Are some coffee beans more special than others? You may have heard the phrase specialty coffee thrown around a lot at your favorite coffee shop or among your barista friends, but what exactly is it?
Some coffee beans are better than others, and the highest quality ones are designated as specialty coffee. If you want to brew the best coffee beans full of great flavor, you should be looking for this kind of coffee.
Grab yourself a cup of your favorite roast and let’s dive into what specialty coffee is all about.
- Specialty coffee is the highest grade of coffee available.
- In order to qualify as specialty coffee, it must receive at least 80 points in the SCA’s 100-point grading scale.
- Roasters tend to roast specialty coffee lighter than normal coffees, in order to highlight the inherent flavors of the bean.
- Specialty coffees should be as traceable as possible.
- Q-Graders are licensed professionals who score coffee and determine if it’s specialty grade or not.
What is Specialty Coffee?
Specialty coffee is the highest grade of coffee available. Specifically, it’s green coffee that scores 80 or more points on the Specialty Coffee Association’s (SCA) 100-point grading scale. The SCA primarily focuses on Arabica, but Robusta can also qualify as specialty coffee.
While this scale was developed in the 1980s, the term “specialty coffee” was first coined in 1974 by Erna Knutsen to describe beans of the best flavor produced in special micro-climates.
Specialty coffee is all about quality. Specialty coffee beans will produce tastier coffee when properly brewed. You don’t need a PhD to agree with that. The Specialty Coffee Association simply created a globalized standard in order to score coffees consistently based on many different attributes like aroma, flavor, acidity, and sweetness.
Why is specialty coffee special?
First, specialty coffee tastes better and has a more complex flavor profile and tasting notes than normal coffee. With this high-quality coffee, producers take special care to only pick coffee cherries when they are ripe. At many farms, this requires multiple passes during each harvest to make sure every cherry has time to properly ripen before being picked.
During post-harvest processing, specialty coffee is washed and dried in various ways to ensure the best flavors and proper moisture levels for shipping and coffee roasting. The plants typically grow best in high altitudes and micro-climates, adding to the difficulty in coffee production.
It’s also important that specialty coffee be traceable. The traceability of coffee refers to how well the producer documented his or her various lots so that the buyers and consumers have as much information about a particular coffee as possible.
This is one reason why I recommend buying bags of coffee from roasters who include the producer’s name, variety type, processing method, altitude, and as much other information that helps guarantee the quality of this coffee.
Last but not least, specialty coffee is special because of the people in this industry. As cliché as it is, members of the specialty coffee community are generally supportive of one another. There is this common belief that helping each other grow helps the industry grow as a whole, securing better prices and conditions for producers and other members of the supply chain.
My personal experiences with specialty producers, exporters, and roasters in Brazil, Colombia, Ethiopia, and the United States have been nothing but amazing. Almost everyone wants to share their knowledge and learn from others.
What’s the standard for specialty coffee?
As I mentioned earlier, the Specialty Coffee Association created this standardized scale to be used all around the world for grading green coffee. If a coffee scores at least 80 out of 100 points, it is officially specialty coffee. Anything below can not be considered a specialty coffee.
This process considers fragrance, aroma, flavor, aftertaste, acidity, body, uniformity, sweetness, and other aspects of the cup to systematically assign a numeric score.
Scores are given after extensive cupping, a process by which coffee professionals called Q-Graders sip, taste, and grade 5 cups of the same roasted coffee. They get their licenses from the Coffee Quality Insitute (CQI) after passing an extremely rigorous test. Many people train for years before qualifying as a Q-Grader. It’s not an easy certificate to get!
Even if you aren’t a licensed professional, you can still use the SCA scale to cup coffee. Many green coffee buyers and roasters cup all their careers without ever becoming registered Q-Graders.
While 80 points technically qualifies as specialty coffee, many specialty roasters are raising the bar of their business to only include 82+ or even 85+ coffees. 
What’s the difference between specialty coffee and regular coffee?
Regular coffee can be of any quality and is almost always a blend, roasted dark or even burned to hide defects. This type of coffee is often picked when the cherries aren’t ripe enough or are over-ripe. Lots are mixed all together without much traceability.
Regular coffee can also be referred to as “commodity coffee”. It trades for a global price set by the C Market, where coffee contracts are treated as commodities and bought and sold in the form of futures contracts.
The price of the C Market usually hovers between $1-2 USD per pound of green coffee. That often doesn’t even cover the costs of a farmer’s production, much less pay a living wage.
The C Market doesn’t take into account the unique challenges that each country, growing region, and farmer faces.
Specialty coffee, on the other hand, is coffee of the highest quality. Its value is determined by this quality and should always be higher than the C Market value. It’s usually roasted in a lighter style than normal coffee in order to highlight the inherent flavors of the bean over those developed in the roast process.
