What Is Specialty Coffee?

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In a way, every cup of coffee is special. Coffee helps you wake up in the mornings, it provides a pick-me-up in the afternoons, and sometimes just the smell and taste are pleasant. Did you know that coffee is officially graded on its quality? The higher the quality, the higher the grade–and a high grade makes your cup truly special. Here’s a breakdown of what specialty coffee is and where you can get it.

What Makes Specialty Coffee Special?

It seems like you can call any cup of coffee “special”–so what makes specialty coffee truly unique? Simply put, coffee is judged based on the number of defects it contains and given a score out of 100. This grading is called “cupping.” The Specialty Coffee Association (SCA) has established that coffee that’s graded 80 or above is deemed specialty coffee.

To receive a high score, the cup of coffee is judged on behind-the-scenes factors that went into production, all the way from growing the coffee beans to the final product poured into your cup. From farming practices to the way the coffee is roasted, every single step it takes from bean to cup contributes to its classification of “specialty coffee.”

Specialty coffee does have to be graded in order to officially be special. There are different factors which determine its grading:

  • Growing conditions. Specialty coffee is grown best in the most ideal conditions. The smallest factors, such as soil and altitude, can make an impact.
  • Ripeness. Specialty coffee beans need to be picked at precisely the right time. To many coffee producers, peak ripeness is the most critical aspect of specialty coffee.
  • Delivery. The faster that beans are delivered to the mill, the better. A quick delivery ensures that the freshness is preserved and the perfect growing conditions don’t go to waste.
  • Processing. The processing stage involves washing the beans, removing the skins, and drying them. Specialty beans are dried evenly, sufficiently, and at the perfect amount of time.
  • Roasting. The last stage, when green beans are roasted, should focus on maximizing the flavor. High-quality roasters help to ensure that all the hard work so far results in coffee that’s truly a specialty.

What Is the Difference Between Specialty Coffee and Commercial Coffee?

Typically, the coffee you purchase will either be of commercial grade or specialty grade. For consumers, the main difference that they will notice right away is the way the coffee is packaged:

  • Specialty coffee is delivered in whole bean form, typically in one-pound bags. You’ll need to grind it yourself before you can brew it.

  • Commercial coffee is typically already ground and is packed in brick form or available in a tin. Instant coffee is another type of commercial coffee.


Commercial coffee is produced, packed, and roasted under large-scale brand names. Operations typically take place in large plants, and the coffee is nationally advertised in limited selections of roast and blend. This means you’ll be able to find the coffee everywhere you go. Think of brands such as Folgers or Maxwell House–those are commercial coffees.

Specialty coffee, on the other hand, is roasted in small factories or stores. It’s produced by small-scale brands in a wide variety of roasts or flavors. You won’t find it in grocery stores everywhere–it’s only available where it’s been roasted. Sometimes, you can buy specialty coffee online, but the shipping process may reduce the overall grade of the coffee. You’re best off finding specialty coffee at a small-scale local roaster near you.

What Is Specialty Coffee Anyways?

The concept of “specialty coffee” really took off during the late 1970s and the 1980s. The term was initially coined by Erna Knutsen, who used it in a speech at an international coffee conference in 1978. Her concept was that specialty coffee beans should be properly produced and freshly roasted, and only certain processes could produce unique, high-quality beans. Once this concept was introduced, “specialty” coffee began to become more and more common in the decades following Erna’s speech.

What Percentage of Coffee Is Specialty?

At first glance, it may seem like it will be difficult to find specialty coffee since it’s not commercially available. You need to make an effort to go to the place where it is roasted. However, specialty coffee is more common than you might think: 48% of coffee in the U.S. is perceived as specialty coffee.

In America alone, more than half of specialty coffee shops are independent and not chains. The number of specialty coffee shops is also growing exponentially. It’s becoming a popular business for both coffee consumers and coffee producers. Over 30% of consumers drink specialty coffee each day, and sales of specialty coffee accounted for more than $25 billion in revenue in 2015.

The Perks of Specialty Coffee

Specialty coffee is everywhere, so the good news is if you’re interested in trying it, that won’t be hard to accomplish. Once you get a taste of specialty coffee, you’ll be able to see why it’s so highly regarded. Remember that its entire journey from bean to cup was traced and graded. The beans that created your cup of coffee were grown perfectly, picked at peak ripeness, then processed and roasted perfectly.

With specialty coffee, you’ll get your most fresh cup yet. Try it and see whether you enjoy specialty coffee more than your typical commercial coffee.

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