Do you know what specialty coffee is?

If the technical nomenclatures also confuse your head, this post is for you. The terms: traditional, superior, special coffee, among others, are terms used mainly to define the quality level of each bean and, thus, establish a purchase and sale value.

If you thought “my mother’s coffee” or “coffee prepared with affection by my love”, you may have been right, but these are not requirements adopted to set prices in domestic and foreign markets.

According to the Sensory Assessment Methodology of the SCA (Specialty Coffee Association), used all over the world, Specialty Coffee is any coffee that reaches at least 80 points on the methodology’s scoring scale (which goes up to 100), whereas the following attributes are evaluated:

  • Fragrance/Aroma
  • Uniformity (each cup statistically represents 20% of the evaluated batch)
  • Absence of Defects
  • Sweetness
  • Flavor
  • Acidity
  • Body
  • Finalization
  • Harmony
  • Final Concept (general impression on the coffee, attributed by the classifier. Only part of the classifier’s subjectivity in the evaluation of the sample. 

Explained  the experienced coffee taster, Marcilésia Oliveira from the Cerrado Coffee Growers Federation

She, who has been working with coffee tasting since 2009, started using the COB methodology (Official Brazilian classification). “I’ve been qualifying as a Q Grader with the SCAA (Specialty Coffee Association of America) for about five years,” she says. According to the BSCA (Brazilian Specialty Coffee Association), “Coffee quality attributes cover a wide range of concepts, ranging from physical characteristics, such as origins, varieties, color and size, to environmental and social concerns, such as the production systems and working conditions of the coffee workforce”, he explains.

To make this assessment more practical, grades are assigned to lots tasted via cupping (read more about this in the Special Coffee Tasting post). A scale of 0 – 100 points evaluates the performance of each sampled bean. To be considered a specialty coffee, it needs to reach a minimum of 80 points according to the SCAA methodology.

Difference between traditional and specialty coffee

Brazil produces about 50 million bags of coffee per year, this volume is divided into 35 million bags of Arabica and 15 million bags of Conilon. There are two different types of coffee: Arabica is sweeter, more susceptible to pests and produced in temperate regions, at high altitudes; Conilon is more pest resistant, produced at sea level and does not have the same sweetness as Arabica. It would be like comparing pear orange with lime orange, both are oranges, but they are different, see our post that explains the difference between Arabica and Conilon. Arabica coffee, due to its sensory complexity, is more valued than Conilon.

Another important point is that Arabica coffee goes through a separation process, where defective beans are separated from perfect beans. This Arabica with a high incidence of defects is sold to domestic industries at lower prices. This quality is known by traders as “low” or “consumption”, referring to low quality Arabica and domestic coffee. See below the difference between traditional (left) and special (right) coffees, before being roasted, still green.

Is Specialty Coffee More Expensive?

The shortest answer lies in the law of supply and demand. The best grains are the most desired and, therefore, you pay more for them. But that doesn’t mean your everyday sacred coffee has to cost an absurd amount! There are alternatives to high quality coffees at affordable prices. However, comparing the price of traditional supermarket coffees and specialty coffees is not fair and we explain why. After all, different quality levels will present different values.

Traditional coffees are cheaper because the domestic market blends (mixes) Conilon/Robusta with low Arabica. To “mask” the bad taste, the coffee is roasted until it is very dark and the discourse of “strong coffee” is adopted, which is actually just a bitter coffee, so bitter that it is necessary to add sugar to consume it. Most fine coffees are exported to the US, Europe and Japan, where consumers can pay more for quality coffees. See that this is not about slutty, the reason for all this is solely economic. Many consumers, however, are unaware of this dynamic.

Where to find specialty coffee?

As it is a new market, production and demand for specialty coffees began to gain expression in the last 15 years.

To give you an idea, this segment currently represents about 12% of the international beverage market, according to BSCA measurements. Since then, consumers’ palates have become more demanding and interest in understanding quality has increased. The main responsible for introducing specialty coffees to the Brazilian market were the coffee shops and baristas.

With access to the best beans in Brazil, they managed to get people’s attention and show that there are different coffees! Currently, it is very easy to find a specialty coffee in coffee shops, specialty stores and on the internet.