What is Specialty Coffee?

Thursday, 8 December, 2016
Look out for the December edition of The Coffee Magazine, on shelves from this week! In it, Jono Le Feuvre of Rosetta Roastery offers a perspective on this contested issue. Here is a different perspective from Ishan Natalie of Starbucks SA.

Words by Ishan Natalie, republished with permission from his blog.

To this question, one cannot merely state what it is, but rather comment on what their individual perspective is to this illusive question.

This question was recently asked by good friend and special friend of the coffee community, Ben Carlson, during a gathering and presentation on the work he and his family are doing in Burundi to share these amazing coffees with the world.

Of course, the initial discussion around this question was surrounded around the grading aspect of the delicious and wonderful cherry and bean. Beans are graded due to the uniformity of size, shape, colour, density, and defects/ taints. But I don’t believe in this being the sole definition of what ‘speciality’ is.

I refer back to my 2015 World Barista Championship presentation. I pushed back on who defines what is speciality, and how it’s decided. For me, to an extent, I don’t believe that only a buyer/ ‘green bean grader’ can solely define that. I went to the WBC with a coffee from Adam Overton, of Gesha Village Coffee Estate in Ethiopia. Adam offered me 3 options from his estate – a washed, a honey and natural. The focus, and recommendation, was on the washed which was floral, clean and juicy. The honey process (my ultimate favorite process) was a risk because of the low volumes expected from that lot. But I actually chose the natural process from a cupping session. It was fruity, yet as floral, clean and bright as the prized washed.

Photo: Craig Kolesky

I chose the natural, when others felt I should have chosen the washed. But this further illustrates my point, that what I considered speciality for one person, is not necessarily the same for another. Everyone perceives quality and flavours differently. And this made me believe that speciality/ quality is defined by the person who chooses to to buy and drink a coffee they like more than others. Now this doesn’t mean that if you like instant, it’s considered specialty. Because its leads me to my second deciding factor of what speciality is – the cultivation and processing of coffee. Farmers are the ultimate special people that make up the word and meaning of speciality! They are the true unsung heroes of this industry. I believe that the farmers that really care for their crops, and tend to their fields and coffee trees with love, care and dedication, make coffee ‘speciality’. For its this devotion, love and care that delivers a special cup.

I’ve always said that you can taste the love and passion put into making a cup of coffee. So too will we taste what the farmer has in parted spiritually into his/ her crops.

Photo: Cultivar Coffee, Charles Denison

Baristas and coffee shops are the last step of making coffee speciality. Its through the perfect roast to bring out the best within that coffee for the ultimate sensory experience. Then there’s the special brewing techniques and the way in which a barista makes your cup of choice. I mentioned above, the barista’s heart goes into the cup. Its the special care, dedication and passion that the barista puts into every cup they make that makes a coffee a cup of speciality.

This leads me to where my heart really is at this point of my life and career, of what speciality coffee is. Its an EXPERIENCE! It’s how the customer feels at the end of their visit to your establishment. It embodies an overall experience of the wonderful coffee from a dedicated farmer, the taste profile developed by a roaster, and perfectly brewed cup by a passionate barista. But this all means nothing if the service and store environment is lacking. You see, I personally, as I’m sure some of you feel, that an amazing cup of coffee means nothing in a stale, uninviting store, and/ or where the service delivery is poor.

A product is only as good as the place in which you consume it, and the way the people made you feel. The mind is an interesting and perplex thing. We can easily be influenced, consciously or subconsciously – its all about the senses (sight, smell, touch); it’s a feeling.

I like to be inspired by my food & beverage experiences, I want my soul nurtured when I go out for these passions of mine.
Serve me good cup of coffee, and treat me well, by taking me through a sensory and mental experience, and I will consider you ‘speciality’. I am your customer, I chose to be at your establishment. Make me want to stay there, and want to come back. This is speciality!

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