If you’re a coffee lover, you can probably distinguish between specialty and commodity coffee with your eyes closed. Your palate recognizes the bean type, tasting notes and intensity as soon as you take the first sip. Yes, this probably makes you a coffee snob, but there's no shame in being a connoisseur and appreciating nice things!
The problem with mainstream coffees is not only the origin, but also quality. They’re bland, bitter, sour, and the freshness is questionable. This type of bad coffee is cheap and easily available at supermarkets and many chain coffee shops.
If you’re not a big coffee drinker, you might not notice the difference between commercial coffee and specialty coffee grown and roasted with love.
Curious to learn more about specialty coffees and how they differ from regular ones? Keep reading to see why you should make the switch that’ll completely change your relationship with coffee.
You may be wondering what the big deal is with specialty coffee. After all, you’re happy with your morning cup of store-bought blend. I mean, it does the job, right? It wakes you up, gives you a bit of energy you’re good to go.
But have you stopped to consider where your coffee comes from? What it tastes like? What processing it goes through? And most importantly, where and how it’s farmed and roasted?
The journey of coffee from the farm to the customer is long. It goes through several processing stages and travels thousands of miles to reach its final destination. The beans undergo different production phases where the smallest mistake or lack of attention can easily ruin their taste and quality.
Coffee manufacturing and roasting requires high levels of knowledge, expertise and care for the job. Unfortunately, this is not how most coffees in supermarkets and chain coffee shops are made.
The quality of mainstream coffee is inferior to specialty coffee in more ways than just taste. This is because beans farmed for commodity markets are not only machine-picked, but also grown in the sun with tons of pesticides and chemicals to increase crop yield.
Commercial coffee farms pay very little attention to removing defective and unripe beans during harvest. Often, the batches contain debris like branches, leaves or tiny stones. If they go unnoticed, they’ll end up roasting along with coffee. This is not only dangerous, but also drastically downgrades the quality of the coffee.
This is how large coffee shop chains and commercial coffee companies can afford to sell their products for so cheap - they pay rock-bottom prices for massive quantities of low-quality crops.
In comparison, specialty coffee roasters and manufacturers make sure to continually meet the highest standards of quality, purity, sustainability and processing.
The Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA) defines ‘specialty’ as any coffee that will pass all the tests during its journey from planting the seed to the quality of the final product.
Every step of the production process contributes to this title. For example, the coffee seeds must be non-GMO and unprocessed to ensure quality from the start. Then, the farmers must be knowledgeable and experienced to make sure the beans are planted properly and the soil is just right.
For the coffee to be considered specialty, the coffee tree grows at high altitudes, in the shade of other trees rather than directly under the sun.
Coffee trees need around 3-4 years to begin producing fruit. The farmers then hand-pick only the ripe fruits and check for defects and damages. The next step is processing and drying the beans.
There are three main ways to do this:
Wet method - The coffee cherries are immersed in water to separate the bad fruits from the good ones. Then, the farmers gather the good cherries and remove the bean from the shell. They send the green bean for fermentation and demucilation to remove any remaining pulp. Once this process is complete, the beans are once again washed with large amounts of water and dried to reach a water content of 10%. You’ll find the label ‘wet-processed’ or ‘washed coffee’ on the packaging of most specialty coffee brands.
Semi-dry method - The shell from the coffee cherries is removed by machines. The beans still have their mucilage, so they have to be washed first and then dried in the sun to reach a 10% moisture content. This method is also known as ‘semi-washed’ or ‘wet-hulled’.
Dry method - The coffee cherries dry naturally under the sun. When the berries reach the ideal dryness, the farmers send them to hulling machines to separate the green bean from the shell. Coffee that’s been processed this way is called ‘natural’ or ‘unwashed’.
The drying procedure must be performed with great attention because it affects the quality and properties of the coffee bean. Once the beans are completely dry, they’re placed into protective moisture control bags, then into jute bags and shipped to roasters worldwide.
The path of the coffee bean towards reaching its ‘specialty’ status continues in the hands of master roasters. It all starts with inspecting the green beans for color and quality. Next comes the sample roasting, where the roaster prepares several different roast profiles to seek out the best one. This is followed by a “cupping”, when the roaster grinds and brews samples of the beans to determine their desirable and undesirable characteristics - honing in on the best coffees and the best roast profiles.
