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What Makes Specialty Coffee Special?
Written by: Raj Jana
Coffee businesses of a new caliber are popping up all over the world. Unfortunately, these businesses are often misunderstood. We don’t want to leave you in the dark, so we are going to expose what many don’t understand about this new wave of coffee.
Allow me to introduce you to the grand world of Specialty Coffee.
Older than average baristas, funny coffee farm names, latte art, manual coffee brewing, and tiny espresso drinks are the things we see in the specialty coffee movement, but the roots go much deeper. To truly explain what makes specialty coffee so special, I’ll need this entire blog post. For now, let’s begin here:
Specialty coffee is an approach to coffee that is fueled by globally conscious ethics, a rich appreciation for quality and diversity, and a thriving community that spans the globe.
Manual coffee brewing and single origin coffees aren’t the meat of this vibrant movement - they are the symptoms. Dive deep with me into the values, missions, and mindsets of this new wave. I’m eager to introduce you to the future of coffee.
Specialty Coffee Is Globally Conscious
The ethical compass of the specialty coffee industry is far more tuned in than the wider coffee industry of the last five hundred years.
Coffee’s history is a bleak one. Most coffee producing countries haven’t seen fair wages for their workers until the last few decades. Slavery, manipulated poverty, and violent occupation are just some of the ways that oppressive powers have taken advantage of struggling farming communities.
While the worst of coffee’s moral problems are probably over, the effects are still being felt. The poverty of coffee producers continues to this day as coffee prices fail to rise with the cost of living.
Younger farmers are leaving the farms in search of work elsewhere. The ones that don’t leave are often stuck, due to a lack of education or savings. Some countries, such as Bolivia, are seeing their farmers burn their coffee fields to plant opium, which is no longer illegal to produce there.
Environmental factors are also playing into the world’s coffee production like never before. Rising temperatures cause farmers to plant further up the mountains, but there’s less space to go around the higher up you farm.
The state of the coffee world is dire, but there’s never been such a concentrated push to aid impoverished farmers by offering higher prices for coffee and programs to develop the surrounding communities.
You may not have known your favorite morning beverage has such a dark history. Neither did we, but now that we do, can we do something about it?
Hope Through Relationships And Standards
A few systems have launched over the last fifteen years that have aimed at bringing hope and sustainability to farmers around the world. You’ve probably already participated in these efforts, maybe even without realizing it!
The Fair Trade Certification recognizes coffee buyers and farms that pay a fair price for coffee beans and labor. This organization has been a force for good in developing countries for over a decade, and the results are pouring in. Children with access to health care, women who are paid for their work, and farms who are able to provide education to their workers’ children.
If you’ve bought Fair Trade coffee, you’ve helped the organization enrich hundreds or thousands of lives in coffee producing countries.
Many coffee roasters in the specialty realm are taking a new approach to coffee sourcing. Rather than buying Fair Trade coffees from an importer, exporter, or some other middleman, they go to the farms and do business directly. This method is widely known as Direct Trade (DT).
There’s no official certification for Direct Trade coffee, so the method varies from buyer to buyer, but there are a few key things always at play:
- DT encourages relationships, rather than mere transactions
- DT cuts middlemen to provide higher wages for farms
- DT allows roasters to experience a farm (practices, quality, sustainability) before purchasing any coffee
These pieces of Direct Trade from a sourcing model that inspires cooperation between farmers and roasters. This encourages a high-quality product, which results in a higher price, which results in a better life for the local community.
Medical stations, education, fair wages, more sustainable coffee growing practices, and fresh water wells are some of the ways roasters and farms work together to provide hope to the coffee producing communities.
One of specialty coffee’s most iconic American brands, Intelligentsia Coffee & Tea, has set a high bar for sustainable sourcing. At the very least, they guarantee to pay 25% higher than the Fair Trade price for the coffees they buy, which is more than enough to completely alter the spirit of the communities they work with.
This combined effort is raising the bar for coffee quality and sustainability. If you regularly buy coffee from roasters that befriend and care for the farmers they work with, you are playing a small role in transforming the global coffee industry. Thank you!
Cooperation, Not Colonialism
This is one of the key aspects of the specialty coffee movement: Coffee producers are people who have innate value, who deserve to be paid fairly for their work, who deserve to be able to provide for their families, who are worthy of a relationship.
Without farmers, we wouldn’t have coffee. That’s really bad, but it gets even worse. Without coffee, hundreds of millions of people around the world would be without a means to provide for themselves. That is something we cannot allow.
