What is Specialty Coffee?

I maestri della tostatura media
Foto di piccolissime piantine di caffè con fuori solo il chicco appena piantato.

Let’s get started right away by saying that Specialty coffee is not just a coffee, it’s not just a high quality product and it doesn’t just represent a different aromatic profile.

Specialty coffee is love, passion, dedication and knowledge.
Specialty coffee indicates sustainability, care, respect and transparency.
In short, Specialty coffee is a style of consumption that involves our senses and takes us through different experiences to the tasting moment.

If you are also a coffee enthusiast and you love it in all its nuances, you must read this article!


Definition of Specialty coffee

The concept of Specialty is used to indicate a coffee produced in special climatic and environmental conditions, which give it a particular profile of taste and aroma, so well selected and worked with respect to the unique features.

The definition was provided in America in the 1970s by the Specialty Coffee Association (SCA), determining the international standards for its evaluation. So it’s a coffee that:

  • Obtained a cupping score of at least 80 points out of 100
  • has no primary defects
  • has at most 5 minor flaws

To discover the defects that a coffee can have, read the dedicated article:

Appearance assessments, thus checking for visual defects, are carried out on a sample of 300 gr of green coffee.

While the evaluations on the organoleptic properties are carried out by roasting, grinding and extracting the coffee, to then proceed to the professional tasting through the cupping method, after which a score is assigned, i.e. the “cupping score”.

This tasting method is standard and identical all over the world and is carried out by professionals certified by the SCA, i.e. the Q-graders, the most expert coffee sommeliers.

Watch the video below to see how cupping is done:

However, this definition is not enough to tell the soul of a true Specialty Coffee.

The life cycle

If I buy a very high quality coffee but it is then transported, stored, roasted and extracted in the wrong way, is it still a Specialty coffee?

The definition does not include these steps, but it is still a clear “no”!

This is why beyond the technicalities that provide quality standards to be respected, specialty coffee is much more, as mentioned at the beginning of the article.

The supply chain is long and made of a lot of different parties playing a key role.

In fact, unlike wine, a sector in which even just one person can be responsible for the entire supply chain, coffee arrives in the cup after a long number of phases, from the farmer, to the importer, to the roaster, the vending machine, up to the bartender.

Therefore, to understand what specialty coffee is and why it is so valuable, we need to analyze the role played by each involved party.

The “strange” thing, if it can be defined as such, is that fine coffee is actually only “potentially” so.

Let me explain: until we don’t roast and extract the drink we don’t really know its taste profile. So up until before these steps we really only have a “promise” of what it will be.

Also, as already mentioned, all the protagonists have to work at their best.

The quality of green coffee can only be maintained over time, but if any of us make a mistake, we lower the quality and this can never be recovered again.

So here are the crucial steps in the production of quality coffee.

1. The Cultivation
Foto di una pianta di caffè con i frutti maturi rossi

Cultivating a quality coffee is by no means trivial, as it includes:

  • The choice of an excellent variety, moreover suitable for the place in question;
  • Exposure to the sun, wind, rain, environmental and faunal biodiversity, altitude, soil composition and so on. In short, all the terroir in which the plant of coffee is born and grows;
  • The right harvest, processing, selection, decortication, storage, etc.

In short, the variables are many and none of these can be left behind.

Often producers spend generations perfecting the approach to growing specialty coffee, dedicating their lives to improving quality and not quantity, moreover with respect for the environment and people.

2. The Processing
Foto dei chicchi di caffè stesi al sole per terra a ad asciugare con ancora la polpa e la buccia, metodo naturale.

Once the harvest is complete, the long journey to the cup begins with processing of the coffee still on the plantation.

There are various methods for processing coffee, if you want to discover them all click here:

However, regardless of which one is chosen, the important thing is that the beans are not damaged, indeed the goal is to enhance the positive qualities of green coffee.

3. Transport

Finally, the coffee must rest before being sold and transported.

Now the humidity, the temperature of the containers and storage conditions become the critical issues to be addressed. Even small mistakes can completely affect the qualitative potential we talked about earlier.

4. The Roasting
Foto della tostatrice da 60kg di Caffè Ernani gialla e nera.

We arrive in Italy with the coffee ready to be roasted.

This is one of the most crucial steps of the whole process as an extra degree or two or a handful of seconds of variation suffice to ruin the whole batch.

In fact, roasting can enhance the qualities and completely destroy the aromatic potential of a Specialty coffee.

Roasting is an artisanal art that requires a high degree of knowledge and experience to be able to create organoleptic profiles worthy of a fine coffee. The beans must be constantly checked during the process and must meet the highest possible quality standard of the roasted bean.

5. Grinding and extraction
Foto di quattro macinacaffè on demanda alla Torrefazione Ernani a Milano con quattro diversi caffè al suo interno.

And finally we come to the barista, the indispensable link between coffee production and the final consumer.

Making a coffee in a workmanlike manner is not easy at all, it requires skills and experiences, much like those of the roaster. The barista must be able to evaluate the coffee to buy, then grind it and extract it in the best possible way.

To get to know how to manage all the variables you need years of study and practice.

6. Disclosure

But the barista’s job doesn’t end there, as he also have to inform, tell and guide the consumer correctly.

A good barista knows the product and the taste of his customers, understands the needs and recommends the purchase and guides them during the experience.

In short, the barista must be a great speaker, expert and professional.

Did you expect that to define a coffee as “Special” you needed such a long list of parameters, considerations and characteristics?

Not to mention the sustainability and traceability of the supply chain.

This is why those who produce Specialty Coffee, relying not on quantity but on quality, loving and respecting the world in which they are immersed and the people who are part of it, do not exploit but give back!

Furthermore, the supply chain is reduced; the same roaster will no longer buy from an Italian raw foodist, who bought the lot from a foreign broker, who was in contact with a casual, commercial plantation agent.

When the roaster spends so much money on fine beans, he is in direct contact with the grower and knows exactly the route traveled by each grain, making then all this available to its customers.

So transparency and knowledge are the basis of the Specialty.

Lo Specialty coffee in Italy

Although we believe that one of the best coffees in the world is consumed in Italy, in reality our beautiful country is one of the least flexible and least expert on the subject.

The strong attachment to traditions and the lack of interest has not allowed to develop towards a higher quality of consumption.

However, all this has not prevented many realities, including us at Caffè Ernani, from dealing with these raw materials with the aim of spreading passion, love and knowledge!

The Italian community around specialty coffee is constantly growing, building extremely high standards day after day.

We at Caffè Ernani believe in this a lot and we have the only dream of letting you taste a coffee that is “different” from the commonly purchased ones once in your life.

So here are our Specialty coffees that we recommend:

Marketing, E-commerce e Social Media Manager
Coffee Lover


Martina Mazzoleni

Marketing, E-commerce e Social Media Manager Coffee Lover

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