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What is Specialty Coffee?
Posted on December 03 2020,
“A rose is a rose is a rose” Gertrude Stein
Isn’t coffee just coffee? Not at all! You can choose either commercial coffee or specialty coffee, and they are worlds apart. In this post, we’ll take a look at the important differences between the two and arm you with the information needed to choose between commercial and specialty coffee.
First off, let’s make sure we’re on the same page in terms of what we’re talking about.
Commercial coffee is traded as a commodity, processed in large volumes, packaged, and readily available in supermarkets either as pre-ground coffee or as beans.
Specialty coffee, on the other hand, is coffee grown in microclimates and harvested for their unique flavor profiles. Typically, specialty coffee is grown using sustainable methods, picked carefully, and In this post, we’ll take a look at the key differences between commercial and specialty coffee.
Types of coffee
There two main varieties of coffee; Arabica and Robusta.
Arabica beans, thought of as better-quality beans, produce smooth, sweet, fruity coffee, often with chocolate undertones. The flavor of coffee produced by Arabica beans is highly dependent on the growing region and processing method.
Robusta beans produce a harsh-tasting coffee, high in caffeine, with a strong, and earthy aftertaste.
The issue here is Arabica, the far superior variety, is more expensive than Robusta. Some commercial coffee blends will contain both Arabica and Robusta beans, giving the resulting coffee a strong, unpleasantly harsh flavor. By mixing the two coffee varieties, commercial producers can yield a higher volume at a lower cost.
Specialty coffee producers will never sacrifice price for quality or volume. Arabica beans will always be their choice because it offers complex flavors and a smoother taste.
Commercial coffee production is all about volume and price. Producers select farms that can meet these requirements consistently, often with little concern for quality. What they want is the highest yield possible. Remember, they are trading coffee as a commodity so volume and price are key.
Producers of specialty coffee will pay a lot of attention to how the coffee is grown. They select farms based on quality, location, altitude, fertilization, irrigation, sustainability, and picking methods. Growing and quality are far more important than yield.
Coffee growing has a tremendous environmental and social impact, and these issues are given high importance by specialty coffee producers. Why? Because we all ought to care about the planet and the people who live it now and in the future.
Coffee growing can have a huge environmental impact. Large amounts of water are required if polluted water is allowed to drain into rivers and lakes, both humans and animals are subject to disease and harmful chemicals. Also, farmers who have a concern for the land will maintain trees and shade areas on their farms to support wildlife and natural nutrients.
Most coffee is grown in underdeveloped countries and areas of extreme poverty. Workers depend on coffee farmers for their livelihood and survival. Unethical farmers can take advantage of this and pay poor wages to their workers knowing the workers have no other choice than to accept it. Specialty coffee producers often insist on fair trade practices and community development as criteria for farm selection.
Yes, coffee is a fruit. It starts as a cherry with two beans inside each one. The quality of the coffee has everything to do with the quality of the cherries and when they are picked.
You’ll find coffee cherries that are red, green, yellow, and even black. The perfectly ripe cherries are a crimson red and are selected by careful handpicking.
Again, commercial coffee production is all about volume. The cherries are almost always picked by machines, resulting in the picking of all cherries, including underripe and overripe ones. Everything gets picked, and everything gets used.
The cherries used for specialty coffee is handpicked. Workers know exactly what cherries to pick and which ones to leave behind. That’s not where it stops. Farmers growing specialty coffee will have a further quality check after picking. They remove cherries with blemishes and signs of poor quality.
Perhaps the biggest concern when it comes to coffee flavor is the way the green beans are roasted.
Roasting is both an art and a science. A roaster must
pay careful attention to the quality and type of bean, and how to roast it to perfection.
During roasting, coffee beans go through several stages. First, moisture is drawn from the beans. Second, the beans change characteristics as the sugars break down. Next, the beans start to crack and this is known as the first crack. Lastly, the beans start to develop flavor and aroma, and this is where the real art comes in. The roaster will know the exact profile they are looking for and will continue the roast monitoring the bean development at all times, and stopping the roast at the perfect stage.
