What is so Special About Speciality Coffee?

Coffee being examined, will it make the speciality coffee cut?

Did you know that it is possible for a cup of black coffee with no milk and sugar to be subtly sweet with no bitterness at all? And did you know those bitter cups you have to remedy with milk and sugar might well have made poverty stricken coffee workers’ lives bitter too, due to exploitation and even slavery or child labour. These are two reasons why you should consider switching to speciality coffee.  By the way, I am not against milk and sugar, as long as you use it to turn your coffee into a sweet and creamy treat, and not to cover the flaws of bad quality beans or improper roasting.

So what is speciality coffee?

Put simply, speciality coffee is of a consistently higher quality than the large volume mass market alternatives. Practically speaking, it means, all things being equal, you get a cup without defects like bitterness or sourness, which enables you to taste some the coffee’s distinctive flavours. Additionally, to be truly considered speciality coffee, it should also be sourced ethically and sustainably.

But don’t misunderstand, labelling a coffee “speciality coffee” is not like labelling it “really good coffee” or “really tasty coffee.” It is not a subjective term, nor is it empty marketing gibberish.

Speciality coffee is a well-defined term, which means a coffee needs to meet objective, strict standards. There are even associations like the Specialty Coffee Association (‘SCA’), which is the unified association of Europe and America or our own SCASA, to offer training and maintain standards.

Why all this strictness with speciality coffee standards?

Such standards are needed because coffee is probably one of the easiest products to ruin in production. This is because it is such a delicate product and, on top of that, it has quite a long and disconnected supply chain.  In other words, it changes hands often without one party having control over the whole process. Compare this with wine, for example. As much of an art as it is to produce a good wine, at least a winemaker normally has full control from the moment the grapevines sprout until the bottles leave his cellar.

So speciality coffee grading is an attempt to remedy this. Not by trying to control the whole process, but rather by carefully selecting the best producers and processors through a well-developed grading process. It is like democracy for coffee, if you can’t be the king who rules your whole supply chain, at least try to elect those who are most competent to oversee each stage.

So what does it take to make the speciality coffee cut?

Plant selection

Firstly, It has to be from the best-bred coffee plants. The finest of the sophisticated Arabica variety coffee plant is used to produce speciality coffee. The hardier, but more mediocre and usually bitter Robusta variety is popular as a cheap filler bean in many coffees but is not used in speciality coffee.  If the plant is an ideal, you could say it has the full potential to produce speciality coffee, but unfortunately, each and every next step in the process can also disqualify its seeds from being graded as speciality coffee.

Cultivation and processing

Next, it has to be expertly cultivated in the ideal conditions. Such areas that are ideal for speciality coffee production are usually small areas at higher altitudes, like mountain slopes.  In many, if not most cases, it has taken lifetimes and even generations of development to be able to produce speciality grade coffee.

Next, it has to be selectively harvested only when at peak ripeness, have the flesh removed from the coffee seeds, and be processed and dried. Indiscriminate harvesting, processing mistakes, or even just letting the beans sit too long before beginning one of these processes can lead to a degeneration in their quality and loss of potential.

Coffee being harvested. Will it make the speciality coffee cut?

Coffee being harvested. Will it make the speciality coffee cut?

Grading

Next, the beans need to be graded. This is where the objectivity comes in.

Licensed coffee graders, who have passed exams that test their sensory skills, do the grading. Although the judgment of a person can be subjective, a whole panel of graders must agree within a narrow margin for the coffee to make the grade. They use both a visual inspection of the green beans and a process called cupping. Cupping is basically a specialised method of tasting, to best discern a coffee’s attributes like body, acidity, flavour, and aroma. For a coffee to be considered speciality, it has to score at least 80 on a 100 point scale.

Roasting

The coffee is then bagged and sold to roasters. Unfortunately, here again, an unskilled roaster can ruin even the best beans and destroy all the goodness of speciality graded green beans. A roaster, who knows what he is doing, will employ a roast profile, or roast recipe, especially for each batch of coffee to develop it to its full potential. Countless hours of practice, experimentation, and maths go into achieving consistently excellent roasts with different bean varieties.

Preparation

Finally, the roasted coffee can be ground and brewed. Even here it is scary to think that a coffee that was pampered and crafted and guarded halfway around the globe can still be ruined 5 minutes before it enters your cup.  That is why a good grinder (see our previous article on grinders here) and a bit of brewing know-how (see our brewing guides here) is a must. Unfortunately, even some coffee shops manage to produce average or bad coffee from great beans. Pause Coffee tries to avoid this by also offering training and machine maintenance to their wholesale clients.

Ethics

To top it all off, speciality coffee can lead to above average living and working conditions for coffee farmers and workers, since farmers compete for quality, rather than price and volume. It is not a cutthroat race to the bottom. Because these farmers are so specialised they are sought out by speciality coffee buyers who trade directly with them, leading to higher profits, as opposed to selling their coffee at exploitative prices. Coffee should not be considered a speciality coffee at all, if not ethically sourced to the advantage of all in the supply chain, from farmer to consumer.

The Pause difference

Pause Coffee Roastery uses 100% ethically sourced speciality green coffee beans and nothing else. Pause Coffee’s Roastmaster has spent countless hours studying and experimenting to perfect his roasting technique, while his roast profiling software assist in repeating excellent roasts, ensuring consistency from batch to batch. The hard work the coffee growers have done is thereby honoured.

At Pause Coffee, the home of speciality coffee in the Garden Route, you can be certain that the coffee you buy has survived its long journey to arrive at your door with all its speciality coffee goodness still intact. Does that not make you want to drink another cup of Pause Coffee right now?

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