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What is Specialty Coffee? It’s Actually Different from Gourmet Coffee

If you weren’t already aware, specialty coffee is quite different from gourmet coffee. Gourmet coffee represents good quality coffee. At least, the marketers tell us that gourmet coffee is of good quality. However, there’s no quality assurance process or standardization. Specialty coffee concerns the overall quality of the whole process. Not only does the quality of specialty coffee triumph over any mass-produced coffee, but it also comes from sustainable methods.

The Science Behind Specialty Coffee

So, what is specialty coffee? Erna Knutsen coined the term ‘specialty coffee’ back in 1974. But what does this term mean? The term means different things to different people. Some focus on the way coffee beans are grown or selected. Others focus more on how the green coffee beans are roasted while some focus on the brewing process.

The production of specialty coffee starts at the coffee farm, where coffee beans are specially selected. Vital to the specialty coffee supply chain are the professionals who are highly skilled in the act of roasting, grinding, and brewing these beans. Experts grade specialty coffee according to strict standards. We call this process “cupping”. Accredited coffee buyers then carefully select the beans. The selection adheres to particular standards laid out by the Specialty Coffee Association. Therefore, coffee beans that score higher than 80 out of 100 receive specialty coffee status.

via Gfycat

Growing Beans 

Specialty coffee comes from green coffee beans that are grown by coffee growers who have dedicated their lives to refining the growing process. Many coffee-growing businesses are run by families or communities who know the soil and growing conditions intimately. Moreover, specialty coffee growers pick only the best quality green coffee beans to be roasted. It can take years of patiently cultivating land before the first yield. Any green coffee beans with defects or any that are not ripe enough will not make it into the yield. The process is exacting.

If the growing process harms the environment or workers, then the finished product isn’t specialty coffee.

Sustainability is at the heart of specialty coffee. Therefore, specialty coffee beans command a higher price. As such, they also attract more discerning consumers. These consumers will pay a little more for the privilege of great coffee. The coffee industry recognizes the time and energy that goes into producing specialty coffee beans. Essentially, the price reflects the fair wage paid to support the growing communities.


Achieving the correct taste profile of coffee requires the knowledge and skill of trained coffee roasting professionals. Acquiring this knowledge requires hours of study and training. Specialty coffee knowledge is an involved, scientific process. To get the taste profile right, the roasting person must balance various factors, such as thermodynamics and heat transfer. To ensure high standards in the coffee industry, the Specialty Coffee Association provides certification for those who study to become coffee roasters.

the quality of roasting matters to what specialty coffee is


Grinding is crucial with specialty coffee. Thus, the finer the grind, the quicker the extraction rate. If done badly, grinding can produce a sour taste with an element of bitterness. Coarsely ground coffee tends to take longer to extract, creating a mellower flavor.


The barista is highly skilled in completing the process of specialty coffee. Baristas have special training that teaches them to dial-in the elements for producing the optimum brew. This is why a barista training includes learning the water temperature that a particular brew needs, or recognizing which grind size to use.

Specialty Coffee in the Industry

Sure, specialty coffee tastes fantastic. But, more importantly, it also ensures that the coffee production process does not harm the environment or exploit the workers. According to the SCA, coffee cannot be certified as a specialty coffee unless it has passed its stringent sustainability tests. Pretty cool, right?

Coffee Flavor Wheel

World Coffee Research Lexicon hides the science behind specialty coffee. The experts simplified the Lexicon into a visual form so that coffee professionals can describe a particular kind of coffee (1). Part of this is the coffee taster’s flavor wheel. The flavor wheel helps people learn what type of coffee they are buying. Nevertheless, the flavor wheel also helps experts in the industry develop new types of coffee.

The lexicon isn’t just the culmination of scientific work, it is an enabler of future research.

World Coffee Research

For coffee buyers and baristas, language can convey the flavor and mouthfeel of a particular type of coffee. The coffee taster’s flavor wheel has been the go-to for coffee professionals for around 20 years. It started as a colossal collaboration, and now it’s an authoritative resource for describing coffee tastes.

SCAA-Certified Coffee Brewers

The Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA) assesses the best electric drip coffee brewers according to their strict scientific criteria. Brewing machines that pass the rigorous test represent the gold standard in coffee brewing (2). These machines are the SCAA-certified coffee brewers. SCAA-certified coffee brewers have to pass extensive tests that were developed by scientists over the years. SCAA checks machines on brewing time and correct water temperature. Their certification is thus like a quality assurance mark. You can be confident that an SCAA-certified coffee brewer will make the correct type of coffee with the right settings.

Specialty Coffee VS Third-Wave Coffee

Specialty coffee is pretty much the highest standard of coffee in the world. Still, the experts push the quality standards of coffee even further. Right now, the cream of the crop – the very highest quality coffee – is now considered third-wave.

It’s a little tricky to understand, but third-wave is specialty coffee that emphasizes customer service. Third-wave is considered more artisanal, like specialist chocolate or wine. However, sustainability, fairness, and quality of experience are integral to third-wave standard coffee. Indeed, one can easily confuse the specialty coffee for third-wave coffee. But, the best way to distinguish between the two kinds is the customer experience.

Third-wave coffee uses specialty coffee in delivering a top-notch coffee experience.

With third-wave coffee, not only do you have ideally grown and selected beans; but you can also expect:

  • More direct supply chains
  • Commitment to the welfare of workers in the supply chain
  • Skilled processes of selection, roasting, and grinding
  • The end result of a perfect cup of coffee brewed with flair

Final Thoughts

If you want to be sure that you’re getting the most excellent coffee, check for the certification by the SCA. The certification will tell you that your coffee tastes great. But you can also be confident that the coffee farmers and their families receive a living wage. Specialty coffees are also environmentally friendly. So, while they may be a little more expensive, at least they won’t cost the earth.

coffee bean environment


Fifty-five percent of coffee is Specialty on the U.S. market. (3) It would appear that Americans have high standards when it comes to their daily caffeine fix. According to the Specialty Coffee American Association, 48% of coffee drinkers in the U.S perceive that they drink specialty coffee.

The difference between gourmet coffee and specialty coffee is that gourmet is not certified or tested by any quality assurance organization. More accurately, gourmet coffee is a term used to describe coffee that tastes good. Or it could be used to market coffee that is not the best quality.

The top-rated coffees are coffees that pass the criteria set by organizations such as the Specialty Coffee American Association. Only sustainably-produced coffees can be top-rated. Workers at coffee farms must receive a minimum wage, and working conditions must be humane. Every step of the coffee production process focuses on quality rather than quantity. Top-rated coffee ranges from the carefully selected coffee bean to the flair with which your barista dials in your perfect cup of espresso.

  1. World Coffee Research Sensory Lexicon. (2017, October). Retrieved from
  2. Specialty Coffee Association. Certified Home Brewer Program. Retrieved from
  3. Specialty Coffee Association of America. U.S. Specialty Coffee Facts & Figures. Retrieved from

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