What is Specialty Coffee?

It all starts with a coffee tree that bears fruit or “cherries” approximately twice a year. Coffee beans are the actual seeds inside the ripe (red) “cherries.”

Specialty-grade coffee differentiates itself from commercial grade in the following areas:

Species: There are two primary species of coffee, Arabica and Robusta. All specialty grade comes from the top 10% of Arabica, whereas, most commercial-grade coffee comes from Robusta and lower grade Arabica.

Location/Altitude: Specialty coffee is grown at high altitudes 2000-6000 feet, above sea level, and flourishes in an equatorial climate--abundant rainfall, sun and mild frost-free temperatures. Commercial-grade (Robusta) coffee is grown at low altitudes.

Labor/Handling: Specialty coffee is hand-picked on mountain terraces and laboriously sorted by size and appearance for grading. Commercial grades are mass produced and mechanically harvested with less stringent screening methods.

Flavor: Arabica trees produce a more delicate, flavorful coffee. Specialty coffees, like wine grapes, derive their flavor from the soil conditions, micro-climate and preparation methods of their region.

Each region has distinctive characteristics:

Central and South American coffees are generally light to medium bodied with lively, effervescent qualities (also known as palate acidity). The volcano regions of Guatemala, Costa Rica, and Panama produce coffee that has spicy, chocolatey, and complex flavors.

African coffees combine the sparkling acidity of the best Central Americans with aromatic, floral and winy (berry-like) notes.

Indonesian coffees are at the opposite end of the scale from Latin coffees. They are usually full-bodied (mouth-feel, weight of the coffee) and smooth with low acidity, possessing an appealing earthy and nutty quality.

Production values are critical to quality

Processing must take place to remove the coffee beans inside the cherry after harvesting. The method chosen (wet, dry, semi-dry) and the care taken during the milling and screening process will influence quality and flavor. Wet-processed coffees tend to have a cleaner flavor, while dry-processed coffees exhibit a heavier body.

Wet Process

A machine (depulper) breaks away the cherries' outer skins, removing most of the pulp. To loosen the remaining sticky coating called mucilage, the beans are placed in large water tanks to ferment for 24 hours. They are then thoroughly washed and left to dry on patios in the sun for 1-3 days and/or machine-dried. After the beans have rested, for a few months (6-10 weeks), a hulling machine removes the final layer of “parchment” skin surrounding the bean.

Dry Process (a.k.a. “natural” process)

In this method, the ripe cherries partially dry while on the tree, then they are picked and spread out in the sun on patios to dry while still intact for another 2-3 weeks. Finally, the dried cherries, with the beans inside, are put through hulling machines to remove the dried pulp, and parchment skin.

Semi-dry (a.k.a. pulped natural)

This method is hybrid of the wet and dry process. The cherry fruits' outer skins are removed with most of the mucilage left intact around the beans. The coffee is then patio-dried until desired moisture levels are achieved. Finally, it is dry-milled to remove any remaining dried pulp and parchment skin.

Still have questions about coffee, roasting, regions, or another coffee related topic? Ask Brooke!