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Spilling the Beans

Looking to evolve from commodity-grade brown coffee consumed more for maintenance than pleasure? The spectrum of specialty coffee can offer a little something for everyone.

Monica Craddock
October 29, 2017

Specialty coffee has begun to inch its way into our vocabulary slowly but surely over the last few years. The term coincides with different coffee shops that may be doing something a little different from what has been the coffee drinking norm for so long.

But what is specialty coffee, and why are people prepared to pay for the experience?

It’s so much more than a term used to describe certain local shops. At its best, the specialty-coffee approach boasts a more thoughtful, environmentally sustainable approach to sourcing coffee, and aims to increase financial security for those farming it — all while highlighting this more quality-driven process, and engaging the customer with the coffee’s backstory.

“It’s not just a term. It’s going back to the basics of what coffee truly is, and it’s something that has now become an industry,” says Matthew Craddock, a barista for Topeca Coffee.

And it’s an industry that’s enjoying a coffee golden age with good coffee more plentiful than it was for many of our grandparents and parents.

Companies like Folgers set the stage in the ‘60s for the first wave of mass-marketed American coffee. Then Starbucks launched a second wave in the ‘90s with their menu of specialty coffees. Now, a “third wave” of coffee brewing is on the rise, with artisanal brands bringing an ultra-gourmet touch to the bean scene.

Though there are countless ways to serve specialty coffee, a handful of concoctions dominate the brew-to-order chalkboard menus at your favorite shop.

The type of coffee you drink is really becoming a statement about who you are, what you represent, where you come from now.
‍The type of coffee you drink is really becoming a statement about who you are, what you represent, where you come from now.

There’s espresso, a strong, potent, highly-roasted brew made by forcing steam through finely ground coffee at high pressure before being served in small cups. There’s a cappuccino, in which frothy steamed milk is added to espresso to make a milky drink, covered in powdered chocolate. There’s also the latte (mix espresso and hot milk); the Americano (an espresso thinned with hot water); and the mocha (mixing espresso, hot chocolate and steamed milk).

For coffee to be deemed “specialty,” it has to meet certain criteria and quality. For example, it starts with the best bean — no blemishes, no defects, and not under- or overripe. A huge factor that goes into having the best bean is where it is grown, including the soil quality, rainfall and elevation.

One common misconception is what the coffee bean actually is. Coffee is a fruit: a seed of a cherry. And just like any fruit, there are many factors that go into getting the best product. A fruit not ready to be eaten tastes very different from a perfectly grown and ripe one.

The highest quality of coffee comes from mountainous regions. There is essentially a coffee belt that is close to the equator. Typically, those regions will have a wet and dry season, which is essential for the fruit to mature. Some of the countries that produce the highest-quality coffee bean include Ethiopia, Kenya, Guatemala, Indonesia and El Salvador. The coffee trees thrive in those types of environments, allowing the flower to bloom and the cherry to grow.

The ripest cherries are picked either mechanically or by hand. Usually, the highest-quality coffee farms handpick their cherries to ensure they are getting the perfectly ripe cherry. Once the beans are picked, they are transferred to a coffee mill for processing. When finished, the beans are put in burlap sacks and shipped to roasteries or coffee distributors. At roasteries, the beans are roasted to reflect the cherry’s best qualities.

The highest quality of coffee comes from mountainous regions.
‍The highest quality of coffee comes from mountainous regions.

“That roast profile tends to be lighter than past coffee generations. When coffee is massed produced, you have to roast it darker because you’re roasting out all the imperfections,” says Craddock. “This is because the quality and care that goes into picking the coffee cherries were not held to that same standard that specialty coffee is now held.”

Once roasted, the product is sent to individual shops, and there it is brewed and served. It then comes down to the skills of the baristas.

“The things that make specialty coffee stand out are the quality of coffee, quality of service and the community that is created surrounding this quality of product,” says Craddock.

The type of coffee you drink is really becoming a statement about who you are, what you represent, where you come from now. “This has been one of the biggest trends within third-wave coffee,” says Andy Brennan, a senior food and beverage analyst with IBISWorld. “People don’t necessarily want to drink at Starbucks anymore, because it’s seen as somewhat generic.”

The movement has grown in tandem with the ascendance of “craft” everything, and created a global phenomenon of, yes, artisan roasters and coffee purveyors who showcase coffee with as much nerdiness and nuance as some reserve for wine or cheese.

“Specialty coffee is an industry of care,” says Craddock. “And the reason we want people to buy into it is because we are so proud and excited about showcasing how high-quality coffee is different. Also, as a barista, you can showcase the hard work of those involved in its making. We want you to nerd out on it with us.”