With more and more people realising that the quality of coffee can really make a difference in your morning cup of joe, more “speciality” coffees are hitting the shelves than ever before. But what exactly does “speciality grade coffee” mean, and how is it any different from every other cup of coffee? Specialty coffees are generally held to a higher standard than other types of coffees such as ‘commercial grade coffee’, and this leads to a far better taste.
How that is actually achieved is what we’re here to talk about today. At Craft Coffee Spot and Balance Coffee, we recognise the importance of making informed decisions, and understanding specialty coffee is no exception. We’ve researched information and shared the criteria to help you understand exactly how specialty-grade coffee stands out as a the most effective way to make sure the coffee you are drinking is top quality.
In this article, we’ll share everything you need to know about specialty-grade coffee.
Specialty Grade Coffee: The Expert Definition
Specialty coffee is a category that encompasses the highest quality coffee on the market. The Specialty Coffee Association (SCA) tests and grades different coffees depending on how they meet certain criteria’s.
SCA employees called ‘cuppers’ are responsible for testing coffees to determine their quality. The coffees are given numerical scores based on their overall quality, number of defects, taste, moisture content, and other factors.
Specialty coffee makes up around 37% of all coffee in the United States and just around 6-7% in the UK. Any coffee that scores an 80/100 or above is defined as a specialty-grade coffee. The subcategories of “specialty” are as follows:
- 80-84.9: very good
- 85-89.9: excellent
- 90-100: outstanding
Basics of Speciality Grade Coffee
At first glance, understanding specialty coffee seems incredibly complicated. There are different scores and criteria, and following along can get confusing after a while.
To put it simply, professionals who are highly skilled and experts in their fields taste test coffee at every level, bean, ground, and liquid, to see how great it is. Then, these experts produce a coffee score which grades that coffee.
To qualify as specialty grade coffee, this score has to be at least 80. However, the higher the score, the better the coffee.
This score which classifies and grades the coffee, is a long and tedious process. But for good reason – SCA believes that taking it’s time to ensure each coffee is receiving a fair score, provides value to the whole industry, farmers and end consumers. Ultimately, these scores end up defining the cost for each individual coffee which travels down the chain all the way to the cafe and online coffee shop.
Equally, if a coffee really shines, then it’s only fair that it’s rewarded with a high score.
How Coffee is Scored
There are strict guidelines that cuppers must follow when taste testing coffees. For example, each cupper must taste coffee samples in an environment that is well-lit, quiet, and clean space.
All of the coffee is to be made from coffee beans which are freshly ground on-site just before tasting and not pre-ground. Cupping glasses must have a minimum capacity of at least seven fluid ounces but also no more than nine.
As I mentioned before, there are certain criteria that coffees must meet to be considered specialty-grade. SCA cuppers brew several cups of the same type of coffee to ensure that the test results are consistent across the board.
The SCA outlines these criteria into the following categories:
- Clean cup
The fragrance/aroma category evaluates the coffee’s smell both dry and when brewed. Cuppers smell the coffee before adding water, immediately after adding water, and then as the coffee brews. They can then note any aromatic notes and qualities which form the fragrance rating.
One of the most important factors in determining specialty-grade coffee is the flavour. Cuppers sip and slurp the coffee to understand the aromatic notes and the overall taste profile when determining flavour.
The aftertaste that the coffee leaves behind is also taken into consideration. Sour and long-lasting aftertastes are more likely to receive lower scores whilst a coffee with complexity and balance is likely to be scored very highly.
While many of us would consider acidic coffee a bad thing, acidity is what gives coffee a bright, full flavour.
But you know what they say about too much of a good thing. There are coffees that exist which have an overpoweringly acidic taste, which can be downright sour and unpleasant, therefore receiving lower quality scores.
Cuppers also look for other factors in the coffee tasting stage, such as body and mouthfeel. Based on the environments they are grown in, such as soil, altitude and other factors, this can create wide ranging nuances – these are all factored in to the end result.
Many coffee drinkers enjoy a pleasant sweetness to their coffee. Many specialty-grade coffees feature a full-bodied sweetness because of their lack of green defects in the coffee grounds.
While many may believe that “clean cup” refers to the presence of grounds after consuming the coffee, it actually refers to the coffee’s clean consistency from start to finish. If the coffee develops a bad flavour which lingers on your palette the longer you drink it, then it will not pass the clean cup test.
Having a good balance of all of these factors is the key to any specialty coffee. Inconsistencies amongst categories will result in lower scores. Uniform, high-quality coffees with lots of complexity will generally receive the highest scores. It is essential that coffee grading uses consistently ground coffee (whatever the method) prepared properly.
Once all of the categories receive an individual score, the scores are tallied to determine the overall rating of the coffee. Scores of 80 and above means that it will be graded as specialty grade coffee.
One of the biggest demerits that coffee samples can receive in the scoring process is from something called a defect.
Defects in the preliminary stages are either primary or secondary defects. Defects in the tasting and scoring process are categorised as either a taint or a fault.
A coffee must contain no primary defects and no more than five secondary defects to be a specialty coffee. There can be no more than five defective beans per 350g of coffee.
Coffee beans have to be mature and intact to receive a score. Unripe beans, soured beans, or the presence of impurities such as sticks or rocks all classify as primary defects. Broken beans, water damage, and insect damage are examples of secondary defects.
Taints are flavours in the coffee that simply don’t taste right. The off-flavor isn’t overpowering, but it’s strong enough that it leaves a bad or unpleasant taste in your mouth. These defects are a 2 on the intensity scale.
Faults are more powerful than taints. Faults are flavours that make the coffee taste bad in an overwhelming way. Faults receive a score of 4.
Defect scores during tasting are multiplied by the number of cups they are present in, and cuppers subtract that number from the overall score.
Speciality Coffee vs. Third-Wave Coffee
In my research, I found that many people use the terms “third wave” and “speciality” interchangeably when referring to speciality grade coffee, but it’s important to note the differences between the two terms.
Third-wave coffee refers to the overall movement towards a more genuine understanding and appreciation of where high-quality comes from and how it’s prepared.
Specialty grade coffee is a type coffee that has passed a minimum criteria and grading system for quality. This grade of coffee undergoes rigorous testing from a panel of experts who have determined that coffee is of exceptional quality.
The Importance of Speciality Grade Coffee
Now that you know all about what speciality coffee is, you may be wondering why it even matters. The answer is that knowing that the coffee you’re drinking is high-quality and has passed rigorous testing gives you a sense of confidence and security that you know you’re enjoying a safe and high-quality product. We talked all about the health benefits of coffee recently.
Speciality grade coffee makes up approximately 37% of all coffee in the United States, according to the SCA. This speaks volumes about its quality and rising popularity. Speciality coffee also meets organic coffee criteria, because it’s been treated carefully and has benefits associated with it compared to commercial grade coffee which uses poor and un-safe methods of production.
Not only is it high-quality, but specialty coffee is also affordable and easy to find online. You don’t have to go far out of your way to obtain it as it’s become hugely popular and essential for home coffee fanatics.
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Now you know all there is to know about specialty grade coffee and how it gets its kudos. We hope that this article has helped inform your decision the next time you’re shopping for specialty coffee online.
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