The master roaster must have an array of skills in order to extract the best possible features from the bean. If they’re not well-educated and experienced, the beans can easily end up burnt and all efforts to make ‘specialty’ coffee will go down the drain.
When lower quality brands over-roast the beans, the coffee they get is dark and bitter in flavor. They can’t afford to throw it away, so they label such batches as ‘dark roast’. Contrary to popular belief, this doesn’t mean the coffee is stronger or has more caffeine. It just means it’s been stripped of its flavors, oils and antioxidants, no matter the quality of the initial green bean.
Lighter roasts are where the magic happens and you get to taste the real features, aromas and playfulness of the coffee.
Finally, specialty coffee roasters pack the beans whole to preserve as much of their freshness and flavor as possible. It’s best to grind them immediately before brewing to keep the unique aromas and taste intact.
Remember to grind the beans according to the type of coffee you’d like to make. For instance, coarser grinds are used for filter coffee, finer grinds for espresso, and the finest, almost powdery grinds for Turkish coffee.
Here at Sträva Craft Coffee we are proud of our specialty coffee menu. Our coffees are grown at high elevation, hand-picked, and roasted to perfection to provide a rich, full body with vibrant tasting notes and an experience you’ll want to go back to each morning.
Most commercial coffees are a combination of Robusta and Arabica. These are two separate bean species, with Robusta being of lower quality and price. Any coffee that contains even the smallest percentage of Robusta cannot qualify to be ‘specialty’.
This is because only Arabica beans are considered specialty. Robusta beans are cheaper to produce and have a completely different process of farming. They’re used as the main coffee bean in most commercial coffee brands because they grow faster and are easier to get to.
Robusta contains more caffeine than Arabica and because of this, is more resistant to pests and diseases. They’re also resistant to unfavorable environmental factors and can grow in lower altitudes. Pure Robusta or Robusta blends typically have a more bitter, almost sour taste.
On the other hand, Arabica beans are more sensitive to their environment. They’re shadow-grown at high altitudes and require more care and protection from insects due to lower caffeine content. These specific conditions make Arabica beans harder to cultivate, which in turn, is a factor in their price. Arabicas showcases a body full of aromas and flavors.
It is important to know that not all Arabica beans can be considered ‘specialty’. There are still commodity-grade Arabicas on the market, but conscious coffee roasters and manufacturers who care about quality will only use beans grown in the shade at high altitudes and under the most ideal environmental conditions.
We are proud to say that all Sträva Craft Coffees are 100% pure Arabica beans.
Let’s take a look at the key differences between specialty and commercial coffee in terms of quality, taste, altitude of growth, and other factors in the production process. Luckily, more and more Americans are turning to specialty coffee on a daily basis because the quality and taste is unlike anything else.
Use this table as reference to help choose your next bag of coffee with more consideration to your health, palate and the environment.
|SPECIALTY COFFEE||COMODITY COFFEE|
|QUALITY||Consistent size, color and density with very few defects||Varied sizes and inconsistent roast, many defects remain.|
|TASTE||Aromatic, with rich body and flavor||Bland, bitter, sour often burnt|
|ALTITUDE||Shade-Grown at High Altitudes||Grown under the Sun at Low Altitudes|
|CAFFEINE CONTENT||Slightly Lower||Slightly Higher|
|PURITY||Often Hand-Sorted||Machine Sorted Only|
|TYPE OF BEAN||Arabica||Mix of Arabica and Robusta|
Producing the highest quality coffee takes a lot of dedication, knowledge, hard work, and love for the craft. This is why we believe our specialty coffees will exceed your expectations from the very first cup.
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To learn all about the craft of coffee-making, head over to our coffee blog The Roaster’s Voice.
Author Bio: Frosina is a freelance writer for hire specializing in lifestyle, health and wellness topics. When she’s not busy writing, you can find her savoring new coffees, learning all about digital marketing and dreaming of Italy. You can learn more about Frosina at www.figsproutcreative.com, on
LinkedIn and Twitter.
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