We see labels like “gourmet” and “premium” thrown around every end of the food and beverage industry. Customers become desensitized by these poor advertising attempts until well-defined indicators begin to lose their weight. The phrase “specialty coffee” is not just some cliché. So when used properly, what does it really mean?
Let us first look at the criteria:
When green coffee is transferred to a buyer, such as the Providence branch of InterAmerican Coffee who supplies many of our beans, it is given an intensive analysis to determine a score. Sample roasts of the coffee are prepared and a cupping (sensory overview through smelling, tasting, and feeling) is carefully evaluated by a Certified Coffee Taster or Licensed Q grader. Attributes that are rated include fragrance, flavor, acidity, body, and sweetness among others. If the final score is below 80, the coffee is not specialty quality. If it is 80 or above, the coffee is determined to be specialty.
Prior to a sample roast being cupped and scored, the green coffee itself is graded under a number of protocols as well. When grading green coffee, a 350 gram sample is used and individual beans are examined for defects like color distortions (e.g. full black or partial black), breakage, insect damage, fungal damage, and density (floaters). These are converted to full defects, which are classified as either primary or secondary, to observe for the overall quality. If there are any primary defects or any more than five secondary defects in the sample, that coffee cannot be considered specialty grade.
(top) A bag full of defects that were sorted out and will be sold at a massive discount to commodity coffee roasters for the instant and freeze-dried market.
(bottom) A bag full of green Colombian coffee that will become the Team Crafty Signature Roast at Borealis.
There is clearly a precise and regulated way that enables coffee to genuinely wear the title. But the true importance lies in how it translates; why do we care so much?
Coffee is like a torch, passed from hand to hand starting at mother nature's fingertips and ending with our smiling lips. This exchange has created fellowship amongst all who share a part. It is something to celebrate! Everyone has to devote themselves entirely to bringing a bean to its full potential throughout the chain - in return, we all make a joyous living. That is the goal, anyway.
Keeping this in mind, we can understand how specialty coffee goes beyond the strictly practiced assessments. Standards start at the farm where producers have spent their lives committed to nurturing coffee plants, picking only the ripest cherries, improving methods of processing and milling, and the refinement of their skills for the highest quality coffee that they can possibly make.
Creating direct relationships with farmers like Maria Josefa Ayala, who grows our Honduras microlot, allows us to improve the exchange on both sides.
Within the intricate journey from seed to cup, people at every step strive to uphold that quality. This is ensured through massive collaboration, dedication, and unity. Specialty coffee means passion and harmony; it has a spirit that you can taste in each sip.