How to know if a coffee is a specialty?

More and more coffee shops are using the term ‘Specialty Coffee’ to stand out in the quality of their products. Does this mean that the rest of the coffees are not good?

Specialty is used to refer to coffee that is rated 80 points or higher on a 100 point scale by a certified coffee taster. Specialty coffees are coffees at their peak and are different from others because they have been grown at the perfect height, at the right time of year, in the best soil, and then harvested at the right time.

Why is it called specialty coffee?

Specialty coffee has been around for a long time, in one form or another. We tend to think of specialty coffee as a new trend, however, even as early as the early 1900s, discerning customers in Paris specified that the coffee would be purchased in select micro-batches on specific farms in certain regions of Guatemala.

The term “specialty coffee” was first used in the 1970s in the Tea and Coffee Trade Journal , just a few years after the first Starbucks store opened. Thanks to stores like Starbucks and Peet’s, coffee went from being a modern convenience to a drinking experience. Since then, improvements in agricultural, roasting and brewing technology, and an increased demand for high-quality coffee, have put specialty coffee in the hands of coffee lovers around the world.

Green coffee is classified by visual inspection and tasting. Visual inspection involves taking a 350 gram sample of green coffee beans and counting the defective beans. Defects can be primary (for example, black or bitter kernels) or secondary (for broken kernels). For a coffee to qualify as a “specialty,” it must have zero primary defects and fewer than five secondary defects .

Tasting involves roasting the coffee and simply brewing it with hot water, and relies on the taster’s ability to assign scores to each of the coffee’s attributes, such as acidity, body, flavor, and aroma.

café de especialidad en filtro


Most commercial coffee producing countries also produce a small amount of specialty coffee, with a few exceptions. Countries like Ethiopia, Kenya and Colombia are synonymous with specialty coffees; however, many lesser known countries are pushing to produce one of the best coffees in the world. For example, in recent years Panama has made a name for itself through highly educated farmers, a focus on increasing biodiversity, and a number of diverse microclimates.

In the Coffea genus we can find more than one hundred varieties, but the best known are Coffea arabica and Coffea canephora (or robusta). Of these two, specialty coffee comes almost exclusively from Coffea arabica. This is because it is more aromatic and delicate than Robusta and offers a more sophisticated experience on the palate.

Arabica coffee

Despite containing less caffeine than Robusta, Arabica beans are often considered superior in flavor. Arabica tends to taste milder and sweeter , with hints of chocolate and sugar. They also have notes of fruits or berries. Robusta coffee, on the other hand, has a stronger, harsher, and bitter taste, with grainy or rubbery undertones.

According to the International Coffee Organization, more than 60 percent of world coffee production comes from Arabica growers. This was the type of bean that started the entire history of coffee in Ethiopia, and it still grows better in higher ground. Arabica flowers appear only after a couple of years and produce ellipsoidal fruits, within which are two flat seeds known as coffee beans.

Of the two most common varieties of Arabica coffee beans, Typica was the first variety to be discovered. Therefore, it is considered the original coffee of the New World. It is also a low-yielding variety that is valued for its excellent cup quality. Bourbon Arabica varieties, on the other hand, are often prized for their complex and balanced aromas and have resulted in many high-quality mutations and subtypes. Some natural mutations of Arabica are known as Caturra, San Ramón and Pacas.

Robusta Coffee (Canephora)

The most common variety of Coffea Canephora is Robusta, Arabica’s younger brother, street smart. Although its flavor is considered less refined, Robusta is widely used in espresso blends because it is known to produce a better crema (the creamy layer found on top of an espresso) than Arabica. It is more resistant to disease and produces better yields. And it contains more caffeine !

Having more caffeine from Robusta, along with chlorogenic acids (natural antioxidants), is believed to be the result of the plant’s self-protective mechanism to protect itself from pests and diseases. When present at low levels, chlorogenic acids are considered an important part of a coffee’s flavor profile. However, Robusta contains higher levels of these acids and the oxidation products generated by them can sometimes introduce unwanted flavors, potentially compromising the quality of the cup.

café de especialidad tostado


All coffees are subject to scores, depending on the growing process. This score is an indication that both the variety and the terrain or altitude, and other factors that affect coffee, have specific characteristics. Although it should not be forgotten that a specialty coffee is not only this score, but also a good deal by the barista and the company.

The green coffee score is based on the visual inspection of the beans (once collected and processed), to determine the percentage of defective beans, and on the tasting of these once roasted. Based on this, the cuppers, who have received extensive prior training, rate the coffee.

The score table is set to:

  • 90-100, it is considered an outstanding specialty coffee
  • 85-89.99, it is considered an excellent specialty coffee
  • 80-84.99, it is a very good specialty coffee
  • > 80.0 is below the quality of the specialty, so it is not considered special.

Differences between specialty and commercial coffee

Coffee can be broadly defined as specialty or commercial quality. From a consumer point of view, the most immediate difference between commercial and specialty coffees is the packaging: the commercial comes in small bottles of instant or is already ground and packaged in a tin or plastic-lined brick. Specialty coffee is stored or delivered in whole beans, either bagged or bulk, and must be ground prior to consumption.

Commercial coffee is generally roasted and packed in large plants, under nationally advertised trademarks. The specialty is usually roasted in small shops or factories, using traditional methods and technology. It is usually sold where it has been roasted.

Specialty coffees offer many more options than commercial coffees. Coffee can be purchased by the bean’s place of origin (Kenya, Colombia), by roast (French roast, Italian roast), or by blend designed for time of day, price, or flavor. Retailers offer only a very limited selection of blends and roasts, and few possibilities to buy single origin and unblended coffees.