What does Specialty Coffee mean?

Friday, 25 August, 2017
As we work towards our 21st Edition packed with so much delicious coffee goodness, this question remains as relevant as ever. An interesting perspective here by Jono Le Feuvre from our 18th Edition.

Photos by Craig Kolesky

What does Speciality Coffee mean?

You've seen the term used on coffee packaging and spoken about at cafes, but what does the term actually mean and how close are we to it in SA? Or is it up to us to forge our own definition? Jono Le Feuvre of Rosetta Roastery tackles this issue head on.

"Specialty coffee" was first used in 1974 by Erna Knutsen in an issue of Tea & Coffee Trade Journal. Knutsen used this term to describe beans of the best flavour that are produced in special microclimates.
Specialty coffee should not be confused with "gourmet" or "premium" coffee. The latter are marketing terms with no defined standards. According to the Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA), coffee which scores 80 points or above on a 100-point scale is graded "specialty." Specialty coffees are grown in special and ideal climates, and are distinctive because of their full cup taste and little to no defects. The unique flavors and tastes are a result of the special characteristics and composition of the soils in which they are produced.

I think it is problematic to start any conversation by excluding the dictionary definition, as it is precisely from this definition that every other definition must flow. Especially this conversation, this definition, and the South African context.

So to answer your questions, I have to start with:
Because of the SCAA or Wiki definition, I believe a Specialty Coffee experience cannot begin without the coffee first scoring above 80 out of 100 by a qualified Q-grader. If the coffees you are buying do not have this attribute, then they may produce an amazing, delicious, sensory adventure (like a meticulously prepared cup of single origin Cote d’Ivoire hot cocoa), but that does not make them “specialty”. To call them such would be misleading and unhelpful for the consumer (not to mention borderline unethical). 
Obviously, in a South African context, where a large portion of cafes that claim links to “Specialty Coffee” are in no way involved with "Specialty Coffee” (as per the Wiki definition), but are serving a damn fine cup of commodity coffee, this is a highly unpopular view to hold.

Which is why I have such respect for those fairly prominent cafe chain owners, and independent cafes, which understand that there is an objective distinction between “specialty coffee” and “commodity coffee”. These coffee professionals feel no need to lean on the term “specialty coffee” as a marketing ploy, but just get on with crafting superb cafes and vibey spaces that serve well-prepared commodity coffee. In fact, they actively distance themselves from “specialty coffee” (mostly because they think we are all poncy coffee nerds, which, I guess we are!).

But, as I say, an unpopular view. So let’s turn our attention to more positive thoughts:
If an experience is to be defined as “specialty coffee” I think this involves a depth of service that is rarely enjoyed by coffee lovers the world over (let alone in a South African context). Then again, I suppose we shouldn’t be surprised that a “specialty” experience is rare. That rarity is almost core to anything that has undergone a high degree of specialization. But I digress...

Specialty Coffee involves the ability to engagingly communicate the information surrounding why it is more “special” than the coffee served next door. The people involved need to possess an understanding and appreciation of what makes coffee “special”, hand-in-hand with the ability to cogently explain to a customer (in a manner that is void of any sort of illusion of superiority, or patronising tone) concepts like seed type, roasting process, the fundamental chemical processes that transform green coffee into brown coffee, the basics of extraction, and the laymen versions of the organic chemistry unfolding in each cup. 

Let’s be quaint and use wine as an analogy: 

A sommelier is not a sommelier if he has no idea the difference between French Oak, and American oak. He is not a sommelier if he cannot explain the basic chemical elements that combine to convey a sense of structure in a wine. He is not a sommelier if he cannot recommend a certain type of wine based on a diner’s particular flavor preferences, and understand why that particular wine is a good match. He is also not a sommelier if he is unable to justify to a diner why one wine costs R80.00, while another costs R800.00. And if his answer is “Oh, it’s all just marketing and clever branding”, then not only is he not a sommelier, but he is very much the embodiment of a trojan horse undermining the industry that produces the products that he makes his living by selling. Man, that was a long sentence.

A specialty coffee barista should have a similar grasp of the processes involved in growing, harvesting, processing, roasting, and brewing a cup of specialty coffee. When one ponders just how vast the scope of the combined processes is, it's a miracle that the concept of a “coffee snob” even exists, because we should all be so darn humbled by the incredible amount of hard work that has gone into putting that cup into your hands. I think this attitude of reverence for a process that is bigger than you is central to the concept of specialty coffee. 

But at Rosetta we try and make it a motto that “we care so that you don't have to”. Because some folk just want a sensory experience. They don’t need to understand it. (What these customers don’t know is that it is the deep level of respect and understanding of these processes is exactly what enables the barista to actually deliver the sensory experience in the first place) So… at Rosetta Roastery we feel that the job of a specialty coffee barista is to know more than his customers. Not to be a know-it-all, but simply to know more. Because learning/enlightenment is part of the gift for a consumer of specialty coffee; they get not only a sensory adventure, but intellectual stimulation, too. Or at least it would be nice if that were possible every time. And for those who don't want the lecture, they can just leave it hanging in the air, while sipping blissfully on their cup of coffee. The barista’s job is not to force feed a philosophy, but rather to embody a philosophy that engenders warmth, respect and awe for a product that is truly special. 

Is there space for such a product in South Africa? We obviously feel that there is. And to anyone who disagrees, I would only say, “You speak too soon! There are a handful of roasters full of energy and passion, who have only just begun to show what specialty coffee can look like, and more join the ranks each day!"

Got something to say? Then leave a comment!