Why Specialty Coffee is more than just coffee
Do you remember the day when you started caring about the code stamped on your eggs? Do you also remember that fateful day when you banned palm oil from your shopping list, f-o-r-e-v-e-r? And that other day when you swapped supermarket meat for a drive to an organic farm? Hopefully you do, because it’s well done.
What about the coffee you drink every day?
Don’t blush. For years, coffee companies have done their best to wow you with gold colours, intense pictures, luxury capsules and sexy salt-and-pepper haired actor… how could you (and we) possibly know that this had nothing to do with quality?
“Quality coffee has a name: Specialty Coffee”
Quality in the coffee world is no fancy marketing trick. It has a name: Specialty Coffee. And it’s a big deal. For the growers, AND for you.
Specialty Coffee is yet at the dawn of its history. And although it’ll probably never represent more than 10% of world consumption, we do believe that it is in the driving seat of the java revolution, at the heart of what coffee nerds call the “Third Wave”. The wave is all about high-quality beans, single-origin, lighter roasts, pour-over brewing and latte art, thumbing its nose at Starbucks and consorts. Coffee is no longer a beverage, it’s an experience.
And yet, there’s surprisingly no universal agreement on what “Specialty Coffee” exactly is. Like our coffee growers, we decided to leave it to the Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA). For over 30 years, the SCAA sets quality standards for the Specialty Coffee industry and watches over the entire community, from growers to baristas, to ensure its development and worldwide recognition. Great, isn’t it?
SCAA standards are high! Only coffees with a score of 80 or above on their 100-point scale are graded “specialty”. To make it to the top, green beans are tested first and (1) shall have no more than 5 defects, e.g. equal size, similar shape, colour etc., (2) they must show a distinctive attribute in the body, flavour, aroma or acidity and (3) have neither faults nor taints.
The beans are then roasted, ground and cupped to assess their basic aromatic and flavour profiles. Cupping is a fantastic and rather basic ritual where all senses are engaged to answer a storm of questions: Does it smell fresh? Is the acidity delicate? Tangy? How is the body? What flavours are there? Is there chocolate? Honey? What about the aftertaste? …
Only then, coffees have a chance to be graded “specialty”. However, one estimates that only 5% of green beans can make it to the Specialty club.
What Specialty Coffee embodies goes beyond quality standards. It means than coffee is no longer trapped in the commodity box where mass consumption locked it in, years ago. It has become something precious to enjoy, to savour and to treasure.
“Growing Specialty Coffee is no easy achievement”
BUT… there’s a “but”. Specialty Coffee is a very special thing. And who says special thing, says special requirements.
Growing Specialty Coffee beans is no easy achievement. Exceptional and specific geographical and climate conditions form the nest of Specialty Coffee. To find it, you first have to follow the equator on more than 1400 meters above the sea level. As you climb the mountains through a mix of moderate rainfall and sunshine, you walk on highly fertile soils surrounded by volcanoes and shade trees. This is the idyllic setting that Specialty Coffee requires.
The environmental conditions are only one piece of the puzzle. The rest is due to the hard work and everyday care of the coffee grower who dedicates his life (and money) to produce outstanding quality. This does not end here: Specialty occurs when everyone across the entire production chain works in harmony and never loses view over excellence from growing to roasting, packaging and delivery.
“Specialty Coffee is very big deal for the growers… and for you”
Here’s one of the first thing we’ve learnt with our quality-obsessed grower Gustavo: Fairtrade or organic coffees are overpriced to well-intentioned coffee lovers when they actually coast relatively little to coffee companies.
Let’s keep it simple.
Although coffee is no longer seen as just a commodity, it remains the word’s second most valuable traded commodity (behind only petroleum) with an average market price of $3.4/kg for the past 5 years.
Further to the 90s coffee crisis, which saw prices collapsed, Fairtrade International introduced the Fairtrade Minimum Price and Premium. This means that if you’re a Fairtrade coffee grower, you can expect to sell your coffee at:
$2.80 + $0.40 = $3.20/kg
(Fairtrade Minimum Price) + (Premium)
Last time we checked, you (and we) were usually charged at least ten times this price.
Plus, what’s happening when the market price goes beyond $3.20? Well, nothing. Fairtrade contracts
(and so agreed prices) run over several years. If the market prices increase in the meantime, the growers won’t benefit from it... This is a vicious circle that leads Fairtrade growers to pretend to a harvest shortage (to then sell their coffees on the regular market) and to produce a lower quality coffee for their Fairtrade buyers.
On the other hand, if you grow Specialty-grade Coffee, you’re not bound to the market price, rather to the quality of your coffee. You’re a free man (or woman) and the one deciding on the price. But, on average, you can expect to receive about three times the Fairtrade price. This premium is crucial for the growers to reinvest in their plantation, working and living conditions.
Now you understand why Specialty Coffee is a very big deal for the growers… but also for you. While it offers a promising future to the growers and brings hope to the entire coffee community, it is for you the guarantee to discover and enjoy a truly exceptional coffee.