What is specialty coffee?

Tue 12th March 2019

With a world of difference between commercial and specialty coffee, Tim Sturk – Director of Operations at Servest FoodCo – calls on operators to always deliver on their menu

I started my journey in coffee in 2008. I was walking the streets of London with James Hoffmann, 2007 World Barista Champion. He was teaching me about specialty coffee. It was miles different from what the likes of Starbucks, Costa and Caffè Nero were putting out. Specialty coffee was served in smaller cups... for the same price as my 12oz or 16oz monster coffee from the branded chaps.

Specialty coffees (not ‘special coffees’ or gourmet coffees) had this thing on them called ‘latte art’, and to be honest, I was blown away that with just a few subtle movements of the milk jug, the baristas were making these coffees look... well, outstanding and delicious. Of course I wanted mine hotter but very quickly came to learn and eventually accept that yep, a lower temperature milky beverage did actually taste better. Damn. At that time specialty coffee accounted for less than 5% of the world’s production of green coffee. What and who defined what was different?

The most amazing experience of my newly embarked upon coffee career was served by this lovely chap in White Cross Market. He was serving something called a flat white, in a 6oz cup. It was only £1.50 and wasn’t it the best coffee I had ever had in my life? I went back to this coffee cart on a weekly basis for over a year and it never disappointed. In 2009, that guy wearing the flat cap became the 2009 World Barista Champion. His name was Gwilym Davies. The 2007, 2008 and 2009 World Barista Champions all had one thing in common: Square Mile Coffee, the pioneer of Specialty Coffee in London in my humble opinion. I accept that there have been other roasteries buying specialty grade coffee before Square Mile, but Square Mile drew a line in the sand and raised the bar for everyone and spoke directly to baristas. For that, I thank them.

We are back to what is ‘specialty coffee’ and who defined it? A remarkable pioneering woman named Erna Knutsen, who passed away in June of 2018 at the age of 96 is credited with coining the term ‘specialty coffee’.

Specialty Coffee is undefinable some might say. But I will define it in my own words: specialty coffee is not just about the stuff in your cup. It is about every step of the journey that brought it to you. Starting with the barista who served it; the shop owner who bought it from the roaster who bought green beans from the people who brought it to the uk, the people who unloaded the containers in Europe, the people who loaded it at the origin country, the captains of the ships who ensured its safe transport, the people who got it to the ports, the people who loaded the bags on to the trucks, the people who sorted the beans and picked out any defects before bagging it up, the people at the mill who managed the processing, the people who picked it, the people who pruned and preened the trees during the growing season and eventually to the people in the nursery five years before that who got the seedlings to bud. 

You get the idea I hope that there are many hands involved in this process and what makes specialty coffee special is that every hand involved is trying not to remove anything of the quality that is inherent in the growing coffee fruit. Specialty coffee is quantified by licensed Q(Arabica) and R(Robusta) Graders who are certified independently by the Coffee Quality Institute (CQI). For a green coffee to qualify as a specialty coffee it must score more than 80 points out of a 100-point scale. Anything below 80 points is considered commercial with varying grades from high quality to low quality.

If you understand the wine industry ratings you may be able to grasp this concept for coffee. A coffee that is classified as specialty will command a higher price for the grower and this is important. Specialty is not an accreditation, it is not Fair Trade, Rain Forest or Soil Association. Specialty grading is given to a coffee, not a farm. But to achieve a specialty grade the farm has to be doing things ‘right’.

In 2008 there were only a handful of coffee shops offering specialty coffee; in every sense of the phrase. Today there are over 500 specialty coffee shops in London alone, not to mention Edinburgh, Manchester, Newcastle, Birmingham, Bristol, Brighton, etc. There has been a 100-fold growth in coffee shops and roasteries. But interestingly there has not been a 100-fold growth in the specialty coffee green bean production and sales. By this model specialty coffee should account for upwards of 50% of world sales. But it doesn’t. It is hovering somewhere under 10%. This tells me that many of us have jumped onto the specialty coffee bandwagon: producing latte art flat whites, and charging accordingly. To be fair there has been an investment in training but not necessarily in the coffee itself. We are generally still buying commercial coffee, making it look like specialty and charging specialty prices for it! Our coffees do taste better but this is largely because our milk is better, it is textured and no longer volcano hot. I don’t think we can blame consumers, they believe us when we say our coffee is ‘specialty’, and they willingly hand over £2, £2.50, £3, £3.50 or more for the privilege. Surely we can be better than this?

Specialty coffee is not a pretty picture on top of a milky beverage. It is everyone in the supply chain doing their part to make life better for everyone in it. Businesses need to make money... but there is a difference between making money (building a long-term viable business) and taking money (filling the tills today with no concern for tomorrow). Making money is about the future of the coffee industry on every level.

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