Coffee Connoisseur: What Is Specialty Coffee?

Let’s face it: people make coffee a part of their identity. From those who “need a strong black cup” every morning to those who won’t touch the stuff with a 10-foot pole, coffee consumption tends to be polarizing and personal. One thing’s for certain though; caffeine abstainers are in the minority with more than half of adult Americans starting their morning with a cup of the bold brew. 

Naturally, that leaves room for lots of opinions. Do you take it black or with creamer? Hot or cold? Sweet or straight? Drip or espresso? The human intrigue surrounding this energizing cherry seed provides ample angles, niches, perspectives, and thoughts on what’s “the best coffee you’ve ever tasted.”

Putting it bluntly: just like everyone else, I’m biased. Regardless of extraction methodology and additives, my go-to cup falls under the broad category known loosely as “Specialty Coffee.” For those bored with the tepid morning drip or high-calorie smoothies impostering as espresso drinks, or just in general for those with a curious spirit, we are going to dive into and explore the definition of “specialty” joe.

What Does "Specialty" Mean?

Humans like categories, boxes, and organization. It helps us engage with others, and with the objects that make up our existence. As a standard--but helpful--cliche, defining “specialty” as it refers to coffee will establish context for the following conversations. 

We’re all familiar with species, the broad categories placed over organisms with a certain level of genetic similarity. While we might refer to both a gorilla and a chimpanzee as an ape, they are both sort of similar while also vastly different. The same exists within the world of coffee, with the two heavyweights of the industry known as “Arabica” and “Robusta.” Almost all the coffee you can buy today--and almost all the coffee you’ve ever drank--will be one of these species or a blend of the two.

Robusta is a thick, heavy, oily... robust coffee. It’s easy to grow, resistant to insects and infection, and doesn't care too much about climate, altitude, or soil quality. Arabica, on the other hand, is your needy younger sibling. It demands more precise growing environments and has a tendency to give up quickly when faced with hungry beetles or extroverted fungi. It’s higher sugar content makes it more appealing to organisms of all sizes: from bacteria to people! While arabica is more temperamental, generally speaking, you’ll get more refreshing, pleasant, sweet flavors when compared to its robust counterpart.

You might easily guess, then, that specialty grade coffee generally comes from the arabica species. There are exceptions, but as a general rule of thumb, you can assume an arabica coffee to be considered higher quality when all other factors are held equal.

But that’s just the genetic generalities. What are those other factors? Soil acidity, nutrient content, altitude, geography, climate, harvest time, methodology, and how the coffee is “processed” all impact the final quality of that little bean. To keep it short, here are some generalities: the higher the altitude, the colder the climate, and the less sunlight the plant gets exposed to will result in slower growth and a denser bean. This modifies carbohydrate formation in the berry (read: changes how the sugar’s chemical structure develops) in a way that tends to be preferable to the alternative. Likewise, coffee from Africa tends to capture “fruity” characteristics while a South American coffee tends to develop “chocolate-y” flavors. While a lot of stuff goes into that, one could safely chalk it up primarily to soil nutrient content without getting a sideways glance at a coffee geek gathering. 

Finally, you have processing methods. Once the coffee is picked, all the cherries will either be thrown into a vat to be fermented and the cherry flesh removed prior to being dried, or just thrown on a drying pad to allow the cherry flesh to dry around the seed. The coffee is then milled to remove dried remnants of mucilage. The former is known as a “washed” process and the ladder is called “natural.” 

Obviously, things like insect and bird damage, bacteria and mold infections, or issues ripening will be seen as a blight on the coffee cherry regardless of where it’s grown. All these things decrease the perceived “grade” of the coffee, and the Specialty Coffee Association states basically that coffee must be “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.” The SCA certifies graders, known as “Q Graders,” that regularly inspect and taste coffees and score it on a 100 point scale. All specialty coffee must achieve a minimum score of 80 out of 100. 

Basically our takeaway can be summarized by saying specialty grade coffee tastes good, was grown properly in a good environment, picked at the right time, and processed deliciously. All of these steps demand significant expertise, labor, and equipment to pull off correctly, which is why huge industrial operations servicing your favorite grocery store brand coffee tin are unable to efficiently match the quality output of these “special” producers.

The Beans

The quality of your cup of coffee comes down to the quality of the beans. They must be carefully cultivated on the vine, harvested at the right time, and then stored and shipped following strict protocols.

Altitude, climate, and exposure to sunlight all have a significant impact on the quality of the final product. But at the end of the day, if you don't have great beans, you won't have great coffee.


If you’ll come up for a breath of air here, you might notice we haven’t even talked about roasting yet. People make a big deal out of roasting, and they’re right: once all the steps we talked about are completed, the roaster receives this bean which they need to maximize. A coffee roaster can’t add anything to that seed, they can only alter and remove parts of it. For example, roasting can be broken into phases; first, the beans are dried out by hot air, removing moisture from the seed. Next, the coffee starts browning in a chemical reaction identical to the one steak goes through when you grill it (google Maillard Reaction if you want to get deeper into this). Finally, the coffee is developed to its final roast level, allowing sugars to caramelize (and, on occasion, burn). 

The darker you roast a coffee, the more chemicals you alter and remove. A roaster must balance the level of development between retention of those special flavors imparted by the origin, coffee type, growth environment, and processing method with the caramelization of sugars and roast characteristics that both retain unique attributes of a particular coffee while presenting it in a sweet, delicious manner. Once this coffee is complete and has rested for a little while, it’s ready to be ground and brewed (check out our article on brewing the perfect cup for more info on how to get the most out of your roasted beans!). 

A Guide to What Makes Specialty Coffee Tastes So Amazing

Billions of people start every day with a cup of coffee. Maximizing enjoyment of that morning ritual is both a subjective, personal endeavor as well as an intriguing, complex engagement. Whether you’re new to the world of specialty coffee and want to dip your feet into this exciting experience or a connoisseur looking for the next best cup, check out the excellent selection of specialty-grade, quality roasted coffee provided by Palm Coffee Roasters! 

Feel free to contact us with any questions regarding our selection of wholesale specialty coffee beans.

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