While specific numbers are hard to come by due to private contracts between buyers and sellers, Metric Coffee is a medium-sized specialty coffee roaster in Chicago, Illinois, that transparently publishes its financials each year.
On average, Metric paid $4.71 USD per pound of green coffee in 2020. (2) That’s over 3 times the value of the C Market.
What is a specialty coffee shop?
Put simply, a specialty coffee shop is any coffee shop that uses specialty coffee in its production.
Expect to find well-trained baristas that care about their craft in these kinds of coffee shops. Usually, various brewing methods are offered, and each bean will have a different brew recipe depending on the roast and method chosen.
You can generally find bags of fresh-roasted coffee to buy in specialty coffee shops if you want to try your hand at a V60 or AeroPress in the comfort of your own home.
Where to Buy Specialty Coffee: Top Specialty Coffee Roasters in the US
Originally based in Chicago, Intelligentsia now has its coffee bags all over the country. It was one of the “Big Three” of the third-wave coffee movement and has a wide selection of single-origin beans (beans from one country and usually one producer) to choose from.
Stumptown Coffee Roasters
Also one of the original “Big Three”, Stumptown started in Portland, Oregon. They roast coffee daily and have a subscription available to try a new specialty coffee each month.
Dune Coffee Roasters
Hailing from California, Dune’s mission is to make specialty coffee more accessible and fun. They have a lot of popular blends to choose from, in addition to a rotating selection of single-origin coffees. In Santa Barbara, Dune is famous for its espresso shots.
Coffee Bros provides an accessible price point for one-off coffee bag purchases or monthly subscriptions. They roast every Saturday and offer a good selection of medium and dark blends for those who like their coffee a little more roasted.
Metric is one of my personal favorite roasters. I have tried multiple coffees here that blew my mind with their unique, complex flavor profiles. If you ever find yourself in Chicago, they’re worth a visit. In the meantime, it’s possible to order online. Metric works with producers who like to experiment with their processing methods, something coffee drinkers (like myself) may enjoy!
How to Brew Specialty Coffee
OK, now you know what specialty coffee is all about and you want to make a cup at home. What’s the best way to brew this high-quality coffee?
Honestly, the best way to brew your coffee is however you prefer! Different brewing methods will help highlight different qualities in the cup. A Chemex or V60 will produce a cleaner cup that focuses on nuanced flavors, while an AeroPress or French press might focus more on sweetness and body.
Important: you can brew specialty coffee the same way you brew normal coffee.
Whatever method you choose, I urge you to buy whole beans and use a grinder right before each brew. This will help keep the freshness and quality better for longer. After all, you did just spend more money for better coffee. Don’t let it go to waste!
Frequently Asked Questions
In most Starbucks locations, they do not serve specialty coffee. However, Starbucks is a major player in the specialty coffee industry. The company has six Starbucks Reserve Roasteries in the world that boast a large selection of specialty coffees. Starbucks also has many baristas competing in competitions. If you’re lucky, you may find some bags of in-season Starbucks Reserve specialty coffee in your local shop.
Specialty coffee may seem more sour than normal coffee due to the presence of more acidity. The acidity in this type of coffee should be bright and pleasing, possibly reminding you of a specific fruit. Lighter roasts (which are more common in specialty coffee) focus more on acidity than darker roasts. However, if it’s too sour and doesn’t taste good, you may have an under-extracted brew or a poor roast.
While it’s difficult to say exactly, estimates put the percentage of coffee produced that is specialty grade somewhere between 3-10%. Over 37% of all coffee being consumed in the US is specialty coffee.  The Tea & Coffee Trade Journal states 54% of Americans over the age of 18 had at least one specialty coffee in the past week. 
Third-wave coffee is a movement in the coffee world that began in the US during the 1990s by focusing on high-quality and single-origin beans. The movement’s principles were to source ethically and generally roast light to let the true flavors of the coffee bean, rather than the flavors produced by the roast, shine through in the cup.
Specialty coffees are high-quality coffees that have a score of at least 80 points using the global standard established by the Specialty Coffee Association.
We explained the coffee waves in another guide, you’ll know what each wave means.
There you have it: your introductory guide to the world of specialty coffee. Welcome to the community! I think you will like it here.
Now you know what coffee beans need to have in order to be considered specialty quality, how specialty coffee is different from normal coffee, and where to find some freshly roasted bags of the good stuff.
Keep trying different beans, experimenting with different brewing methods, and enjoy! It’s a daily ritual that many of us look forward to each morning. Life is certainly better with specialty coffee.
- Source Code Magazine. Number 01, Summer 2021. Metric.