Page 2
Article by Ric Rhinehart: What is Specialty Coffee?

After roasting and before brewing, the coffee must be ground. Grinding is best done as close in time to brewing as possible, as many delicate aromatic compounds are fully released upon grinding and the dramatic increase in surface area necessary to effect brewing also opens the coffee to rapid oxidation and staling. The size of the ground particles is also important and driven by the method of brewing to be employed. Too fine a grind for the selected brewing process and the coffee may be destroyed by over extraction. Too coarse a grind and the coffee may never develop its full flavor potential in the cup.

Finally, after every step from coffee tree to the end consumer has been carefully orchestrated, the final process must take place - the coffee must be brewed. Whether the coffee is to be prepared as an espresso, as drip coffee or in a steeping method like a French press, the exacting application of standards of water quality, brewing temperature, coffee to water ratio and extraction must be applied to create a specialty coffee beverage.

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. For example, while it is not possible to inspect every bean from every farm at the point of harvest, or during processing or drying or shipping, it is possible to employ the standards developed by SCAA to make a meaningful judgment on the preparation of the coffee through aspect grading and to employ a standard cupping protocol to assess the quality of the cup and to discover any defects caused by poor practices that result in a loss of potential for the coffee.

The SCAA defines specialty coffee in its green stage as coffee that is free of primary defects, has no quakers, is properly sized and dried, presents in the cup free of faults and taints and has distinctive attributes. In practical terms this means that the coffee must be able to pass aspect grading and cupping tests. The development and application of these standards, also furthered through the work of the Coffee Quality Institute, has helped to define specialty coffee in its raw form, but much work remains to be done in refining these standards and adding new ones to help preserve the potential that the coffee bean embodies.

From the green stage to the final beverage there are other standards either currently in place or in the process of being developed. For example, the SCAA Brewing Standard for preparation of drip coffee defines the proper ratios of water to coffee, the proper extraction, brewing temperature and holding temperature and time. There is also a standard for espresso preparation and one for steeping is under development. Roasting standards are in process, part of a monumental effort by the Roasters Guild to implement a certification for roasters that ensures they have been properly educated and trained in preserving and revealing the full potential of the specialty coffee bean. Similarly, the Barista Guild is well under way in developing a certification for the barista to ensure that the final preparer of the beverage is also an expert in the extraction of all of the coffee flavors inherent in a specialty coffee and delivering them in the cup.

In the final analysis specialty coffee will be defined by the quality of the product, whether green bean, roasted bean or prepared beverage and by the quality of life that coffee can deliver to all of those involved in its cultivation, preparation and degustation. A coffee that delivers satisfaction on all counts and adds value to the lives and livelihoods of all involved is truly a specialty coffee.

Article published by the Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA) - June 2009
Page 2