A Human Definition of Speciality Coffee

A Human Definition of Speciality Coffee

Writing and developing Pilgrim Coffee (which I have now wound down) meant I was consistently faced with this one difficult question: What is “speciality coffee”?

Or:

“How can you tell if a cafe is good as soon as you walk in?”

I needed to define specialty coffee in order to know what to include in the app. At its peak, I had around 3,000 cafes around the world listed in my community-built map of specialty coffee shops. (I wound it down in 2017 after my database vendor, Parse, wound down.)

Around 2007, before speciality coffee took off as a consumer trend, I had a farcical framework where I’d score a cafe based on:

  • number of piercings/tattoos on baristas
  • whether it had exposed pipes or unpainted walls
  • whether there was vinyl (bonus points for local bands)
  • whether they knew what a ‘magic’ was...

And so on. Obviously, all that was a joke, and was only 80% reliable.

Nowadays, new arrivals are adept at copying this concept. See The Corner from McDonalds for example, which arrived on the scene around 2014. The Corner replicated the look of "the corner store cafe" en masse. If the superficial design can be replicated through automation, we have to dig deeper.

Speciality coffee is defined as (according to those who define such things) any green coffee that scored 80 or higher on independent cupping tests by the Speciality Coffee Association of America (SCAA).

A more nebulous definition came in an article published on the SCAA website in 2009 by Ric Rhinehart (the President of the SCAA) for green coffee:

The SCAA defines specialty coffee in its green stage as coffee that is free of primary defects, has no quakers, is properly sized and dried, presents in the cup free of faults and taints and has distinctive attributes. (source)

This definition of specialty coffee is for green coffee only. As such, it applies only to those who are producing, trading or buying green beans.

As consumers, we normally drink coffee as a fully brewed beverage.

Other definitions for speciality coffee are too organisation-centric (requiring certifications by the SCAA, SCAE, Q-graders courses etc.). We need something broader.

In consultation with a range of roasters, traders, baristas and consumers, I’ve come up with the following working model.

Defining specialty coffee - a framework
A high-level framework for defining speciality coffee

This is the framework I used to decide whether or not something belonged in my list that I published on the Pilgrim Coffee.

Let's exaine the elements in more detail:

Defining Specialty Coffee Pre-requisite 1: High Quality Bean Sourcing and Roasting

Specialty coffee starts with the bean.

Firstly, coffee origin. If there’s one thing that’s decisive about whether a coffee passes muster or not, it’s when a roaster waxes lyrical about bean origin.

There are many high quality origins around the world. Even in places known for generally pedestrian coffee, individual farms and co-operatives can stand out from the crowd.

Without being a coffee buyer yourself, you can determine specialty coffee sometimes from the way in which a buyer talks about a coffee.

I recall visiting Wah Shing Coffee Roasters in Hong Kong once. After talking for a few minutes with one of the owners, Linky, he suddenly blurt out ‘I’ve got something special for you. Close your eyes.’ He held up a jar of beans to my nose. ‘Now smell!’ Of course the coffee was amazing and had an interesting back story to boot.

Similarly, on a visit to Seniman Coffee Studio in Bali, the owners told me with pride how they’d been working with local growers on improving yield in natural processing. Indonesia doesn't normally produce good coffees — let alone naturally processed coffees — and so this was a special moment.

Secondly, high quality coffee roasting. This is an important corollary of high quality sourcing.

Of course, coffee can be roast many different ways, but the important part is not sycophantically under-roasting in accordance with trends, nor over-roasting.

Matt Perger did an excellent overview of what a ‘fully developed’ roast means. Generally speaking anyone in the specialty coffee biz isn’t going to ruin a great coffee.

But when assessing a cafe, it helps tremendously to know who the roaster is. If it’s a name like:

  • Stumptown (USA)
  • Intelligentsia (USA)
  • Blue Bottle (USA)
  • Five Senses (Australia)
  • The Barn (Germany)
  • Tim Wendelboe (Norway)
  • Coffee Collective (Denmark)
  • Five Elephant (Germany)
  • Square Mile (UK)
  • Cafe Coutume (Japan)
  • Jascaffe (China)

Those roasters above are a small sample of some of the most well-known roasters around the world who have been at the vanguard of roasting and production for decades now.

Mentioning the source roaster means a cafe takes pride in it roast quality, and also means they take an active interest in who buys their coffee. They will work to make sure it’s presented well.

Pre-requisite 2 for Specialty Coffee: Attentive, Scientific Brewing

This is where attitude is more important than gear, appearances, awards or whether they have an all-day brunch menu.

A few examples of things staff have told me that signified a place really cared (without me even having to check):

I’m sorry your coffee will take a few minutes longer. The barista is just dialling in the grind for a new coffee. (Heart Roasters, Portland, OR, 2013)

Heart really pays attention to brewed coffee quality and to the consumer experience.

You probably don’t want to drink this coffee straight black. Our Ethiopian works better black, but this one works best with milk. (Coffee Anthology, Brisbane, Australia, 2012)

Those guys really care too.

And finally, when I noticed an espresso bar weighing the espresso shot as it was being poured:

We weigh every shot. If you’re going to do something right, do it right every time. (De La Paz, San Francisco, CA , 2013— since closed down and acquired.)

There are countless other examples of such an attitude I’ve encountered, across Asia, Europe, Australia and the US.

(Unfortunately high-end specialty coffee is still rare in Africa and Latin America, even in 2020. There are a small number of high quality roasters and brewers, but they're vastly outnumbered per capita in other parts of the world.)

Other cafes may have more subtle indicators that they really care about the coffee. You might hear banter about them adjusting grinds or beans, or you might see options other than espresso on the menu (and actually being served to customers).

Sometimes, you can straight up ask the wait staff or the barista what they’re doing or what they like. If you get an intelligent, lucid answer… you’re in the right spot.

Of course, they might just be tired. But really great places seem to never run out of energy.

Final thoughts on Defining Specialty Coffee

Those two families of elements together seem be pretty consistent descriptors for what ‘specialty coffee’ is.

One important point to realise — not every cup of coffee served at a specialty cafe will be amazing. It might even be hit and miss.

Baristas/coffee production staff are dedicated to improving every aspect of coffee and are thus constantly experimenting and innovating, and often brewing by hand using a filter or something similar. The necessary by-product of experimentation is the occasional failure, or in many cases, a non-optimised success.

One way of working around this is to ask the staff what they really like to make. It might be their own specialty — like, they might have a really good cappuccino, or a short long black, and suggest you try it.

Manage your expectations, and enjoy the process of the endless search for the perfect coffee as much as the final product and you’ll be as deep down the rabbit hole as many of us are.