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What is Specialty Coffee?

To this question, one cannot merely state what it is, but rather comment on what their individual perspective is to this illusive question.

This question was recently asked by good friend and special friend of the coffee community, Ben Carlson, during a gathering and presentation on the work he and his family are doing in Burundi to share these amazing coffees with the world.

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Ben Carlson. Image supplied by The Long Miles Coffee Project.

Of course, the initial discussion around this question was surrounded around the grading aspect of the delicious and wonderful cherry and bean. Beans are graded due to the uniformity of size, shape, colour, density, and defects/ taints. But I don’t believe in this being the sole definition of what ‘speciality’ is.

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Ishan competing in the World Barista Championship in Seattle. Image by Pavel Zhdanov.

I refer back to my 2015 World Barista Championship presentation. I pushed back on who defines what is speciality, and how it’s decided. For me, to an extent, I don’t believe that only a buyer/ ‘green bean grader’ can solely define that. I went to the WBC with a coffee from Adam Overton, of Gesha Village Coffee Estate in Ethiopia. Adam offered me 3 options from his estate – a washed, a honey and natural. The focus, and recommendation, was on the washed which was floral, clean and juicy. The honey process (my ultimate favorite process) was a risk because of the low volumes expected from that lot. But I actually chose the natural process from a cupping session. It was fruity, yet as floral, clean and bright as the prized washed.

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Gesha Village, Ethiopia. Image by Passenger Coffee.

I chose the natural, when others felt I should have chosen the washed. But this further illustrates my point, that what I considered specialty for one person, is not necessarily the same for another. Everyone perceives quality and flavours differently. And this made me believe that specialty / quality is defined by the person who chooses to buy and drink a coffee they like more than others. Now this doesn’t mean that if you like instant, it’s considered specialty.

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Ethiopian coffee farmer, Awol Abagojam & his son Isaac harvest their product near the village of Choche, much the same way their ancestors did a thousand years ago. Image by Amy Vitale.

Because its leads me to my second deciding factor of what specialty is – the cultivation and processing of coffee. Farmers are the ultimate special people that make up the word and meaning of specialty! They are the true unsung heroes of this industry. I believe that the farmers that really care for their crops, and tend to their fields and coffee trees with love, care and dedication, make coffee ‘speciality’. For its this devotion, love and care that delivers a special cup.

I’ve always said that you can taste the love and passion put into making a cup of coffee. So too will we taste what the farmer has in parted spiritually into his/ her crops.

Baristas and coffee shops are the last step of making coffee speciality. Its through the perfect roast to bring out the best within that coffee for the ultimate sensory experience. Then there’s the special brewing techniques and   the way in which a barista makes your cup of choice. I mentioned above, the barista’s heart goes into the cup. Its the special care, dedication and passion that the barista puts into every cup they make that makes a coffee a cup of specialty.

This leads me to where my heart really is at this point of my life and career, of what speciality coffee is. Its an EXPERIENCE! It’s how the customer feels at the end of their visit to your establishment. It embodies an overall experience of the wonderful coffee from a dedicated farmer, the taste profile developed by a roaster, and perfectly brewed cup by a passionate barista. But this all means nothing if the service and store environment is lacking. You see, I personally, as I’m sure some of you feel, that an amazing cup of coffee means nothing in a stale, uninviting store, and/ or where the service delivery is poor.

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Counter Culture in Durban, South Africa. Read more about this shop’s creative director, Luke van der Merwe in his Humans of Coffee interview here.

A product is only as good as the place in which you consume it, and the way the people made you feel. The mind is an interesting and perplex thing. We can easily be influenced, consciously or subconsciously – its all about the senses (sight, smell, touch); it’s a feeling.

I like to be inspired by my food & beverage experiences, I want my soul nurtured when I go out for these passions of mine.

Serve me good cup of coffee, and treat me well, by taking me through a sensory and mental experience, and I will consider you ‘speciality’. I am your customer, I chose to be at your establishment. Make me want to stay there, and want to come back. This is speciality!

This piece, written by 3 time South Arica Barista Champion, 2 time Africa Barista Champion & South Africa Aeropress Champion 2012, Ishan Natalie, first appeared on his blog and is republished with his permission.

2 comments on “What is Specialty Coffee?

  1. Hey, thanks so much for the great piece. I love the focus on service. This is so key to the equation, and you are certainly an exemplary coffee professional who embodies this.

