How to Know if You’re Drinking Specialty Coffee

coffee cherries
May 4, 2023 Abby Phillips

How to Know if You’re Drinking Specialty Coffee

If you’re a coffee drinker, you’ve likely encountered the term “specialty coffee” at some point. Specialty coffee is high-quality graded coffee, in its essence. Who doesn’t want quality coffee? But what does it actually mean, specialty coffee? How do you know if you’re drinking specialty coffee? With years of expertise and a wide selection of our own ethically-sourced specialty coffee, Baba Java is here to answer all your questions!

What is specialty coffee?

Defining what specialty coffee truly is can be tricky. The term was first coined in 1974 by a woman named Erna Knutsen—a pioneer in the coffee industry. Known as the grandmother of specialty coffee, she was an inspiration from the beginning, capitulating what we now know as specialty coffee. When green (unroasted), specialty coffee should be devoid of primary defects with no quakers, properly sized and dried, and must have distinctive attributes with no faults or taints present in the final cup, according to the former executive director of the Specialty Coffee Association

Specialty coffee scores 80 or above on a 100-point grading scale. What does that mean? Trained and certified coffee tasters, known as Q Graders, use a standardized score sheet to grade coffees and determine if they are specialty coffee. There should be noticeable quality in how the coffee was sourced, roasted, and cupped. More of that to come…

Luckily, you don’t have to be a coffee expert to know if you’re drinking specialty coffee. There are simple measures to easily identify specialty coffee! Here are six ways to evaluate the quality of your next cup of coffee.

1. Coffee Scoring / Grading 

All coffee is evaluated regarding defects, moisture content, and cupping flavor notes. These factors help to define “commodity coffee” and “specialty coffee.” Quality standards and quality control are central to specialty coffee, in addition to the ethical practices from the farm to the cup. 

Coffee is scored through a specific grading and cupping protocol. As mentioned previously, Q Graders examine the size of the coffee bean, its aroma before being ground and after, and the taste of the actual coffee brewed. Cupping is the universal standard for tasting coffee. It is a specific method of brewing and tasting. Tasters look for sweetness, acidity, mouthfeel, balance, and overall flavor. They’re looking for and tasting for any possible presence of a defect. The standardized practice of cupping is a vital part of gauging specialty coffee. It is how the tasting notes you see on bags of specialty coffee come about. 

Want to learn more about the quality of coffee? Tune into our CoffeeU podcast to learn more about farm-to-cup practices!

2. Coffee Bag Descriptions 

Does the coffee packaging display the full array of information about the coffee itself, such as the cup profile, elevation, processing method, roast, etc.? If it does, more than likely, it is specialty coffee! This type of information shows intentionality to care and quality and that the coffee was carefully grown, processed, and roasted. Flavor notes listed on the bag (or tube) denote that the roasters or baristas cupped, or at least tasted, the coffee before serving it or putting it on the shelf to sell. 

3. Roast and Roast Date 

Specialty coffee is roasted differently based on the origins from which the coffees come. Every batch of beans has a different roast profile that uniquely fits its potential flavor profile. You might not be holding high-quality coffee if your coffee is wildly dark and burnt or extraordinarily light and underdeveloped. Roasting is an art, and specialty coffee roasters take the utmost care in perfectly curating the roast profile. 

If your bag of coffee has a roast date, it could be specialty coffee. The roast date shows intentionality to the freshness of the coffee as opposed to the sell-by date. While the sell-by date is essential, since coffee can go bad, the roast date displays an extra level of quality and care. Every bag or tube of specialty coffee should have a roast date listed to ensure you get the prime quality out of every cup. 

Click here to learn more about the future of coffee roasting!

4. Ethical factors 

Specialty coffee offers more than just top-tier taste. High-quality coffees with this label strive to be as ethical and direct as possible, from farm to cup. The people involved in growing the coffee are the most crucial aspect of specialty coffee. How they manage the farms, growing conditions, and harvest—it all profoundly matters to get you that final cup. Intentional partnerships and relationships with the farmers are essential. Fair wages, working conditions, growing conditions, and how the beans are handled after harvest are all critical considerations to address in ethical farming practices. 

5. Quality Over Quantity 

Specialty coffee focuses on quality as opposed to a focus on mass production. Quality is one of the predominant characteristics of specialty coffee. For coffees not considered specialty coffee, quantity is often more important than quality. Certain chain coffee shops or mass-producing companies like Folgers or Maxwell House do not prioritize quality. They aim to get as much coffee imported, roasted, and shipped to supermarkets or cafes. While these coffee companies help bring coffee to every household, they do so at the expense of quality.

Specialty coffee buyers and suppliers heavily value flavor profile potential, processing methods, and other essential details distinguishing high-quality coffee from its mass-produced counterparts. At Baba Java, we intentionally and mindfully source our coffee to maximize the quality of the coffee we serve, valuing quality over quantity. 

6. Overall Quality Flavor 

One distinct aspect of specialty coffee is the plethora of flavor profiles they exhibit. Notes like cherry, citrus, chocolate, or floral are all specific flavors that can be detected in a single cup of specialty coffee. Specialty coffee should have clarity of cup with flavor notes present and evident to the taste. Is the mouthfeel clean and robust? Is the aftertaste sweet and lingering? Are there detectible flavor notes to even the unseasoned palate? Answering these questions can help you determine if you are drinking specialty coffee!

Drink Specialty Coffee! 

Specialty coffee is inherently impactful to all the hands involved, from farm to cup. Supporting companies buying and selling specialty coffee supports the people that helped get it to you in the first place. Not to mention, the taste can’t be beaten! Buying and enjoying specialty coffee is so much more than drinking a cup of coffee. It’s a way to positively impact people’s lives. From roast date to flavor profile to quality over quantity—these are just a few ways to know if you’re drinking specialty coffee.  

Taste the difference and try one of Baba Java’s specialty coffees today!