January 2, 2013 by Beans Ahoy
The term specialty coffee is thrown around by producers with great ease. Every other coffee on the shelf it seems is a ‘specialty’ coffee. However, it is only in the last couple of years that the term and indeed the product has started to become a little more mainstream.
So what is it? Fancy bag? Rare? Expensive? Location? How it’s served? In reality it can be all of these or none of them. There are however a number of factors which help to determine whether a coffee is a ‘specialty’ coffee or not.
A specialty coffee can come from any location; however there are some areas that produce superior coffees to others. Panama, Costa Rica, Hawaii, El Salvador, Kenya, and Sumatra are perhaps most associated with specialty coffee but they are not the only places. Brazil, India, Guatemala, and a heap of others have been known to produce specialty coffees. It is then perhaps necessary to consider not only the country, but also other factors.
The growing of coffee is very important. Specialty coffees are often grown at high altitudes, sometime above 1500m, and are also commonly grown in volcanic soil. Many of the finest coffees such as those in Hawaii, Panama, and Sumatra are grown on the sides of dormant volcanoes. The properties of volcanic soil are some of the best for quality coffee growing, containing all of the natural properties for good coffee bean development. Specialty coffee will also always be Arabica beans.
Quantity is also important. Specialty coffees are rarely grown in large quantities. This is not for lack of incentive, but usually physical and labour constraints. Good growing areas may be small in size due to soil conditions, much the same way Bordeaux wine estates may be limited in size by soil. Growers are also limited by labour. Quality coffee is often grown in shade under trees, or on the sides of steep slopes which means taking it from the bush by hand is very difficult. However, not all specialty coffee is grown in volcanic soil, or indeed in shade. So again, we must consider other factors.
Processing can play a role in the quality of a coffee. Beans correctly sorted by size as well as how clean they are (free from husks and other debris) will also determine the quality of the coffee, however this is not in itself a defining feature of a specialty coffee, rather a requirement for coffees that seek to distinguish themselves.
Roasting, as we always say at Beans Ahoy, is key to a good coffee. Specialty coffee is often roasted in much smaller batches than commercial coffee, usually between 1 and 60 kilograms. It is also roasted in smaller roasters so that the roaster can keep a close eye on the coffee and manage its roasting more finely.
A specialty coffee will be roasted to extract the best flavour and aroma of the bean. An experienced roaster will never seek to roast a bean to a preset profile in order to achieve a particular colour or roast taste. All beans are different and it is the job of the roaster to ensure their roast matches the bean perfectly. The differs from commercial producers who will often roast for a preset amount of time to achieve a particular roast. Producers such as Starbucks are famous for this as they produce a coffee that tastes of the roast, rather than the bean. Roast and the care taken to extract a good flavour is a large factor in the production of a specialty coffee, but a roast, no mater how good, will never make up for a sub-standard bean.
A specialty coffee must exhibit a complexity of aroma and taste that you simply don’t get in commercial coffee. The flavour of specialty coffee should never be overly bitter, or taste burnt. The flavour must evolve, and never exhibit unpleasant aromas or tastes.
Defining ‘specialty’ coffee is difficult. I have found that people will rate a coffee higher where it is served out of a fancy cup, or an elaborate process of brewing is used, but at the end of the day a specialty coffee will be defined by quality. It will almost always be grown at a high altitude, and in rich volcanic soil, and will definitely be an Arabica bean. Processing will be key to achieving consistent results, with uniform beans and minimal debris. Production is likely to be limited and as a result will be more expansive you’re your average coffee. However, I have found that price alone almost never tells the whole story. One of the best coffees I tasted of 2012 was the Sea Island Coffee, Costa Rica Geisha, yet it was not one of the most expensive. It is perhaps unsurprising then that the most important factor of specialty coffee is the taste. Specialty coffee will exhibit a complexity of aroma and flavour that is completely absent in commercial coffees.