What Makes a Coffee ‘Specialty’?

Coffee is a complex thing. It has over one thousand constituents in its chemical makeup, forty or so of which are in the threshold for our detection, which is why it can be challenging to articulate our sensory experience of it, let alone universally define its quality. With any quality-driven product, there must be care and value all along the chain of production to the consumer. With coffee, defining specialty is by no means less complex than its chemistry. To shed light on each of these steps, and to attempt to define specialty for coffee, we held a discussion with a panel of industry leaders who specialise in different aspects of the coffee industry. Let’s frame and talk to the key topics from the discussion.

How beliefs about coffee are created

All problems in the world, it seems, are induced by human beliefs. This poses a challenge when trying to agree on quality of flavour. Quality is not a hardwired or fixed thing that comes inherent in each of us. It is emotionally contextual, which means that your beliefs around it strengthen with repeated experience in a certain emotional context. For example, I have a friend who started drinking filter coffee when he came to visit. He was only in Sydney for three months, and the filter coffee here was vastly different from where he grew up. He associated it with something cheap that you brewed at home, from beans you purchased from the supermarket, that were already pre-ground for your convenience. In Sydney, a specialty-grade filter coffee can taste of anything from citrus fruits to cocoa, from cherries to chocolate. At first he couldn’t understand why we would drink such swill. My friends and I included him in our weekly brunch club where he joined us in drinking filter coffee from various countries of origin, and from many different coffee roasting companies. Along with this, he made strong connections, true friends and happy memories during his stay. This created direct associations to the flavours of specialty-grade filter coffee. This is now his reference for quality.

With the flavour and quality of coffee around the world being so varied, a lot of the time when you go travelling you may simply find no enjoyment in the provincial preparation of the beverage. It’s just poles apart from your expectations of the product you’ve experienced and named ‘coffee’. What I mean is, if you’re used to drinking a bucket of filter coffee that has been sitting on the hot plate of a brewer for 6 hours, that has been roasted to ensure a lower acidity and enhanced bitterness and body, and you come to Sydney or Melbourne and are presented this cup of single origin, naturally processed coffee that tastes like cherries and chocolate, this can challenge you to comprehend this beverage as coffee. Without the happy, repeated context that my friend had, home you would go to announce that you just couldn’t get a good cup of coffee in Australia.

Without a broad range of experience from coffee all around the world, your beliefs of quality are provincial – learned from your immediate environment. This cultural disparity of flavour is the first thing to attempt to disseminate when measuring quality.

Measuring quality

Leading up to our public discussion, we interviewed people in the greater coffee community to see what specialty coffee is for them. When asked how to measure specialty, there was talk of attributing a number to the quality of a coffee.

There are two main systems for this out there in coffee world – the COE (Cup of Excellence) and the CQI’s (Coffee Quality Institute) Q Grade. In essence, you take certain aspects of flavour and attribute them a score – acidity, body, balance, etc. Your calibration points are reference samples around taste and smell, along with the person teaching you. When you compare scores with your teacher after tasting a coffee, you can adjust accordingly. Taste another coffee and repeat until there is a similarity in your scores. For this to work, your scoring must be kept private until the tasting is complete.

The teachers have to be calibrated, and there must be standards in place for each step of the coffee’s preparation. The SCAA (Specialty Coffee Association of America) has these standards for green coffee, cupping, water quality and brewing, with roasting still to come.

To start off our discussion with the panel of coffee professionals, we asked of this process. What are these numbers for? How important is it to be able to measure quality objectively?

Emily Oak of Sensory Lab spoke to the Q grade system, noting that it’s a two-tiered thing. It’s a quality stamp based on a numerical assessment of coffee, and it was originally devised to create a language between producers and buyers, so that people could rate coffee in different places and theoretically have a more objective understanding of what quality is, and the value attributed to that coffee.

Tuli Keidar, general manager of Mecca coffee, mentioned that he has seen the Q grading system work best at the green coffee exporter level. If an exporter or roaster wants to work with a farm, they need to give them some level of objective feedback, which aligns with a certain price point. What a farmer wants, if they are quality-orientated and aligned with a specialty market, is to get better prices for their coffee. If you cup a coffee and it’s come out as an 83, then you communicate to the farmer that if they did x, y, z in their processing, this would lead to an 85. Hopefully they will invest in their production and that would achieve a higher price for their coffee.

