What Makes Specialty Coffee Special?

Posted on April 05 2022, By: Ana Ocansey

a cup with whole bean, a cup with ground coffee, a cup with brewed coffee

 What makes specialty coffee, well....special? I am often asked this very question. It is a great question!  

Commercial vs Specialty Coffee 

Large coffee farm


There are two basic categories for coffee (I know I am being very general here). There is commercial coffee and there is specialty coffee. Commercial coffee is grown on huge coffee farms where large machines are used to harvest the crops. Specialty coffee is grown on much smaller lots, micro lots even, and is harvested by hand to make sure the fruit is free of defects. The harvest is the first step in the selection process. 

Hand picking coffee cherries

Specialty coffee is grown at select high altitudes where most vehicles or machines cannot climb. The air is the cleanest there and helps produce better fruit.  



Commercial coffee is normally roasted and packed in large plants and sold in national grocery stores and brands. Specialty coffee is usually roasted in small stores or factories, using traditional methods and technology. Specialty coffee is stored and delivered as whole beans, to be ground at home, or just before brewing. 

Small batch roasting 


The Specialty Coffee Association (SCA) defines specialty coffee as having flavor scores of 80 or more out of 100 on a standard score sheet by a panel of Q Graders. A Q Grader is an expert coffee taster, as certified by the Coffee Quality Institute (CQI), a non-profit that partners with the SCA to create tasting standards. This means that the coffee must be able to pass aspect grading, uniformity, size and color of the coffee beans are analyzed. The coffee also undergoes standard cupping tests for taste. A Q Grader is basically the wine sommelier equivalent to the coffee industry; they are licensed professionals who are capable of scoring the quality of roasted coffees.  

Sample coffee tasting

The difference between commercial coffee and specialty in taste is quite obvious. Commercial coffee tends to need sugar and milk to mask the over-roasting that results from the large vats and the staleness that comes from a rather long shelf-life. Specialty coffee can be taken with no sugar or milk so that you can taste the flavor notes and experience the clean cup that comes from the generations of families perfecting its cultivation, harvest and processing. 

Professional coffee cupping


Why is the price of specialty coffee more than that of commercial coffee? The price is higher due to various reasons. The production costs that come along with working with smaller farms are higher as they cannot scale their operations as big businesses do. The cost of importing smaller shipments into the US are also higher because smaller farms do not have the bulk shipments to negotiate with. There are also higher costs for thoughtful packaging and roasting. All around the supply chain, specialty coffee is priced higher. The results, however, are AMAZING! You can taste the quality of specialty coffee in your brewed cup. 

Cup of specialty coffee

Next time you come across a bag of specialty coffee, know that a lot of knowledge, care, and work went into it. 

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