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What is Speciality Coffee?

Updated: Jan 26, 2023

Coffee is home to thousands of genetic varieties, which get roasted in different ways, and brewed in a multitude of coffee beverages. In essence, coffee is made 3 times. Giving care at all 3 steps is what makes up speciality coffee; quality over convenience and quantity. On the complete flip side. The other sector which makes up the majority of the coffee market is commodity; a priority of convenience, ease of use, and simply coffee as 'coffee' a by thought and household staple. Let's explore both and how they have evolved.



Coffee as a commodity is how this drink initially spread as a global phenomenon. The 19th century gave rise to coffee cultures around the world celebrating this unique brew in coffee houses, and community settings. Traditionally coffee seeds would have been transported around the world, and roasted fairly locally to wherever coffee was served. The coffee sock, percolator pot, and french press were all common brewing methods which quickly and conveniently delivered coffee.

The major push in commodity coffee was the advent of supermarket shelf coffee made for the household. Brands like Nescafe, Folgers and Maxwell House gave vacuum packaged ground coffee, and instant coffee, which boomed in the 1950s. Convenience, ease of use, low-cost, and quantity over quality were all checked off for coffee during this time.

The lines begin to blur within the second wave of coffee, with chain coffee shops like Starbucks adopting both elements of speciality and commodity coffee. Whilst brewing reached new high standards, the quality of coffee seeds, and roasting leaves room to be desired. Arguments go both ways as to whether this counts as specialty coffee, with some stores offering single origin, lighter roast coffees, so we'll let you be the judge!



Speciality coffee was born out of a strong yearning for objective coffee quality, from the fringes of coffee communities around the world. Whilst the average consumer may have had the occasional great cup of coffee, making that occasion a regular occurrence, and knowing the essentials of what makes great quality coffee was still a new frontier left to be explored.

The speciality coffee association was setup in 1982 by a small group of coffee enthusiasts who sought for objective scientific criteria in coffee quality, and now acts as the gold standard for specialty coffee. In the coffee industry, coffee is rated on a scale between 0-100 by SCA trained tasting professionals known as Q-graders. Anything above 80 points is considered specialty coffee.

Below is a snippet of their hallmark coffee tasting wheel, which precisely identifies coffee characteristics. Starting from the centre with a general flavour, and moving outwards to a specific flavour/aroma -

When buying coffee, always keep an eye out for SCA scores, and if from a blend, check the individual scores of coffees which make up the blend. This level of transparency keeps our industry in check, and away from charlatans who may otherwise be claiming their coffee is highly rated, without a strict 3rd party criteria!


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