What is Specialty Coffee?
Specialty coffee is coffee taken to a higher level of standards. While typically referred to as any coffee of single origin, what it really ends up being is any coffee with a Q-Grader score above 80 on a 1 - 100 point scale but that is only part of the equation. Sustainably sourced by the most well equipped farms run by people fueled by a passion for coffee. With micro lots maintained with tender love and care at high elevation ensuring flavor complexity at the time of roasting. Out of all the different varieties of coffee around the world only a few fail to reach specialty-grade upon evaluation.
Varietals come in different shapes, sizes and colors. Some are genetically created in a lab by hybridism. Each varietal has its own flavor profile and physical characteristics. Some are even born out of evolutionary demand to stand up to drastic environmental changes. The more rare varieties are harder to grow, maintain and cultivate.
Before we move onto the next point, there’s something we need you to understand and it's a pill that’s hard to swallow. That pill is that the specialty coffee industry, in its current state, is an unfair industry. Smallholder farms are mostly held onto by tradition with a strong cultural background serving as a foundation that fuels their passion for coffee. Now, as bleak a truth as it might seem there are roasters, green buyers, coffee shops; people that care for this industry and seek to level the plainfield. To make the specialty coffee industry a more sustainable industry in every sense of the word.
Now that we've clarified the state of the industry along with those stuck with the short end of the straw we can move onto the various factors that lead the decision making on what process the coffee will go through before roasting.
After being picked and sorted coffee could go down different routes of processing, each one producing different results. The end goal is to remove the various layers of mucilage from the fruit to get to the bean. The three most common methods of processing are:
- Natural Process
- The oldest of the methods and born in Ethiopia. With an average of 3 - 5 weeks worth of processing, cherries are picked at peak ripeness and allowed to dry around the bean on raised beds for better airflow to better control drying and fermentation. Typically they are sheltered due to unpredictable climate changes and are closely monitored under sunlight. While it produces the most flavorful results it is mostly trial and error which might not be the most cost-effective method for low income smallholder farms.
- Honey Process
- Wrapped in marketing jargon, the honey process (otherwise referred to as the pulped natural process) does not actually involve honey in any way. Instead what they actually end up doing is removing the outermost layer of the coffee cherry thereby exposing the underlying layers of mucilage, encouraging fermentation and speeding up the drying process. The downside to this method is that, without labor intensive monitoring and care, the cherries might spoil. They mostly rely on color indicators to keep track of the fermentation process. This process usually lasts anywhere from one week to ten days.
- Washed Process
- The majority of coffee consumed nowadays is coffee that has gone through the washed process or “wet” process as others have come to know it as. The first step in this process is to de-pulp the cherry and expose the mucilage much like in the honey process. The biggest difference here is that it is then thoroughly soaked and agitated in baths to further remove the following layers of mucilage. The water ends up being the main catalyst for the fermentation process. Afterwards they spend time drying on raised beds anywhere from 3-5 days before roasting.
As you may have noticed by now there's been a lot of talk about fermentation. As unappealing it might sound it does play a huge role in processing but for the time being we'll save that for our upcoming article going into detail on exactly how it affects coffee in the process.
On to Roasting
After having gone through its respective process, green coffee then spends up to one year in storage as it can’t be roasted altogether. A healthy rotation of stock is practiced to maintain freshness before and after roasting. It then spends approximately 16 - 20 minutes in a roasting machine with a controlled temperature curve so that the coffee can expand and develop physically and flavor-wise.
And last, but certainly not least, there's you…
The people that bring it all together and whose support keeps us afloat. The people that enjoy making and drinking a delicious cup of well-made specialty coffee.