Specialty coffee beans are roasted in small batches by highly skilled roasters. The maximum potential of the bean is achieved. Often roasting is done in the same area where the beans are sold.
Commercial coffee is roast in very large batches using big unmonitored roasting machines. No care is given to the bean development during roasting, nor to achieve the best flavor profile. You won’t find any art here!
You’ve likely never given thought to how coffee is packaged when you buy it, but it is fundamental to retaining the quality of the beans. When it comes to coffee packaging, the most important considerations are flavor retention, moisture, oxygen, carbon dioxide, and temperature. Let’s take a quick look at each of these concerns.
Packaging needs to retain the aromas and flavor of the coffee. The actual material used must be one that won’t allow for the permeation of flavor molecules. Typically, layered materials are used to keep in flavor. Suitable packaging material is essential, and so is recycling!
During roasting, moisture has been carefully removed from the beans, and keeping the moisture out is important. The packaging needs to be moisture resistant but certainly not airtight.
For most food products, oxygen erodes quality, and freshness. The packaging must prevent oxygen from getting to the beans. If you visit a supermarket and they have the beans in bins for selection and scooping, walk on by.
Carbon dioxide is next. Coffee beans give off gases. This is especially true in roasting, but beans will continue to give off gases during the first month or so. Allowing these gases to vent, while keeping in aroma and flavor sounds easier than it seems. A package with a one-way valve does the trick, but some commercial manufactures don’t make use of such a valve as it added more cost to the packaging.
After roasting, for the next few hours or even days, coffee continues to give off a tremendous amount of gasses. The beans can’t be packaged too quickly or there will be too much gas released from the beans when they are packaged.
Finally, though a bit controversial, temperature affects coffee bean quality. The beans should be kept at room temperature at all times. Since commercial coffee often goes through many distribution channels, it can be transported in trucks reaching a high internal temperature or worse yet, shipped alongside refrigerated goods such as dairy products or even meat.
Specialty coffee sellers are keenly aware of all of these packaging concerns and take great care to provide the most suitable type of packaging. In contrast, commercial sellers are far more concerned about longer shelflife and brand recognition.
It is a myth specialty coffee costs more than commercial coffee.
Naturally, if the coffee is from a single origin or even a micro lot you would expect to pay more. You are paying for unique flavor and quality. A lot has gone into producing the coffee, and there is a price for that.
However, most specialty coffee retailers will be able to offer you coffee beans at a similar price to commercial coffee beans.
Buying specialty coffee online is your best bet. Lower overhead costs keep prices down. On these sites, you will be able to purchase 1Kg of your favorite beans. Some supermarkets only sell bags of 250kg.
Settling on commercial coffee based on price just isn’t a valid reason. Check out specialty coffee bean prices. There will be something in your price range.
If you love coffee, not just as a daily caffeine fix, but its favor, then specialty coffee just can't be compared to commercial coffee.
Most commercial coffee is simply going to be “one bean fits all.” The beans will be a blend of coffee from various farms or even regions. The package might tell you they are Arabica beans, but you’ll be far pressed to find any other details.
Specialty coffee producers are experts in coffee flavor. Country, region, location, altitude, and processing method have dramatic influences on flavor. Some beans will produce light, smooth coffee with chocolate and nutty undertones. Others might be fruity with berry and citrus undertones. Still, yet, some beans can produce such complex flavors you might fill a notebook with tasting notes.
Let’s just say it as it is. Specialty coffee is by far superior to commercial coffee. Coffee is special and has been for hundreds of years, and if you love it, shouldn’t you select it with as much care as you would a bottle of wine?
Specialty coffee producers know coffee about as well as anyone could. From variety, growing, picking, processing, roasting, sustainability, and packaging, they follow the bean to the cup, every step of the way.
The wonderful and complex flavor of coffee is the domain of specialty coffee producers and retailers. They are masters of the art. They are masters of coffee.
So, if someone tells you “the coffee is in aisle 8,” you’re in the wrong place.” Follow the bean to the cup and check out specialty coffee.