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What is a specialty coffee?

Much is said about ‘specialty coffee‘, but while those in the production chain and in the sector know this well, many consumers have no idea.

The term ‘specialty coffee’ is attributed to Norwegian coffee roaster Erna Knutsen, who first used it at the international coffee conference in Montruil, France in 1978.

This concept, as explained in Fernando Farfán Valencia’s publication, alludes to geography and microclimates, which allow the production of coffee beans with a unique flavour and particular characteristics that preserve their identity .

The American Specialty Coffee Association (SCAA) defines the term ‘specialty coffee’ as “a coffee that is well prepared, of unique origin and distinctive taste” .

“So how do we define specialty coffee? Well, in the broadest sense we define it as coffee that has met all the survival tests found on the long journey from the tree
to the cup .

More specifically, we test the raw material under standards and methods that allow us to identify the coffee
that it has been properly cared for .

For example, while it is not possible to inspect the bean on each farm at harvest or during processing, drying or shipping, it is possible to use the standards developed by the SCAA to make a representative judgment of coffee preparation and grading by using a standard cupping protocol, to evaluate cup quality and to discover defects caused by poor practices that result in a loss of potential for the coffee.

The SCAA defines specialty coffee in its green state as coffee that is free of primary defects, has no quakers, is of an appropriate size and is adequately dried, has a cup that is free of defects and contamination, and contains distinctive attributes.

In practical terms, this means that the coffee must be able to pass the grading and cupping tests.

The development and application of these standards, also promoted through the work of the Coffee Quality Institute, has helped to define specialty coffee in its most primary or rustic form, but much work remains to be done in refining these standards and adding new ones to help preserve the potential that a coffee bean includes.

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