Be careful, it’s easy to misunderstand the world right here.
We do not give poor farmers a better life. Paying a higher price doesn’t make us the ones who defeat poverty or raise quality of life for the impoverished. It’s only by genuine relationships and equal cooperation that progress can be made, no matter the price per pound.
We play a role in helping coffee producers provide for their families and improve their communities, but we are not colonial saviors. We empower them with financial resources and friendly support, but they are the ones who transform their world. It’s a two-way street - always.
Falling into the trap of believing it’s our purpose to change their world will only create disharmony and tension. Working together to achieve a common goal? That’s what we’re after.
Specialty Coffee Is Quality Driven
My first encounter with specialty coffee included a barista weighing coffee beans on a scale, grinding them, pouring them into a weird cone thing, and then pouring water over them with a very particular technique.
I thought it looked like a massive waste of time. It wasn’t six months before I was doing it myself.
The experience I had with that first cup of specialty coffee blew me away. It didn’t take more than one sip to realize that the effort that barista had put into my cup of coffee was absolutely worth it. The flavors were rich: crisp green apple, dark chocolate, very sweet. It was unlike any coffee I had ever tasted before!
I’m willing to bet you have had a similar eye-opening experience.
Specialty Coffee Brews Differently
Specialty coffee is quality driven unlike any other coffee movement in the history of the world. The most obvious difference between specialty coffee shops and shops outside our segment are the coffee brewing methods.
Have you ever had a coffee that blew you away with its flavor? Have you ever had a cappuccino with rich, creamy milk and a five-tier tulip decorating the top? Have you ever had cold brew that was refreshing and uplifting? These are some of the ways that specialty coffee has driven the craft of coffee brewing forward.
We achieve these quality leaps using tools that most would consider unnecessary. Kettles with gooseneck spouts give us incredible precision while we make pour over coffee. Timers enable us to brew coffee with consistency. Manual methods allow us to make the same coffee eight different ways, which result in slight flavor and body variations.
Next time you see your barista spending three or four minutes making one cup of coffee, remember the Folgers days. We’ve come a long way, but only because we’ve been willing to go the extra mile for our coffee.
Specialty Coffee Sources Differently
Roasters that are a part of the specialty coffee industry are known for participating in Direct Trade sourcing. By going to the farms themselves and making deals directly, they are able to secure better wages for the farmers and can build long-term relationships.
Another benefit to this model is that roasters can pick and choose the best coffees from farms that they work with, rather than reading about them from a catalog. This benefits the roasters and, over time, the farmers as well.
Here’s how the mutual benefit often plays out.
If you were a coffee farmer and a reputable roaster came to your farm and wanted to buy the best 30% of your coffee crop at a premium price, you would gladly sell it and give the rest to an exporter to sell for a very small profit. You don’t want to just sell 30% at a premium price - you want to sell 100%. So, the next year you work hard to improve your practices so that when the roaster comes back, he wants to buy 50% (or more) of your crop at that high price.
Over time, coffee quality goes up and up, as well as the price per pound. Roasters sell better products, farmers make more money, and the local communities benefit by the higher quality coffee of the farm and the long-term relationship being established.
Without any incentive to raise quality (Fair Trade encourages somewhat higher pay, but not a higher quality crop), farmers are less likely to experiment and implement new practices that could be better for the community. This gets some farmers trapped in a cycle where they make enough to make ends meet, but not enough to move beyond their current level of quality.
The Direct Trade model raises the bar for coffee quality, is more sustainable in the long run, and makes for happy coffee drinkers. These genuine relationships are what will keep coffee alive.
Specialty Coffee Roasts Differently
Coffee roasters in the specialty coffee industry don’t follow the same formulas that have plagued the coffee world for centuries.
Traditional coffee roasters often burn their beans to a crisp. That ashy, carbony, smoky flavor you taste in most of your coffee isn’t meant to be there. In fact, those flavors cover up the delicious ones!
Green coffee quality was once not where it is today (just a few decades ago). To cover up bad flavors, roasters would roast their coffee beans until they were a dark brown or black color and tasted bitter and ashy. It was an understandable practice, because it rounded out bad flavors into a uniform, predictable flavor, but things are different now.
Coffee today can have subtle flavors like blueberries, milk chocolate, honey, mangoes, star anise, cane sugar, and beyond. The diversity in flavor continues to grow as roasters learn more and more about how to bring out the best flavors in their coffee.
