What is specialty coffee?

“Specialty” is a term we often hear in the coffee industry, but the definition can vary depending on the context in which it’s used.

“Specialty” is a term we often hear in the coffee industry, but the definition can vary depending on the context in which it’s used.

SPECIALTY IN CUPPING

If you’re reading “specialty” in relation to a batch of coffee, the explanation is straightforward enough.

Specialty denotes a coffee that has been assessed using the Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA) cupping protocols and which has scored above 80 points. Coffee is scored out of 10 in each of the following SCAA cupping categories:

  • fragrance/aroma
  • flavour
  • sweetness
  • acidity
  • body
  • balance
  • aftertaste
  • overall impression

Points are also deducted for any faults, taints or inconsistencies.

SCAA coffee cupping scoresheet

Example of an SCAA scoresheet – click to expand

To achieve Specialty status, the coffee must score a total of 80 or more across all of these categories – somewhere between Very Good and Excellent.

Once the total score is tallied, the coffee is classified into one of four quality categories:

  • 90 – 100 = Outstanding specialty quality coffee
  • 85 – 89.99 = Excellent specialty quality coffee
  • 80 – 84.99 = Very Good specialty quality coffee
  • < 80 = Commercial coffee

Using this system, our July 2016 Bean of the Month from Rwanda scored 87.5/100 which places this coffee into the Excellent specialty quality coffee classification.

SPECIALTY IN THE BROADER COFFEE INDUSTRY

Specialty when applied to a café or roasting house is a little less clearly quantifiable. The SCAA explains that specialty refers to a supply chain – farmer, green bean buyer, roaster, barista and customer – that is completely dedicated to quality coffee.

FARMER – from plant selection to harvest, the farmer makes many decisions which work together to create the flavours in the cup. Careful farming practices are key to quality coffee.

GREEN COFFEE BUYER – assesses the coffees using the SCAA protocols and carefully selects the best coffees to either work together in a blend or stand alone as single origin coffees.

ROASTER – creating the perfect roast profile or recipe is painstaking work. Small adjustments to temperature, drum speed and length of roast can bring out different characteristics in each bean and must be carefully monitored for consistency and quality.

BARISTA – grind, tamp, extraction time and pressure all create different flavours in the cup. A great barista takes care at each stage of preparation, to ensure the customer can enjoy the perfect example of the coffee’s flavour characteristics every time.

CUSTOMER – every step in the process is geared towards the person who drinks the cup. It is only through the support of the customer that we are able to take the time at each stage to perfect and refine the process. Happy customers inspire every link in the chain to work harder and smarter in the pursuit of the perfect coffee.

At Merlo, the pursuit of quality is central to our work, both in the beans we choose to sell and the quality assurance practices we employ.
From our cupping team who meet weekly to select the best green bean to our baristas who undertake hours of training to perfect their craft, we all aim to play our role in the specialty chain.

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