Have you ever picked up a bag of coffee beans, only to be thoroughly confused by the terminology used on the packaging? There are so many bewildering terms in the coffee industry, from “varietal” to “total dissolved solids” and everything in between. It’s no wonder customers are perplexed!
The most confusing coffee terms, however, are those referring to gourmet, premium, and specialty coffee.
Don’t those all phrases mean the same thing?
Nope! Not at all.
Gourmet coffee, premium coffee, and specialty coffee are three distinct classifications of coffee quality. And we’re here to show you the difference.
The Official Way Coffee Quality Is Measured
Most people have no idea there’s an official process for measuring coffee quality. Experts train for years to be able to “grade” coffee beans before they’re ever purchased by the coffee roaster.
And when you know how this quality grading system works, you can more easily spot lower-quality coffee (and avoid a few disappointing mornings).
First, coffee quality is measured by analyzing the green coffee bean. After the cherry is picked from the plant, it goes through a depulping and drying process to produce what is known as “green coffee”. It’s then graded using the Specialty Coffee Association’s Classification System.
This system grades green coffee on a scale of 1-10, with Grade 1 being the top score, by identifying potential defects. Green coffee is also screened for size consistency before it is exported.
Green coffee defects are categorized into primary and secondary defects. Primary defects can include overly fermented beans known as full sours and large stones mixed into the green coffee, while secondary defects include items such as insect damage.
Additionally, green coffee quality is measured by the moisture content still retained within the bean. Too much or too little moisture will affect the roasting process.
Once the green coffee has been graded, it is roasted and assessed again using a process called cupping. Coffees receive a grade from 0-100 from a certified Q-grader who evaluates the coffee on the following attributes:
The scores from these two grading processes determine a coffee’s quality.
It is important to note that while the roasting and brewing processes do change a coffee’s flavor attributes, it does not define the graded quality of a coffee.
Specialty Coffee: Top-Tier, High-Quality Coffee
In the coffee industry, the term “specialty coffee” is used to describe coffee which receives a Grade One green grading score and a cupping score of 80+.
Grade One green coffee has no primary defects and 0-3 full (secondary) defects. In cupping, the coffee must be free of faults and taints, with zero quakers (unripened beans) allowed. Additionally, the moisture content must be between 9-13%.
80+ point coffees exhibit flavorful traits with complementary or pleasant attributes such as a silky mouthfeel or vibrant acidity. The specific scores and flavor notes of each coffee will vary depending on the roast and region.
As a result of this high standard, specialty coffee is never bought or traded on the commodity market (C-Market). The C-Market has historically paid farmers unfair and unsustainably low wages. In the past year alone, green coffee traded below $1/lb, which means most farmers didn't make a profit last season.
We’re not about that!
Instead, to ensure farmers can continue to produce such high-quality coffee, we pay a premium price for specialty green coffee.We also examine each farm’s practices to make sure they’re sticking to quality processing, storage, and picking standards.
You can read more about our impact and sustainability standards here.
All in all, when you purchase specialty coffee beans such as ours, you can have confidence knowing you’re buying the best of the best.
Premium Coffee: Slightly Below the Best
By definition, premium coffee beans are those which receive a Grade Two in green grading. They have the same standards as specialty coffee beans except have a maximum of 3 quakers and 0-8 full defects.
Premium coffee beans are allowed to contain defects that have a slightly negative impact on the coffee’s flavor. Premium coffee usually receives a cupping score ranging between 70-79.
Does this mean premium coffee is bad? Not necessarily.
Premium coffee, when roasted by a master roaster, can still be delicious. But if given the choice, we suggest you stick with specialty—because your mornings are worth it.
Gourmet Coffee: Just Another Buzzword
If specialty coffee and premium coffee are graded on an industry-wide system and held to such high standards, gourmet coffee must be the same way, right?
The phrase “gourmet coffee” is 100% a marketing term. It has no objective meaning when it comes to coffee quality.
It is generally used when the company cannot officially say "specialty" or "premium" (in other words, lower-grade beans).
Historically, the term gourmet referred to a culinary connoisseur. Today, the term is used to say that a particular food or beverage took time and skill to create. You can find “gourmet” foods all over a grocery store, from pasta to soda and everything in between.
For coffee, however, it’s completely up to interpretation. Typically, gourmet coffee ends up being lower quality coffee sold by larger chains or used as part of a lower-grade coffee blend.
If you notice a roaster labeling their coffee beans as gourmet, do a bit of research into their roasting and sourcing practices before buying.
What Else to Look for When Buying Coffee Beans
Now that you understand the difference between specialty, premium, and gourmet coffee beans, there are a few more factors you should consider when shopping for coffee.
While the term “sustainable coffee” may conjure up thoughts of organic farming practices, it goes far deeper than that in the specialty coffee industry.
Sustainable coffee also refers to:
Are the farmers using techniques, equipment, and processes that are beneficial to the growth and distribution of specialty coffee? The specialty coffee industry places a strong emphasis on using farming practices that do not harm the environment, the coffee plant, or the farm employees.
Are farmers being paid a fair or above average cost for their green coffee? Specialty coffee roasters and green coffee buyers should seek to pay a premium for high-quality coffee produced sustainably and ethically.
Is the roaster packaging their beans in materials that are harmful to the environment? Today, coffee companies have a wide selection of sustainable packaging choices to store and ship their coffee beans in.
As the demand for coffee continues to increase around the world, the need for sustainable farming, roasting, and labor practices is critical.
Coffee Sourcing Processes
Specialty coffee roasters order green coffee through a supplier known as an importer. The importer acts as a middle man and coordinates with the farmer, exporter, and transportation companies to sell and ship green coffee to roasters.
Some coffee companies prefer to have direct relationships with farmers in coffee-producing countries. This is known as direct trade. This method of coffee sourcing allows the coffee roaster or company to work in tandem with the farmer to produce higher quality coffee year after year.
If you purchase coffee labeled as direct trade, inquire about the roaster’s relationship with the producer or farm.
Coffee farmers and companies can obtain a myriad of different certifications such as:
- Fair Trade
- Certified Organic
- Rainforest Alliance
It is important to know, however, that many of these certifications are not related to the actual quality of the coffee bean. Instead, they focus on labor practices, wage transparency, environmental issues, and other areas of global coffee concern.
While the certifications may not focus on quality, they work to help the coffee industry succeed and continue to reach new heights. If a particular certification is important to you, seek out roasters or coffee beans that have met the standards of that certification.
Brew What You Love
After everything that happens behind the scenes to bring you top quality coffee, it all comes down to what’s in the cup. Ultimately, you should brew what you love—whether that’s a nutty medium roast blend or a citrusy single origin light roast from Kenya.
Coffee is often the highlight of our day. So why not start by brewing the best quality beans available?
Specialty coffee boasts a variety of exciting flavors and attributes. Plus, the many quality control, certifications, and practices involved in producing specialty coffee work toward a better and more sustainable industry for all. That’s why we love to share specialty grade coffee with our JavaPresse Coffee Club members.
We source our coffee from award-winning sustainable farms and roast with exceptional attention-to-detail, working to highlight the natural flavors within each bean. Just two hours later, our coffee is shipped off to you, sealing in those fresh flavors for your next cup.
Ready to see what specialty coffee is all about? Try out the JavaPresse Coffee Club!