By roasting lighter than many in the past have dared, specialty roasters are able to unlock and bring out the unique flavors that reflect the coffee’s origin. Soil type, humidity, plant health, and a variety of other variables determine a coffee’s flavor.
If these variables are taken care of at the farm level, there’s no reason not try to find the rich flavors and aromas inside the coffee by roasting at a light or medium level. These are meant to be experienced, not burned away with a dark roast.
The roaster plays a major role in developing a balanced and rich flavor profile of a coffee in the specialty coffee world.
Specialty Coffee Sells Differently
We in the specialty coffee community aren’t interested in tricking you for a dollar, but that’s been the way of the game for centuries.
The world is more aware than it used to be, especially when it comes to greedy advertising and questionable sourcing. Coffee is no different.
Those instances of slavery in coffee’s history were relatively unknown, due to deceptive marketing and a lack of transparency. Now, we have the internet. If a coffee company buys coffee at an unfair price and takes advantages of impoverished communities, we can find out about it.
We care about the less fortunate, and so do our customers. We want to see the world become a more peaceful and productive place. If poverty manipulation is used to buy coffee at a very low price, we won’t stand for it. If beans are being marketed as something they’re not, we won’t buy them.
Transparency is the name of the game in the specialty coffee industry.
We want you to know where your coffee comes from. We want you to know the names of the farmers we work with. We want you to see pictures, hear stories, taste their hard work. We want to connect you with origin in a way that has never been done before.
This keeps everyone accountable, increases compassion in a mystical way, and makes the world a better place. This is one of the ways specialty coffee is changing the world for the better.
Specialty Coffee Is Passionate And Connected
The specialty coffee industry is more connected than any other coffee industry segment in the world. We cooperate, we share ‘industry secrets’, we lift each other up. We do this because the future of coffee, and the millions that rely on coffee production, depend on it.
Even you, a home brewer, can participate in this connected effort. When you buy coffee and gear from businesses that share our vision, you jump on the specialty coffee mission and contribute towards a larger goal.
January 1st, 2017 was a big day for the world’s coffee industry. It was the day that the Specialty Coffee Association of America and the European equivalent merged to form a single entity: The Specialty Coffee Association.
One of the biggest benefits from this merger is the ability to raise the standards for sustainability around the world. Separated, the two organizations did a great job. Merged on every level, they will be a much stronger force.
We are proud of our willingness to cooperate and come together for a common purpose.
You may think this sounds crazy, but we have coffee competitions. Yes. Competitions around coffee.
And they’re awesome.
The prime competition, The Barista Cup, involves a rigorous routine where a barista prepares 3 drinks for 4 judges in 15 minutes or less. The barista is talking about their coffee the entire time. Every misplaced drop of water, every technical mistake is a point penalty.
Thousands compete for glory and thrill every year around the world and the national winners get to travel to North America or Europe to compete in the World Barista Competition.
There’s also the Brewers Cup, Roasters Cup, and some smaller events, such as the Turkish Coffee Competition and Coffee Cocktails Competition.
These events are massive and a lot of fun. They display the friendliness and warmth of our industry and give outsiders a clear view into our values and mission: stellar coffee, sustainable sourcing, and empowerment for all.
Ultimately, It’s The People
I hope you’re seeing a common theme.
Coffee matters to us. Crafting experiences matters to us. Perfecting our craft matters to us.
But most importantly, the people who drink our coffee, use our gadgets and grow our beans matter the most. It’s the people! It’s all about the people!
The people who grow our coffee face economic trials of many kinds, which bleed into the health of families and communities. We care about coffee because we care about these people.
The people who roast our coffee consider their craft to be an art and a science. They unlock the flavor treasures that the growers nurture. We care about coffee because we care about these people.
The people who brew our coffee do so with passion, diligence, and hospitality. They work on their feet for low pay because they care about their craft and customers. We care about coffee because we care about these people.
The people who drink our coffee are the people who complete the circle. You! You drive the entire chain. You enable farmers to be paid, along with everyone in between. You are the friendly, fun customers we love to serve. We care about coffee because we care about you.
Specialty coffee is so special because it values sustainability, quality, cooperation, and most importantly, people.
Thank you for joining us on this wild journey to transform the coffee industry, from the humble farmer to the warm barista.
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Chief Brewing Officer
JavaPresse Coffee Company