The term ‘specialty coffee’ refers to a niche market in the coffee industry that focuses on a higher quality coffee than what is typically available in most grocery stores, cafes, and restaurants. Specialty coffee is also the resulting product. It’s coffee that is special in the way it’s grown and special in the way it’s processed, roasted, prepared and presented. And most important, specialty coffee is special in the way it tastes. The flavors, aromas, and body in specialty coffee are more pleasant and intense than what you would find in other coffee that we are typically exposed to as consumers.

There is a perfect analogy in the beer industry with the term ‘craft-beer’ and the micro-breweries that create a higher-quality and better-tasting product than what is typically offered by the larger breweries. It’s a matter of trade-off between taste and price. In the case of the larger corporations a higher emphasis must be placed on price. In the case of craft beer and specialty coffee, a higher emphasis is placed on quality and taste.

As specialty coffee businesses and the people around them strive to create great tasting coffee, the industry has established standards along the way to help deliver that coffee to consumers. Here are some of the factors that begin at the farm and end in a cup of delicious specialty coffee - a path commonly referred to in the industry as ‘crop-to-cup’

- How the coffee is grown, picked and processed
- How the beans are selected and roasted
- How the coffee beans are ground, brewed and presented 

We'll cover each of these factors with a bit of background here. So let’s start at the farm where coffee is grown.

How the coffee is grown, picked and processed.

There are two main varieties of coffee plants - Robusta and Arabica.  The Robusta variety is typically used in the coffee found in the cans that have been found on supermarket shelves since the early 1950’s and are still found today.  Robusta beans are heartier and can grow on low flat land and thus easier and less expensive to grow and harvest.  The resulting cup is typically more harsh and bitter when compared to coffee that comes from the Arabica variety of coffee plants.

Specialty coffee comes almost entirely from the Arabica variety of coffee plants.  There are some exceptions in that some roasters use small percentages of Robusta in espresso blends to achieve certain taste profiles.

The Arabica plants grown to produce specialty coffee are found in countries that fall within 23 degrees above and below the equator and have elevations above 1500 meters.  These countries are referred to as countries of origin. 

Coffee beans are the seeds or pits from a cherry-like fruit on coffee plants. It’s a seasonal crop.  Historically, the farmer would determine when the crop was ready and then pick the entire crop, in one pass through the fields.  This resulted in a harvest of coffee cherries that varied in degree of ripeness from unripe, to perfect, to over-ripe.  Just as you would find unripe fruit to taste on the sour side versus a perfectly ripe piece of fruit, the coffee that is made from beans that were simultaneously harvested at various stages of ripeness will be affected in a negative way.

Farmers that grow specialty coffee will try to pick the cherries at their peak ripeness.  This requires multiple passes through the fields and increases the cost of harvesting the crop, but the resulting cup of coffee is noticeably better tasting because of it.

Specialty coffee farmers, and/or the local processing cooperative facilities, also take care in the post-picking process of removing the fruit of the cherry from the bean to preserve the sweetness and optimum natural taste in the coffee bean.  Once again, quality and taste are placed above cost in the process.  The resulting crop is the dried coffee beans which are green beans at this stage.

How the beans are selected and roasted.

The specialty coffee roaster has two main roles in the path from crop-to-cup.  First, the roaster must source (select and purchase) the right green beans.  Then the roaster must bring out the best that the selected beans have to offer during the roasting process.  The key to success as a specialty coffee roaster is to roast samples of the green coffee beans and taste each sample to determine which beans are the best and how they are best roasted.  Coffee is scored on a 100 scale.  The process of formally tasting the coffee is called ‘cupping’ and it is done at every stage of the crop to cup process.  Generally, beans that score above an 80 are considered to be good enough for specialty coffee. 

While most roasters purchase green coffee beans through an importer, some roasters have established relationships directly with the farmers at the country of origin.  These roasters go so far as to help the farmers become better at growing the coffee.

Specialty coffee roasters, sometimes referred to as micro-roasters, roast the coffee in such a way to try to bring out what they feel are the best aroma and flavor attributes of each individual lot of coffee beans.  This is accomplished by roasting multiple samples of each lot at various roast parameters – manipulating both the amount of heat and the length of roasting time to achieve the best taste.  They will cup each sample to select the best and then roast the lot with the roast profile used to create the best sample.  So they might roast a particular lot of coffee from Ethiopia to a medium roast but choose to roast a particular lot of coffee from Sumatra to a darker roast.

How the coffee beans are ground, brewed and presented.

The final stage of the crop-to-cup process is to grind and brew the roasted beans to make coffee.  The specialty coffee industry has established guidelines here as well.  Whether you’re visiting a cafe or preparing coffee at home, here are some guidelines to follow to ensure that the care that was taken in growing, processing, and roasting the coffee beans is not lost in the prepared drink. 

1. Use fresh roasted coffee.  If you are purchasing whole beans, whether in a market or a cafe, look for a ‘roast date’ printed on the bag.  Roasted coffee beans are best when used within a couple of weeks of the roasting date.  It’s best when the whole bean coffee is packaged in way to avoid exposure to the environment rather in the large bulk bins.  Of course, the best cafes also use fresh roasted coffee.  You can ask the barista what coffee they use and if they purchase fresh roasted coffee.  You can also check for a roast date if they sell bags of whole beans.  If the bags are fresh, there is a pretty good chance the coffee that they are serving is fresh.

2. Grind immediately before brewing.  As oxygen is the enemy of food products, you want to minimize the exposure of your coffee to the environment.  Grinding the whole beans magnifies the issue by exposing so much more of the surface of the coffee to air.  The best practice is to grind the coffee immediately before brewing.  Aside from selecting specialty-grade beans, this may be the most important factor in delivering great taste in the cup.  Selecting the right size grind for a particular brewing method and the quality of the grind (consistency in the size of the grind particles) is also critical.

3. Brew with quality water heated to the proper temperature.  As the main ingredient in a cup of coffee is water, the taste of the water will affect the taste in the cup.  It is best to use water that has been filtered of tastes such as chlorine, but retains the positive flavor influence of certain minerals.  The proper temperature to brew coffee is between 195 and 205 degrees Fahrenheit with 200 degrees being optimal.

4. Serve immediately after brewing in porcelain or ceramic drinkware.  One indication of a good cafe is if they ask you if you are staying when you place your order and serve your drink in a real cup rather than a paper cup.  If you are making coffee at home and make more coffee than will be consumed immediately, don’t keep it longer than 30 minutes.  Also, keep it in a thermal container with no external heat rather than in a glass pot on a warmer.  You don’t want to continue cooking the coffee.

We hope this brief introduction to the world of specialty coffee helps.  The next step in the learning process is visit a specialty cafe in your area.  You can find a great cafe right here on Coffee Trip.  We also have step-by-step instructions for brewing specialty coffee at home.  You will need to purchase a grinder and whole beans from a specialty roaster.  You can find a great selection of specialty coffee roasters here on our site as well.