Unlocking the Secrets of Specialty Coffee:
A Beginner's Guide
Unlocking the Secrets of Specialty Coffee:
A Beginner's Guide

The terms “specialty coffee” and “third wave coffee” have gained a lot of buzz on the international market since their inception in the late 1990s. They have become the call sign for an industry focused not only on coffee quality, but traceability in sourcing coffee beans, as well as quality in brewing coffee at home and in the cafe. How the use of these terms is determined and the workings of the coffee supply chain are important questions for those looking to get into the coffee roasting or selling business. They’re also of interest for consumers seeking out the best ways to brew coffee at home.

What is specialty coffee?


Specialty coffee officially emerged from the 20th century coffee industry to become a major consumer trend in the 21st century. This trend has evolved into a popular culture focused on the appreciation of superb coffee quality. Professionals and enthusiasts are invested in sourcing quality coffee, developing roasting techniques, and cultivating an educated experience at the end of the supply chain. This is made possible by the international communication provided by globalization, bringing experienced talent into local markets.

Today's customer base has a positive appreciation of specialty coffee, which both the hospitality and restaurant industries are leaning into as the culture gains steam. As it becomes more relevant than ever, consumers have the opportunity to delve into the world of specialty coffee: what it is, how it works and what qualifies it as specialty coffee.

What gives specialty coffee its quality?


Technically, specialty coffee is defined as any coffee that scores at 80 or above on the Specialty Coffee Association's grading scale. Specialty coffee is a product whose creation involves every stage of the coffee supply chain, which includes:

  • Farmers and producers who provide the highest-quality green coffee beans, grown in an ideal climate and at an ideal elevation

  • Intentional processing using one or a few of a variety of methods depending on the end goal for flavor

  • Green buyers and importers who help roasters source quality coffee lots at origin

  • A roasting process carried out by specialized craftspeople (aka coffee roasters)

  • A brewing and serving process carried out by specialized craftspeople (aka baristas)
  • Ultimately, whether this process creates something satisfying to the consumer is determined by Q Graders and other coffee experts, who perform the same function for coffee that sommeliers perform for wine. Coffee, like wine, is a sensory experience that has to be assessed by expert tasters who are familiar with the finest quality products.

    Q Graders are certified according to internationally recognized standards. They need to be able to identify a wide variety of aromas, flavors, acidity and other factors through coffee cupping. They must be re-certified every 3 years, and it's that certification that ensures they are tried and true experts in their field.

    The role of grinding coffee beans

    An important part of delivering specialty coffee to the final consumer is the grinding process.

    Grinding helps determine how much of the flavor of the ground beans is extracted by hot water, and how evenly. It's a delicate procedure. When ground, coffee begins to more quickly let go of flavor-producing gasses that are sealed in during the roasting process than when it remains whole bean. Pre-ground coffee can be helped slightly by being kept in a sealed container to slow oxidation, but the best way to get maximum freshness out of your cup of coffee is to grind it right before brewing.

    The size and evenness of the grind is key to the extraction process, which refers to how much flavor water pulls out of the coffee grounds and into the final cup of coffee. Under-extracted coffee may taste sour, while over-extracted coffee can taste bitter. A properly extracted coffee has an ideal balance of flavors, without extremely sour or bitter aftertastes. A very fine grind is perfect for espresso, while a coarser grind might be ideal for some home brew methods such as French press, where the coffee grounds might sit in the water for a long span of time.


    Why processing is important

    Processing is key to the production of true specialty coffee. There are many different types of processing, each of which require unique equipment and ingredients.

  • Natural processing: Also known as “dry process”, this method is the oldest method of processing coffee. It involves placing whole coffee cherries with seeds (aka coffee beans) inside on raised, flat surfaces for 2-4 weeks of drying in the sun, allowing the fruit to dry on the seed. In this process, the coffee cherries are carefully protected from moisture and mold, usually by periodic rotation with special tools.

  • Honey processing: This involves removing the skin from the coffee fruit while leaving mucilage on the seeds. Varying degrees of honey processing, or varying levels of mucilage left on coffee seeds, have their own particular effects on the flavor and body of the result.The drying of the mucilage results in a sticky, gooey substance that resembles honey — hence the name. Each variant of this process imparts its own kind of sweet and syrupy body and flavor.

  • Washed processing: Also known as “wet process”, this process consumes the most water and is rarer in dry climates. In washed processing, all of the fruit is removed before drying, revealing a lot of the terroir specifics of the coffee's flavor profile. The fruit of the coffee cherry is removed from the seed (aka coffee bean) before the beans are thoroughly washed, and then typically dried on raised beds.

  • Each of these processes can be used to produce specialty coffees with their own particular characteristics. There are also many experimental processing methods emerging, as the world of specialty coffee is always developing!

    How to brew specialty coffee


    There are a variety of ways to brew specialty coffee depending on the desired end product. The pour-over method is one of the most common, but there's also espresso, French press, AeroPress, siphon, and cold brewing. Each method involves a different level of effort and a specific skill set to produce a specific, coveted kind of flavor, and anyone can develop these skills. Experiment with different methods and flavors to find the technique that best fits your personal tastes!