The fact that you're here clearly means you like good coffee, but if you haven't yet fully fallen down the speciality coffee rabbit hole, you might be wondering what this "speciality coffee" thing is all about.
I know from my own experience, as someone who only really got into speciality coffee six or seven years ago, that it can actually be quite a shock when you discover the difference between these two types of coffee, as they really are different worlds.
I started drinking coffee as a kid, my earliest memory of it being taking flasks of coffee with me on fishing trips, as I was into coarse fishing as a kid.
I wasn't very good at it, I very rarely caught anything ;-), but there's just something so magical about sitting next to a body of water for hours on end, and I'm assuming that I created some kind of neural pathway between that feeling of tranquillity, and coffee, which stayed with me ever since.
It wasn't until my late 30s that I got into speciality coffee, though which happened when I was given a cafetiere as birthday gift. To cut a long story short, I ended up trying different coffees, and fell down this rabbit hole known as speciality coffee.
I didn't fully understand, until that point, that speciality coffee was really anything different, I certainly didn't expect it to taste differently or for there to be tonnes more variety within this kind of coffee.
So if you're in a similar mindset to the way I was back then, and you don't fully understand what speciality coffee actually means, then don't worry as I'm about to share what I've discovered about this very different world of coffee.
Commodity coffee beans Vs speciality coffee beans.
The coffee that the majority of the population will be familiar with, is commodity coffee. Commodity coffee is a HUGE business, and this kind of coffee is traded on the "C Market" (Central Market) as a commodity.
In the same way that sugar is just sugar, wheat is just wheat, and gold is just gold, coffee is just coffee, when it's traded on the C market.
There is no classification for different levels of quality or anything of that nature, the commodity price is simply whatever it is at the time, thanks to whatever deals have been done up to that point.
What the producer gets for their coffee beans within this market has absolutely no bearing on what it cost them to produce that harvest, the market dictates the price. Sometimes they may make a profit, sometimes they won't - and even when there's a profit to be made, it's usually slim.
Most of the coffee you'll be familiar with, whether it's coffee you buy as pre-ground coffee beans, instant coffee, even whole beans, if you're buying from the supermarket you're probably buying commodity coffee.
If you have the belief that "coffee just tastes like coffee", then this belief probably comes from drinking commodity coffee. This kind of coffee all tends to taste very similar.
The reason for this is simply that the cup quality of this kind of coffee varies a lot, but is generally fairly poor in terms of the high instances of various taste defects, and as a result it's usually roasted dark in order to hide these defects.
Roasting dark is also a way to ensure batch consistency from one bag of pre-ground coffee or one jar of instant coffee to another.
Could this coffee be produced to a higher standard so it doesn't have to be roasted as dark to hide the taste defects? Well, in theory yes - but in reality no, because this would cost more, and how can producers put more money into producing coffee when the price is fixed based on the market and has no relationship with quality?
The other reason that this isn't really feasible is that although certain things could be changed to improve quality, such as manual picking instead of mechanical for example, the most important factor is where the coffee is grown, and the majority of coffee producers just don't have the ability to simply move to a different location.
There's another market for coffee beans, the speciality coffee market.
This market is the polar opposite of commodity coffee. While cup quality doesn't have any impact on the price of commodity coffee, cup quality is how speciality coffee is graded and priced.
This kind of coffee is very different because it's not treated simply as a commodity. The people involved in this market, everyone from the coffee farmer all the way through to the roaster, and ultimately the speciality coffee drinker, treat coffee in a different way in order to ensure the very best cup quality.
I mention the consumer, the speciality coffee drinker, because generally speaking, people who drink this kind of coffee put a lot more effort into to brewing coffee in order to do this coffee justice when brewing, than the average coffee drinker who might just chuck some pre-ground coffee into a cafetiere, or spoon in some instant and pour hot water on top of it.
Another way to put this, is that everyone involved in speciality coffee, from the farmer to the consumer, cares about cup quality.
What does the Speciality Coffee Association have to do with it?
The Speciality Coffee Association is the body responsible for grading speciality coffee. Coffee is tasted and graded by SCA approved "Q graders", and to be "officially" classed as (SCA certified) Speciality Coffee, it has to be scored 80/100 or higher.
The speciality coffee association not only works to ensure high quality, but they're also concerned with ethics, sustainability, human rights and the environment, so there is more to buying SCA scored speciality coffees than purely taste.
Is Speciality Coffee Better For the Farmer?
For those who are fortunate enough to be able to produce coffee at the kind of quality that is required for speciality coffee, then yes, because your coffee beans will usually end up being valued at a higher price than the C market.
Not only this, but the speciality coffee market focuses a lot more on relationship, which means that the buyer (which in some cases is the roaster) and the producer have a direct relationship, and good old fair business practices are often followed, meaning that a producer of speciality coffee beans usually has a more sustainable business and dependable income.
The simple fact is, though, it's only a small, fortunate percentage of coffee growers that have this opportunity.
It's a bit of a post code lottery when it comes to whether or not the location of the land the producer has at their disposal is feasible for the high quality standards that this market demands. There are other factors in addition to location, as growing and producing speciality grade coffee is something that requires a lot of specialized knowledge, skill, experience and a fair amount of investment.
So What's So Special About Speciality Coffee?
Speciality coffee is coffee which is treated with the required care, from start to finish, to result in a very specific tasting coffee, specific to that particular varietal or mix of varietals, the particular origin, processing method and roast profile.
Because this kind of coffee can be roasted to the profile which brings out the very best flavour the coffee has to offer (as determined by the roaster) and there's no need to roast it darker than is ideal simply to burn away taste defects, it allows for a great deal of variety.
I should say at this point, having just mentioned the roaster, that the role of the coffee roaster is incredibly important, and is one of things that makes speciality coffee what it is.
Most speciality coffee beans are roasted by small batch coffee roasters. These people have the same goal as the coffee producer, which is to produce the very best cup quality that the coffee beans they're roasting have to offer.
So every important step, including growing, picking, processing, importing and roasting, is done with a great deal of care, by specialists all who have the same goal of ensuring the very best cup quality from every bag of coffee beans.
As I've said, what this leads to is very specific tasting coffee depending on all of the things that impact on the taste. So it's not only about cup quality, it's also about variety.
I've been drinking speciality coffee for a good few years now, and as well as drinking my own coffee beans of course, I buy coffee beans from various different sources, in fact I have five or six different coffee subscriptions at the time of writing, and I buy coffee from various other roasters, and still I regularly experience coffees that surprise me when it comes to taste.