually make quality their highest priority. Besides, as highlighted above, sustainability is one of the most important factors in producing specialty coffee.

In addition, as we’ve said, it’s not just an effort of only one person. Don’t forget that as a consumer, you have a significant contribution to it. We (coffee drinkers) are the ones who complete the lifecycle of the specialty coffee bean by involving in the values of quality, identity, and distinction in coffee.

Like this Article? You may Want to Read: What Does Single Origin Coffee Mean?