Opinion

What is Specialty Coffee?

As I work on the Pilgrim Coffee app, I am haunted by the need to come up with a definition for what gets on the global specialty coffee map and what doesn't. In other words: what is specialty coffee? For someone who has been around cafes since the beginning of the third wave in Australia, it started loosely with 'I'll know it when I see it'. But that's not good enough when explaining to a devoted fan or cafe owner why one venue may not have made the cut.

The below is a working draft, but in consultation with cafe owners, passionate baristas and devoted fans, it's how I'm seeing it right now.

The foundation

The basis is this document from the Specialty Coffee Association of America, which attempts to reduce it to the following (emphasis added):

So how do we define specialty coffee? Well, in the broadest sense we define it is as coffee that has met all the tests of survival encountered in the long journey from the coffee tree to the coffee cup. More specifically, we measure it against standards and with methods that allow us to identify coffee that has been properly cared for.

In reality, the specialty experience already includes many steps along the journey - but many of us would add one more critical step: customer service. There is a world of difference between on the one hand coffee prepared according to a recipe and plonked in front of the customer without much description or context, and on the other hand a well-informed brewer that is willing to (and almost dying to) explain the provenance and quality of the ingredients, why it has been prepared a certain way, what the customer can expect, etc. 

And on the other hand, most cafes do not roast their own beans (for reasons of economies of scale). So one can't expect everyone to say 'the owner of this bean's farm is Juan Carlos Dominguez and his wife is expecting'. That's unreasonable. But a conscientious cafe owner, brewer and server should at least know what roaster is used, what beans are currently in stock and a little bit about each one. 

So I've boiled it down to the following three elements (as of August 2015).

The standards

  • Beans. A specialty coffee cafe should know its beans. Five years ago, I'd have said it would be enough that a cafe buy beans slightly above mass market quality and simply doesn't let them go stale. These days, the minimum standard is that a cafe knows (and openly states) its coffee roaster, which should be one that is known for producing specialty coffee (even if that's not their core business - some roasters double up as mass market and specialty). Or of course the cafe may roast its own coffee. The cafe should know roughly how the blend is made up, and almost always will provide a rotation of single origins from the same roaster (or maybe others!). The coffees on offer will always be fresh, high quality, from recognised specialty coffee provenances and have their own stand-out characteristics that the server/barista can easily communicate.
  • Brewing. A specialty coffee cafe should brew according to (evolving) standards - making espressos using equipment that is up to the standard (typically one of these machines), and/or pouring coffees that consistently are within the correct extraction range and which are able to make the most of the raw ingredients of coffee, water and sometimes milk. A specialty coffee cafe does not have to make every cup perfectly. Consistency is important, but a cafe that's pushing the envelope in bean quality and brewing technique will occasionally push things too far. Also, coffee is an incredibly fickle product, and at the upper echelons of quality, the slightest decrease will be noticeable. However, the fundamentals have to soundly be there, and a specialty coffee cafe must be able to adjust technique in response to changing conditions. Finally, a specialty coffee cafe will often (but not always) have its own specialty drinks - as simple as its own milk/coffee/water ratios (e.g. the 'shlong' or a simple variation on the piccolo, etc.), or sometimes with other complex add-ins like in-house recipes for New Orleans iced coffee, or an affogato coffee with house-made ice cream, or other exotic creations with spices, liquors, juices etc.
  • Service. This is the final element where many specialty coffee chains slip up (and some survive!). More than just friendliness and attentiveness, a specialty coffee cafe must provide a specialty coffee experience all the way through to delivery by the server. This means the server has to have knowledge of the above two steps - the beans and the brewing techniques. They should know what's on offer at the cafe, what's different and what's special, and be able to explain it. Basically they should be as engaged in the coffee process as the consumer and the barista, and be fully informed. This is similar to a waiter that can communicate a chef's prowess or a sommelier that is intricately informed of a wine list's special characteristics.

Where next

As I said, this is a working document. But the above is a great starting point that already filters out a lot in every city. Some chains make it through, and some independent cafes do not.