What is "Specialty" Coffee?

    If you're familiar with Honeybee Coffee Company, you've heard us describe ourselves as a "specialty coffee roaster". Coffee roaster is pretty self-explanatory, but what exactly does "specialty" mean in this context? Throughout this post, we aim to define specialty, explore its importance to the industry, and explain our roaster Aaron's expertise in the field.

     A technical definition of "specialty" is any coffee that scores 80 or higher by a certified Q-Grader on the Specialty Coffee Association's quality scale. Simply put, specialty coffee is the best in the world. Specialty beans account for only about 3% of global coffee production. That means any drink that you get in our cafés or through our partners is in the top 3% of all coffee made worldwide.

A 300 gram sample of green coffee

A 300 gram sample of green coffee

    The SCAA bases coffee scores on a 100-point scale in part determined by the number of physical defects apparent in a 300-gram sample (although sometimes scorers use 100 grams to save time). The physical defects of a sample do not impact the score to the same degree that the sensory qualities do. We do, however, want to explain their importance here, as we feel they are often overlooked. Coffee can have a wide variety of defects, and anything from climate to harvest times to poor processing can cause them. To give an example, a "full black" bean is much too dark and shriveled, likely caused by poor fermentation or an over-ripe cherry. A "quaker" is a bean that was picked before it was ripe, often having a wrinkled and pale surface after roasting. "Broken/chipped/cut" beans are a processing-based defect, likely due to poorly calibrated machines that separate the outer cherry from the bean. Each type of defect carries a certain amount of weight in scoring, meaning that some matter much more than others. To be considered a full defect, five instances of a broken/chipped/cut bean must be found in the sample, but one instance of a full black is a full defect. The SCAA sorts defects into two major categories, Primary and Secondary Defects depending on the severity of the defect. In order to be considered specialty, a coffee sample can have no primary defects and five or less secondary defects.

   The cupping process is the most important factor in determining a coffee's score. Well defined and enforced cupping protocols ensure a consistent and fair grading process every time. The basic format of a cupping consists of a dry sniff, a wet sniff, and tasting. A dry sniff is just that, an evaluation of the coffee grinds' fragrance before any water has been added. The cupper will add water a few degrees below boiling, and the wet sniff evaluates the aroma of the soaked grinds. A crust will form on the top of the cupping bowl which is pushed away with a spoon while the cupper smells the aromas coming off. After given a chance to cool, the cupper tastes the coffee. The cupper will fill a spoon with the coffee and slurp it, exploding the coffee over the entire surface area of their mouth. The tasting process evaluates quite a few categories of the coffee. These include Flavor, Aftertaste, Acidity, Body, Balance, Uniformity, and Sweetness. Each of these has their own definitions particular to grading coffees, and the combinations are essentially endless. To simplify it, a coffee will score well if it's free of taints or faults and has a balance between acidity and sweetness that lasts as the coffee cools. We're looking for clean and sweet. The SCAA has a score sheet on which all of this is logged to determine a final grade. Typically, multiple cuppers grade at once to average out the scores, adding another layer of control and fairness to the process.

    Coffee scoring is relevant to all aspects of the coffee industry. By having an objective scale based on observable criteria the industry can be certain we're all speaking the same language. Some people might prefer a coffee that pops with intense fruitiness, others might prefer a smooth milk-chocolatey taste, but the criteria ensure that personal preference doesn't interfere with the quality score. If a high-quality coffee plant was grown, harvested, sorted, and processed well, then it will score highly, and that's incredibly important for determining market prices.

    Coffee farmers are likely impacted the most by the coffee scoring scale. If they tend to their trees and are vigilant during the harvesting, sorting, pulping, and drying processes then their coffees will score high and fetch high prices. It is our opinion at Honeybee that "high" prices are actually fair prices. The vast majority of global coffee is traded at the commodity price, which hovers around $1/lb. This price is determined more by commodity speculators than the actual value of coffee. Think of it as a coffee stock market, where people make predictions related to demand, weather, drought, pests, shipping disturbances, etc. rather than what the farmers need to make a living. If a farmer's coffee is certified as specialty, they can be free of the artificially low commodity price and receive a wage more in line with their efforts and needs.

    Regulations, standards, and practices related to scoring specialty coffee have the potential to revolutionize the coffee industries of particular countries. If a country does not have the infrastructure or know-how to grade their coffees, they are stuck in the commodity market, even if their coffee is of specialty quality. With no way to verify the quality, it is simply assumed to be commodity. Relatively small coffee economies cannot hope to compete with the giant producers of the world such as Brazil and Vietnam if they are confined to $1/lb. Many farmers would operate at a net loss at these prices. Myanmar is a recent success story of the small production countries, which you can read more about in our previous blog posts. Through the efforts of Winrock International and the Coffee Quality Institute farmers in Myanmar are increasingly able to properly sort their beans, resulting in higher specialty prices and a more competitive chance to grow.

    At Honeybee, coffee scores are essential to our ordering process. Even though anything above 80 would be considered specialty, we try to only order coffees 85 and above. In our opinion, this gives us enough of a cushion to ensure that our beans are excellent every time. We, of course, consider many other factors when placing green coffee orders, but a low score automatically excludes that coffee from our consideration.

    We are also lucky enough to have a Q-Certified roaster at Honeybee. Aaron Hill, our Head Roaster, took the Q-Grader course and exam in 2018. The Q exam is comparable to becoming a wine sommelier except for coffee. The exam is designed to test your ability to perceive the different fragrances, aromas, and tastes of coffees so that you can accurately score it. Some of the test challenges include identifying and naming synthetic aromas in vials, choosing the odd man out of a group of three coffees, or determining roaster-based defects in beans. Becoming Q-Certified enables a person to grade a coffee based on how it performs during a cupping.

A standard cupping evaluation sheet

A standard cupping evaluation sheet

    The fact that Aaron is Q-Certified carries a certain amount of respect in the coffee world. The farmers and importers that we work with are often curious about his opinion of their products, and other roasters and coffee enthusiasts seek his advice. Being Q-Certified doesn't give Aaron superpowers, but it is a mark that he has the vocabulary and experience to accurately talk about coffee and puts him in a small pool of people with this distinction. Only about 3,500 people globally are Q-Certified, and Aaron is one of only a few in the Tennessee region.

    In Aaron's opinion, one of the most valuable aspects of being Q-Certified is that it gives him the tasting know-how to get what he wants out of a coffee. As a roaster, Aaron is concerned with bringing out the natural flavors of coffee while adding as few flavors as possible through the process of roasting. Some of these "added" flavors might be described as roasty, baked, underdeveloped, etc. His training allows him to taste his roasts, determine any defects, and adjust accordingly. He also values the Q process because it adds a scientific element to the art of coffee. In an industry dominated by subjective senses, the SCAA's scale infuses some objectivity and science to give everyone a standardized frame of reference.

    If you're interested in the specifics of how coffee is tasted, we would love to invite you to one of our Public Cuppings that happen every Sunday at 3:00 pm at the West Café. Aaron hosts the cuppings, and you'll get a chance to try Honeybee's coffees as well as any samples that we've recently received. Aaron will guide you through the process of tasting, cluing you into the various qualities considered desirable by the specialty industry such as acidity, sweetness, and balance.


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Authors: Aaron Hill & Alex Wuethrich



Norris Hill