What Is Specialty Coffee? An introduction to specialty coffee

So you have come seeking an insight into the world of specialty coffee. Welcome!

If you’ve found yourself here then you have most likely asked yourself “what is specialty coffee?”. It’s a question we must all ask when trying to understand the world’s most popular drink. 

In its simplest form, specialty coffee’s definition relates to the points score on which all coffee is graded by the Specialty Coffee Association (SCA).

This grading is out of possible total of 100. Any coffee given a cupping score – don’t worry, we’ll touch on this more further down! – of 80 or above is considered specialty coffee. 

There is, however, lots more to understand about specialty coffee and it is a lot more than just a cupping score.

So follow along this journey and let’s take a deep dive into the brew we know so well. 


the studio coffee roasters specialty coffee

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What are the different types of coffee?

There are two different types of coffee in the world: “commodity coffee” and “specialty coffee”.

While both of these coffees appear to produce the same end product, they are vastly different in taste and in how they are sourced and harvested.

Let’s take a look at the differences between them.


Commodity coffee

The first time that you tried coffee, it’s pretty likely that it would have been a commodity style of coffee. 

Commodity coffee is effectively bulk coffee. There is no real consideration to the origin, harvest time or process.

It’s also the most common type of coffee out there.

You’ll find this coffee in most freeze-dried instant coffee products on the shelf of your local supermarket and some of the larger chain coffee houses. 

With commodity coffee, less attention is given to the unique flavours of the beans. Developing flavour profiles isn’t as important as it is with specialty coffee, so it can often taste bland. 

This type of coffee has its place, though. Commodity is both more affordable – due to the lower levels of quality control – and more accessible.


green coffee beans
green coffee beans

Specialty coffee

The opposite of commodity coffee, then, is what we know as specialty coffee.

Once reserved for hardcore coffee enthusiasts, the term “specialty coffee” has grown quite popular in recent times. 

More and more coffee drinkers seek out specialty coffee roasters because specialty coffee is a premium version of our favourite drink.

While both are coffee, speciality coffee is vastly different from commodity coffee.

With specialty coffee, every part of the coffee chain is considered, from location, harvest time, fermentation and where it is roasted, to name but a few.

These are all things that roasters like us take into consideration when choosing which coffees we would like to work with.

Each of these attributes greatly affect the flavour of the coffee. Knowing these details enables producers and roasters to carefully select how they want the overall taste in their coffee to develop. 


Coffee cupping scores

As we mentioned above, what distinguishes specialty coffee is its high cupping score.

This score grades the coffee on 10 different attributes, including aroma, flavour, body, balance and acidity.

Specialty coffee has a cupping score of 80 or more, with most coffees falling around the 82-86 mark.

Finding a coffee with a cupping score above this is relatively rare, which is why coffees like our Las Llantas (which has a cupping score of 88) are usually priced higher.


The role of altitude in specialty coffee

Another key aspect of specialty coffee is the altitude where the coffee grows.

This plays an important part in how the overall coffee beans, and their respective flavour profiles, develop. 

It is usually considered that the higher the altitude where the coffee is grown, the more developed the taste and the more distinct the flavour. 

As an example, let’s compare our Boji coffee from Ethiopia with our Grota Fria coffee from Brazil.

The coffee beans from Ethiopia are grown at a very high altitude and thus have matured longer in the cherry, giving them a very fruity flavour profile. 

In contrast, the coffee that is grown in Brazil is grown at a lower altitude and thus has matured faster. The resulting effect is smoother, sweeter flavours. 


roasted coffee beans

From specialty coffee to conscious coffee

In the ever-changing world we live in, coffee shops and coffee roasters – much like their coffee-producing partners – have had to adapt and evolve. 

With a massive increase in interest in coffee, there has also been a huge increase in the traceability of coffee and how it can be produced in a much more sustainable way. 


The rise of “third-wave specialty coffee”

Third-wave coffee is a term that has become increasingly popular in recent years.

Here at The Studio, we absolutely consider ourselves to be part of this third-wave coffee scene. 

Third-wave coffee is a mindset that goes beyond premium grade coffee because it takes things to the next level.

From bean to cup, third-wave coffee is a much more traceable and sustainable way for coffee producers to grow coffee, coffee roasters to roast coffee and for us all to enjoy coffee.

More focus is given to the experience, the education and the production of coffee, with third-wave coffee shops making huge strides to approach coffee more consciously. 


Specialty coffee shops

One of the most amazing things to come out of the specialty coffee world is how people from all over the world have come together to talk, debate and deliberate about coffee as a whole. 

A higher standard of coffee is more accessible to coffee drinkers than ever before.

It is no wonder that over the last 10 years there has been an explosion of independent coffee shops, coffee roasters and aficionados across the globe. 

When coffee businesses like ours are able to roast coffee and brew coffee at the same location, it gives our customers both more options and more knowledge in what they are drinking.

Whether it’s at our Algarve coffee shops or through our worldwide specialty coffee subscription, our customers are able to enjoy coffee like never before.


Espresso in coffee portafilter with heart shape
Hands in roasted coffee beans

The future of Specialty coffee

When we consider the future of specialty coffee, the first thing we must do is address the elephant in the room: climate change.

This, as we can all see, is having a massive impact on the world around us and, unfortunately, coffee is not spared from this fate. 

But the coffee plant’s roots grow deep and we will be enjoying it still for many years to come (phew). 

With the slow and steady rise in the temperature of our earth, the only major impact on coffee production will be more of a geological location issue. 

This is evident even today. For example in the southern border provinces of China, there has already been a rise in coffee production.

This is mainly due to the slight increase in temperature in this region. So we may see in the near future that China gains a larger foothold in the coffee-producing world.  

One of the fantastic effects of the third-wave coffee moment is highlighting and promoting the drive for more sustainability and traceability in the world of coffee.

Coffee roasters and cafes are actively choosing coffees with a sustainable footprint and producers that promote equal wage and employment opportunities. Which is great news for everyone!


Why the world loves specialty coffee

As we have discovered, the world of specialty coffee is one that interweaves people, communities and global economics.

It is no wonder then that people view this simple cherry with such high regard. 

From the Wall Street stock exchange to the cup you most likely have in your hand now reading this, the journey of coffee can take you all over the world.

And, if we can all play our part in sustaining our planet, it can continue to do so for many more years. 

Like the world of wine, coffee is now being consumed for pleasure and not just thought of as “wake up juice”.

The carefully considered methods of processing and roasting coffee beans bring forth a fantastic world of choice, flavour and community that we are so happy to be a part of. 

So, now if anyone ever asks you “what is specialty coffee?” you can confidently explain not just what specialty coffee is, but why its consumption is increasing so rapidly. You’ll be sure to impress!


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