January 3, 2024

The language of specialty coffee: Is it still relevant?


It was in 1974 that Erna Knutsen coined the term “specialty coffee” to describe more unique and higher-quality coffees grown in microclimates. And she changed the industry forever. 

Over the ensuing decades, we have come to define specialty coffee even more rigorously – largely using the Specialty Coffee Association’s 100-point quality scale.

Our definitions, however, are not just technical. More holistic terms like “sustainable”, “traceable”, “transparent”, and “direct trade” are ubiquitous with specialty coffee, yet it’s challenging to pinpoint what these terms actually mean in the wider context of the supply chain.

Additionally, it’s always important to remember how far the industry has come – as well as to question what the future holds – and ask if these terms are still as relevant and applicable today as they were several years ago.

To find out, I spoke to Tony Dreyfuss, co-founder and co-president of Metropolis Coffee, Rohan Kuriyan, a producer at Balanoor Plantations, and Wendelien van Bunnik-Verver, founder of the Happy Coffee Network.

You may also like our article exploring the language of specialty coffee.

Farm workers harvest coffee on a coffee farm.

Technical vs holistic definitions of specialty coffee

There is a language of specialty coffee that many of us easily recognise. Terms like “third wave”, “craft”, “artisan”, and “single origin” resonate with coffee consumers around the world.

Some of these terms, however, are becoming less and less relevant. For example, “craft” and “artisan” – which we associate with a more hands-on approach – are arguably less applicable when automation is playing such a prevalent role in the industry

But to objectively define specialty coffee, the majority of industry professionals use the Specialty Coffee Association’s 100-point scale. Once cupped, if a coffee scores 80 points or above, it is classified as specialty grade. 

There are also varying degrees of quality between 80 and 100 points:

  • Coffee which scores 80 to 84.99 is “Very good”
  • Scores of 85 to 89.99 are considered “Excellent”
  • Coffee scoring from 90 to 100 points are graded “Outstanding”

The number of defects is also important when objectively defining specialty coffee. Within a 350g sample of green coffee, there must be no more than five defects.

Wendelien van Bunnik-Verver is the 2019 World AeroPress Champion, a Dutch Barista Champion, and an authorised SCA trainer. She explains that although cup scores are important, they aren’t always an indicator of whether a coffee is objectively “good” or “bad”.

“I have worked at a roastery for ten years and we didn’t buy coffee based on cup scores alone,” she says. “We sometimes bought coffees that were less than 80 points, and I tasted so many amazing coffees that weren’t specialty grade. 

“Not crossing the 80-point threshold doesn’t make a coffee bad or inferior,” she adds. “It won’t be specialty, but it can still be good coffee.”

The increasing role of sustainability in defining specialty coffee

Over the past few years, sustainability, traceability, and transparency have all become increasingly important for specialty coffee consumers. In turn, these terms have helped to redefine specialty coffee in more broader ways – and are very much still relevant today.

While we can easily define these terms on their own, their relationship to specialty coffee can be less straightforward.

Tony Dreyfuss is the co-founder and co-president of Metropolis Coffee – a roaster in Chicago, Illinois, US.

“A lot of factors go into sustainability,” he tells me. “There is economic sustainability for both producers and the overall market, as well as ecological sustainability in terms of minimising harm to the land, environment, natural resources, and people.

“For a coffee to be specialty grade, it is extremely important for it to be produced sustainably,” he adds.

Social sustainability is also key. With more consumers (especially younger generations) choosing to buy from socially responsible brands, supply chain actors and stakeholders are looking for more ways to benefit the industry as a whole. These can vary from encouraging waste reduction in coffee shops to improving access to clean water in producing communities, for example.

Rohan Kuriyan is a coffee producer at Balanoor Plantations in India, which focuses heavily on sustainability.

“For producers, specialty coffee comes full circle – including looking after our staff and workers, the environment, our entire farm ecosystem, and the coffee we harvest,” he says. “All these intricacies and factors put together help define specialty coffee, in my opinion.

“Without sustainability, it would be nearly impossible for us to survive,” he adds. “Being economically sustainable through practices like multi-cropping and implementing new farming methods are indispensable for the future.”

A barista explains the definition of specialty coffee to a customer.

