What is Specialty Coffee?
In essence, the concept was quite simple: special geographic microclimates produce beans with unique flavor profiles, which she referred to as ‘specialty coffees.’ Underlying this idea of coffee appellations was the fundamental premise that specialty coffee beans would always be well prepared, freshly roasted, and properly brewed.
This was the craft of the specialty coffee industry that had been slowly evolving during the twenty-year period preceding her speech. The Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA) continues to define specialty in this context.” This reference was the basis from which we have built the case for specialty coffee over the history of our organization.
Well, in the broadest sense, we define it is as coffee that has met all the tests of survival encountered in the long journey from the coffee tree to the coffee cup. More specifically, we measure it against standards and with methods that allow us to identify coffee that has been properly cared for.
while it is not possible to inspect every bean from every farm at the point of harvest, or during processing or drying or shipping, it is possible to employ the standards developed by SCAA to make a meaningful judgment on the preparation of the coffee through aspect grading and to employ a standard cupping protocol to assess the quality of the cup and to discover any defects caused by poor practices that result in a loss of potential for the coffee.
This is not the work of only one person in the lifecycle of a coffee bean; specialty can only occur when all of those involved in the coffee value chain work in harmony and maintain a keen focus on standards and excellence from start to finish.
This is no easy accomplishment, and yet because of these dedicated professionals, there are numerous specialty coffees available right now, across the globe, and likely right around the corner from you.
The Coffee Farmer
First, the role of those in the value chain after the farmer. Do they merely preserve the inherent quality of the coffee, or is their job to enhance or improve on that quality? Increasingly, I think that at every step we are responsible for one or more of the following: the preservation, transformation, or revelation of quality.
Thus, roasters may be responsible not only for the preservation of the quality delivered by the farmer, miller and exporter, but they also need to meet their obligation for transforming the quality potential of the green bean to the realization of the roasted version.
Similarly, the barista is responsible not only for the preservation of all the quality attributes of the roasted coffee but also for the revelation of those attributes to the consumer. This is not only through the transformation to a beverage in the brewing process, but in the total experience of drinking that beverage in the café environment.
The Green Coffee Buyer
Second, we are faced with the need to assess the sustainability of specialty coffee. That is, even if a coffee results in a great tasting beverage, if it does so at the cost of the dignity, value or well-being of the people and land involved, it cannot truly be a specialty coffee. This concept more than any other may be most fundamental to our assessment of what makes a coffee special, but is perhaps the most challenging to assess empirically. Nonetheless, we must continue to strive not only to understand but to measure all that makes a coffee special.
The coffee changes hands again and begins the next stage of transformation, from green bean to roasted coffee. Here we must grapple with the third key concept, revelation. The roaster must accurately identify the potential for the coffee, properly develop the flavors and ultimately properly package the roasted product.
An unskilled roaster, equipment that is not operating properly, poor packaging materials or practices can all lead to disaster. Provided that all goes well here and the coffee’s potential remains intact, there are two remaining steps before the long chain of custody that is unique to coffee ends in the consumption of a specialty coffee beverage.
After roasting and before brewing, the coffee must be ground. Grinding is best done as close in time to brewing as possible, as many delicate aromatic compounds are fully released upon grinding and the dramatic increase in surface area necessary to effect brewing also opens the coffee to rapid oxidation and staling.
The size of the ground particles is also important and driven by the method of brewing to be employed. Too fine a grind for the selected brewing process and the coffee may be destroyed by over extraction. Too coarse a grind and the coffee may never develop its full flavor potential in the cup.
Finally, after every step from coffee tree to the end consumer has been carefully orchestrated, the final process must take place the coffee must be brewed. Whether the coffee is
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