What you can find, however, at a specialty coffee auction, is that if a coffee has ranked well objectively, it may not fetch a higher price than a coffee that has scored a little lower. This, as mentioned earlier, is probably due to cultural ideas around a quality of flavour.

Recently, there has been a landmark tool created to assist with this, and other fields of research within the coffee industry. The SCAA flavour wheel, with the WCR (World Coffee Research) sensory lexicon, gives us a language to be able to articulate what we do or don’t like about a coffee. The lexicon has 110 attributes to articulate a coffee’s flavour, each with a description, matched to a reference sample, with a 15-point intensity marker in order to score that attribute. Studies can now be conducted into cultural ideas around quality, where people can define what flavours seem to be a preference based on the lexicon. Maybe soon, as Tuli mentioned, better objective communication can go back to the producer with specific flavour requirements around quality, with the hope of helping them fetch a higher price.

Industry evolution of specialty coffee

Are we closer to our definition of specialty in coffee? To recap; we prepare a coffee in a certain way and it scores 80 and + based on the SCAA standards. We articulate cultural flavour preferences and intensities based on the lexicon, and that’s pretty much it, right? Sean McManus, owner of Neighbourhood, an espresso bar in Surry Hills, says that specialty is just a word. That as soon as everyone starts to do specialty, then it is no longer special. The point of specialty is to be constantly striving for a higher level. Specialty dies the second you wipe your hands of it and think it’s done.

One of the platforms that has aided in the evolution of the specialty coffee industry is the WBC (World Barista Championship). This stage has set many trends and has provided the opportunity for baristas to tell the story of their passions – from the farmer, to new technologies and research that have bettered the quality of flavour of coffee. Sasa Sestic, owner of Ona Coffee, and the 2015 World Barista Campion, says you can see the fruits of this: every time you walk into a specialty coffee shop, you see an EK43 grinder on every bench, and that was a result of Matt Perger’s competition. Maxwell Colonna-Dashwood’s presentation on water for coffee got Sasa obsessed with water, as it has for many.

A note on evolution in general, is that its speed and form are shaped by the environment and competition. When we interviewed Sharon Jan, the green coffee buyer for Seven Miles Coffee Roasters, she mentioned that yes, it seems that specialty coffee is measured as 80 and + coffee, but a lot of the time when creating products for Australian specialty markets it will demand a higher level of specialty – coffees that score 85 and +. Has the expectation of specialty coffee in Australia already shifted? Has the competition and amount of cafes, especially in Sydney and Melbourne, shaped this higher level of expectation from a specialty coffee consumer? For our definition, it seems that we somehow need to take this into account – specialty will evolve at different rates in different places around the world. This axiom of periodic review due to evolution needs to exist in order for specialty to change and still be measured.

It’s important to state that what we have been talking about here, this objective scoring, is the quality measurement of a coffee on a cupping table. The point where a coffee is selected by the roaster, or the assessor. The question from here is, does a specialty coffee have to be roasted a certain way for it to remain special, or should there be set brewing parameters for a barista to follow?

This topic wasn’t explored in too much detail by our panel, and I think this will inevitably be a discussion on its own.

Flavour: more than numbers

What Sean and Emily did highlight is that when a barista is measuring a coffee, you are not chasing a number. The number or measurement of a refractometer, or a timer, or a set of scales, or a thermometer – is just that: numbers to show you where you are. They give you repeatability and a reference point. Flavour, however, is king.

In our interviews, it seems specialty coffee wasn’t just about scoring, measuring and assessing quality. It has a sense of responsibility, a story of transparency, traceability and sustainability. We asked the panel their views to see if this was true.

On the importance of traceability, John Russell Storey, marketing manager of Cofi-Com, one of Australia’s largest green coffee importers, says that traceability is just part of their business. They have to know where the coffee comes from, to visit origin to ensure that the next crop is going to be available, that the farmer hasn’t ripped up the trees to plant a crop that will be more valuable. You have to make sure that the relationship with the farmer is going to be long-term. In order for a farmer to produce a specialty coffee, you have to convince them that the bucket of cherries they pick off the tree, which has to be sorted rigorously to remove the defects in order to meet that quality score, will in fact fetch an appropriate price despite the lower yield. At the end of the day, they need to feed their families and send their children to school.

