You’ve seen the descriptor. You may have even drunk it but unless you are an obsessive coffee buff, you likely don’t really know what Specialty Coffee is. Specialty Coffee is a globally recognized coffee grade that signifies coffee quality, cleanliness, and uniqueness. To qualify as a Specialty Coffee, beans must impress a highly-trained, highly-competent, highly-critical Q-grader (a.k.a., qualified coffee taster and grader), who grades the beans against a series of strict criteria.
According to the Specialty Coffee Association (SCA), Specialty Coffee is a coffee graded by a certified Q-grader, that scores at least 80 points on a 100-point grading scale. Within the Specialty Coffee band, coffees that receive a score of 90+ are classified as Outstanding, those that score between 85 and 90 points are classified as Excellent, and those that score between 80 and 85 are classified as Very Good.
To achieve designation as a Specialty Grade Coffee (also referred to as Grade 1), a 300-gram coffee sample must have beans +/- 5% of the same screen size, no primary defects, 0-3 secondary defects, 0 quakers (unripe beans). Defects can take the form of physical defects, defects in taste, texture, acidity, or aroma, faults (off-color, irregular shape, etc.), and taints (a sour flavor generally resulting from poor storage or over fermentation).* In addition to superb, consistent physical characteristics, to qualify as Specialty grade the beans must also exhibit at least one distinctive attribute in the category of body, flavor, aroma, or acidity. To sum this up in non-coffee-speak this means that the beans must be the same size (to ensure even roasting), fresh, optimally ripe, and produce a clean, satisfying taste and aroma.
Specialty Coffee status is very difficult to achieve and while there are no specific criteria placed on producers, meticulous care must be given to the beans from the start of their seeding if a producer hopes to produce a Grade 1 bean. To start, most Grade 1 beans are shade-grown, high-grown arabicas grown in nutrient-rich soil, that have been hand-picked when optimally ripe and hand-picked again, post-processing, to ensure only the best beans pass through to grading and roasting. These beans must also be processed and dried in a manner that accentuates the beans’ best qualities. Each step in this process requires unrelenting care and meticulous attention to detail. As a result, nearly all Grade 1 Specialty Coffees are grown in ideal conditions, harvested in a sustainable manner, and purchased by artisanal roasters. Unlikely the terms gourmet and third-wave or new-wave (we’ll cover these in a few weeks!), Specialty Coffee designation ensures a high-quality bean. Next time you see a coffee with the Specialty Coffee or Grade 1 label, we strongly encourage you to give it a sip!
*For more on coffee grading, please visit our blog entry Making the grade: coffee sizing and grading.