The push to make specialty coffee more inclusive, approachable, and accessible

As part of its marketing and branding, specialty coffee is inherently quite exclusive, and therefore comes with a higher price tag. In an effort to scale the market, however, there has been a push to make specialty coffee more accessible and approachable.

With entry barriers like price, equipment, and knowledge, it’s more than understandable that specialty coffee isn’t affordable for many people. Moreover, the sometimes judgemental mentality of the sector – such as attitudes towards dark roasts and adding milk and sugar to filter coffee – means some consumers may not feel that specialty coffee is for them.

“Coffee needs to be simplified – you don’t need to be an expert to experience and understand good coffee,” Rohan says. “Consumers can just focus on their experience without having to undergo thorough, in-depth education about coffee. We want everyone to get a taste of specialty coffee that producers work so hard to grow.”

Ultimately, making specialty coffee more inclusive would be, in a way, an attempt to change its definition. Because it’s marketed as a premium product – which is also an important part of the industry’s ethos and values, especially with paying producers fairly – specialty coffee will always remain somewhat exclusionary. 

Democratising and simplifying specialty coffee, however, is becoming increasingly relevant to ensuring the market continues to grow.

“Specialty is just a grade of coffee, it shouldn’t define who can consume it,” Tony tells me. “Having a mark or a symbol on packaging to indicate that it’s specialty coffee could be helpful, not just in educating consumers but also to enable more people to purchase and enjoy a good cup of coffee.

“That way, customers can see the mark on the bag and know that the beans they’re buying have been produced sustainably, are excellent quality, and are certified specialty grade,” he adds.

A coffee professional attempts to create a specialty coffee definition in a cupping lab.

So what might the future hold?

The specialty coffee industry is ever-evolving, so ensuring the language we use to describe it stays relevant is important. In fact, even objective definitions seem to be broadening and changing to become less rigid.

In its 2021 white paper entitled Towards a Definition of Specialty Coffee: Building an Understanding Based on Attributes, the SCA explored a new framework of how to define specialty coffee:

“We can conceive the specialty-commodity relationship not as a duality but as a continuum, with coffees becoming more special as they exhibit more distinctive attributes,” the paper states. “Through this lens, it is easier to identify specialty coffee by simply assessing its attributes – both intrinsic (absence of defects, flavour attributes, bean size, etc.) and extrinsic (origin, producer, agricultural style, etc.).

“This framework makes obvious the importance of traceability and transparency since these programmes make more extrinsic attributes a part of the product,” it continues. “An untraceable coffee must be evaluated on its intrinsic attributes alone, whereas a transparently traceable coffee may have dozens of extrinsic attributes on top of the intrinsic ones, potentially making the coffee much more valuable in the marketplace.”

In April 2023, we then saw this new framework put into practice as the SCA officially launched its Coffee Value Assessment. Essentially, the new system reduces the intersubjectivity of cupping and allows industry professionals to gather much more information about a specific coffee.

Interestingly, alongside assessing its physical, affective (the cupper’s personal opinion on coffee quality based on the 100-point scale), and descriptive characteristics, cupping scores can also be based on extrinsic factors. These include “identity”, certification, and origin – so sustainability and traceability could become increasingly relevant to how we define specialty coffee.

Creating broader definitions – but not too broad

It’s evident that the industry is changing the definition of specialty coffee to become more inclusive and far reaching. But we still need to keep in mind that objective definitions are essential, too.

“The definition of specialty coffee must broaden to include sustainability, but also remain narrow enough that we’re not defining a ‘feeling’,” Tony explains. “It also needs to expand to include the terms and attributes that come with newer and more innovative processing methods.”

Wendelien, meanwhile, believes that opening up specialty coffee to more people will further help to define it.

“The power of making an impact lies with the masses,” she concludes. “The more we educate people about specialty coffee, the more they become aware of what went into producing it and what it’s worth.”

A farm worker harvests specialty coffee cherries in India.

To progress and build a thriving coffee industry for the future, we need to continuously clarify and refine what we mean when we say “specialty”.

The definition must signify the efforts of everyone in the value chain, and only then will be truly relevant. But one thing is for sure: the term “specialty coffee” has evolved significantly over the past few decades – and it may have even further to go.

Enjoyed this? Then read our article on if we need to redefine specialty coffee.

Photo credits: Balanoor Plantations

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