    I just have an issue with what you DIDN’T say.

    I believe the coffee that you chose for your 2015 barista competition scored in the 90s out of the 100pt specialty scale. So when you say, “I pushed back on who defines what is speciality, and how it’s decided”, you didn’t really push back at all. You chose a coffee that was already definitely “specialty” by the most narrowly defined dictionary definition. It is unfair to use that example as proof that you don’t need to refer to the Q-graded scale to determine which coffees are specialty, and which aren’t.
    Would you honestly go into any competition with a coffee that scored in the 70s, and hope to win that competition through warm smiles and excellent service?
    I feel like you wouldn’t (obviously I could be wrong about this).

    Because you know that the Q-grade scale DOES mean something, and that a coffee that scores 85 really is an inherently superior coffee to one that scores, say 79.

    I feel like the focus on service, ambience and “feeling” is so important to specialty coffee (as you will know from having visited my cafe), but none of that can apply until the strictest industry standard definition has been met first (IE that a coffee scores over 80 out of a 100 by a currently up-to-date qualified Q-grader).

    Admittedly, you do acknowledge the industry definition at the start of the piece (when you said that it was not the SOLE definition, you implicitly acknowledge that it IS a definition), but that there are other elements at play. The rest of your article however seems to say that any coffee can be specialty if the service and ambience are excellent…

    But this just cannot be so when there is an objective industry definition already in place that says otherwise.

    Allow me to use another question as an analogy:

    “What is a medical doctor?”

    We can argue until the cows come home about being patient centric, treating all people equally, shunning gross incentive, working according to the hippocratic oath….but all of this is meaningless unless the person concerned has qualified through a registered tertiary institution as a medical doctor and has a license to practice medicine.

    As a coffee roaster with no known medical degree, I can, in no circumstances, claim to be a medical doctor. No matter how good my bedside manner may be. Even if I could recite the hippocratic oath in all 11 of our official languages, and make “patients” feel better by administering various painkillers, not only would I NOT be a doctor, but I would be operating under fraudulent premises if I claimed – in any way – to actually be a doctor.

    So I wish it could just be made a little clearer that while service, knowledge, passion, and personal preference are all very important in delivering a “specialty coffee” experience, there can be absolutely no such thing as “a cup of specialty coffee” if the coffee you are serving does not first pass all the stipulations that Ben Carlson was proposing when he asked you that question.

    CONSUMERS NEED TO BE PROTECTED from the misuse of terms that already implies a certain industry standard. “Specialty coffee” is one such term. If I bought a whole lot of Kenya Grade T coffee, and told customers that it was Kenya AA, I imgaine that some folk would probably take exception to this. But why? Why is that dishonest (if we can agree that it is?)
    It is dishonest because I am taking an existing industry term – with an existing promise of quality for the customer (or at least a promise of uniform bean size and density and all that goes along with that) – and applying it to a product that does not deliver on those promises.

    We can philosophize all we want about what makes coffee SPECIAL, but we cannot redefine SPECIALTY because this is a term has ALREADY BEEN DEFINED. It is used to deliver a very specific set of quality promises. Appropriating the term “specialty coffee” for coffee that has not been graded as scoring over 80 out of 100 (by a currently certified Q-grader) is in direct contravention of the customer protection act clause that demands that a customer is allowed to know exactly what they are buying, and where it comes from.
    And my final question is this: Why are people so desperate to use the term “Specialty” if they have to jump through so many hoops to explain what they mean by it? Why not just call it:
    “Awesome coffee”
    “epic coffee”
    “very nice coffee”
    All of these express the same sentiment, without having to lean on a term that has already been defined, and clearly excludes a large number of commercial enterprises that claim to be “specialty coffee purveyors” but don’t actually fulfill the already objectively stated definition, because they are roasting, brewing and serving commodity grade coffee.

    There is nothing “wrong” with commodity coffee. It just isn’t specialty coffee, and therefore should not be advertised as such. There are plenty of amazing coffee spaces that serve commodity coffee, and do so with style, but feel no need to lean on the term specialty. Maybe because they don’t care, but maybe because they know that it would be dishonest to do so.

    If there was “Awesome Coffee Association of South Africa”, I would definitely join that.

  2. This is my favorite part, ‘Farmers are the ultimate special people that make up the word and meaning of specialty!’. Thanks, Ishan.

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