Traceability is important in a specialty market also for identifying things that have gone wrong. In some countries, you can trace coffee back to the individual trees they came from. If you taste an exceptional coffee, it’s important to be able to identify which trees it is from so we can cultivate off that.

Sasa says that traceability is very important to specialty coffee. It gives direct feedback from consumer, to roaster, to producer. If you have that traceability, you can help invest and work on different techniques in order to raise the quality of the coffee. This, for him, develops long and strong personal relationships with the farmers.

Tuli had a different take on the importance of traceability, especially in the context of direct trade relationships. What these relationships do is ensure transparency all along the chain from farmer to the consumer. Just because a consumer is paying a premium price and it is being sold as a specialty product, doesn’t mean the money is being fairly distributed along this chain. If you are marketing your product as traceable, if you’re putting the name of the farm on a coffee to help achieve a premium price, but you don’t know if they were being fairly paid, then that is unethical. So it seems traceability should also provide accountability.

John, agreeing with this, added the point that people who are going in to origin and buying direct need to know who they are cutting out, and what income they are relying on. You have to take advice from the people on the ground locally, that aren’t transient, as to where the money is best invested. A lot of the time, just giving the farmer more money isn’t the solution. What they find is that building a school or providing medical supplies is far more beneficial.

For Sean, from a retail perspective, the more you can know about a product the better. With coffee, for him, it shouldn’t be that hard. You are only dealing with four to six products per month. If you can’t inform or sell it to a consumer as well as a TV salesman can sell you a plasma TV, then you’re pretty lazy.

To talk to the feeling you get in the industry, that specialty coffee is sustainable, Sasa pointed out that with the farms he deals with, approximately 6–10% of their crop is of specialty grade. For a farm to survive on specialty alone, he feels that it depends a lot on the cost of production. In some countries, the yield is significantly lower, and therefore impossible. Another point from Tuli and Emily is that climate change will influence yield and the cost of production significantly. Crops are moving up the hills to cooler climates, and the raised cost of production will require everyone to pay more for specialty coffees.

Selling specialty coffee

It seems that the motivation to sell specialty coffee is to ensure that we have an impact all the way down the supply chain. That everyone is being paid fairly. If people are willing to pay a little more and understand the value of that product, then we should make it approachable for them. Select certain coffees, roast it a certain way, so long as we can have that impact.

On this question of selling specialty coffee, there seemed to be a general feeling of elitism that comes from the baristas in specialty coffee. Our professionals all agreed that there is no need for this arrogance. It offers no assistance to promote the value of specialty coffee.

Sean feels it’s important to gauge your customer and not impose your beliefs upon them. If they enjoy a large cappuccino with two sugars, then respect that and make sure they are comfortable in their decision. If you have a customer that wants to geek out, then bring them behind the bar and share an experience with them – taste a coffee together and take them on that ride.

Emily says that people don’t want to be forced to do things in a particular way, to be told what to do when they walk into a café. There’s no point in having the best coffee and the most beautiful espresso bar if you’re going to tell them to drink from this and stand over there.

Tuli shared his most memorable coffee experience with us, saying that the coffee he had at Campos some 8 years ago, which was combined with great service, the showmanship of the baristas, the music, the whole sensory experience around it was what made it really special. It can be easy for a barista to get lost in the fascinating details of coffee and forget that a coffee house is not a place to deconstruct flavours. It’s a place to feel good, to have human experience and to be pampered by charming people.

We need to think about what makes coffee valuable, why it is we drink it, and why it is we have been drinking it for hundreds of years.

A final definition?

Defining specialty coffee isn’t hard, but humans agreeing on that definition certainly is, and herein lies the complexity. An average consumer isn’t going to go down the rabbit hole to understand this, or calibrate their senses just to enjoy a product. They just want something that tastes good to them and makes them feel good while they’re drinking it.

Matthew Brown
Matty’s love of coffee started at a young age and exploded the moment his mind was exposed to the science that makes great coffee possible. Motivated by the endless possibilities of what coffee could be, Matty is in his element researching, exploring and implementing new ideas that help shape the next chapter in the evolution of the speciality coffee industry. Matty’s deep and extensive coffee knowledge continues to shape our Barista Training & Education Programs, and he is a key knowledge source influencing continuous coffee improvement within the business. On the rare occasion Matty’s head is not in the books, he can be found savouring in other molecular gastronomic delights, writing, tickling the ivories or singing up a storm.