What is specialty coffee, anyway?

Coffee is the second most-traded commodity in the world after oil. According to legend, it was first consumed by an Ethiopian goatherd who discovered its stimulating properties after sampling some red berries that invigorated his goats.

Cultivation and roasting developed in the Arabian peninsula and went global in the 16th century after the Ottoman Empire invaded the region. Coffee took off in Europe after Pope Clement VIII supposedly cheated the devil of his drink by baptizing it, while the Boston Tea Party pushed colonial America to embrace coffee over tea.

Current world production of coffee hovers between 150 million and 160 million 60-kg (132-lb) sacks each year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. About 40 percent of that coffee is Robusta, a hardier, higher yielding species often used in cheaper coffees or in blends as a filler. Sixty percent is Arabica, considered more desirable for its flavor.

Whether Arabica or Robusta, all coffee comes from seeds within the fruit of the coffee tree. Each fruit, or cherry, contains two seeds. Green coffee refers to seeds that have been separated from the fruity pulp and fibers, washed and dried, but have yet to be roasted.

Specialty coffee is coffee that scored 80 points or more from a Q-grader after it’s been cupped. During cuppings, the formal way to judge specialty coffees, ​beans are prepared under strict specifications: 8.25 grams of freshly ground coffee steeped four minutes in 150 ml of 200F water. This method extracts about 20 percent of the coffee solids.

Beyond these parameters, however, specialty coffee implies extra care and control in how the coffee is grown, harvested, washed, roasted and brewed. ​

Whereas ​most coffees are ​harvested by mechanized paddles, specialty coffees might be handpicked by laborers who select cherries for ripeness and sugar content, resulting in a sweeter flavor.

Specialty roasters sometimes visit the coffee farm they buy from to see how the coffee is produced. Or they might request that farmers plant specific varieties in specific areas of their farm to account for the effects of sunlight, climate and altitude on taste.​