Specialty Coffees: The Definition
To be graded as specialty, coffee has to comply with strict rules that define its origin and its
Once those are ticked off, it gets graded by expert samplers.
If it receives an adequate score, it can enter the specialty coffee rank.
So what are these facts, and what does the score tell us?
Fact No. 1: Specialty coffee beans can come only from Arabica (for now)
The coffea family of plants counts over 120 different species. But nearly all of the global coffee
production comes from only two types: the Coffea Arabica and the Coffea Canephora, also known as
Arabica is difficult to grow, but it contains almost twice the concentration of sugars and 60% more
lipids. Which is why it can develop a much wider variety of flavors.
Besides the taste issue, there is another reason why Robusta can’t make it to the specialty hall of
fame. This species has been overly exploited in industrial coffee farming, which prefers quantity
over quality. The opposite of what the specialty coffee sector is advocating: fair trade and
sustainable farming practices.
True, this speciesism tastes awful. And indeed, there have been some recent developments in raising
the Robusta bar. But Arabica’s cousin has a long way to go before it peels off its commercial-grade
traits and starts competing in the specialty rink.
So for now, bags that say “blend” or “x% Robusta” at the back are commercial grade coffee, even if
the front side yells gourmet, green, or 100% Guatemalan at you.
Fact No. 2: Specialty coffee beans must be hand-picked
To speed up production and reduce costs, industrial coffee farming uses machines in
But no gizmo can recognize the difference between a perfectly ripe and an unripe coffee cherry. So what you
get in your bag of supermarket coffee is a mix of coffee beans and would-bes.
Specialty coffee beans are hand-picked by farmers who have crafted their experience through knowledge
handed down through generations of trials and fails. They can recognize when the cherries of a given
cultivar are at their ripest spot and pick only those.
And boy, can you taste the difference.
Fact No. 3: Specialty coffees are strictly single-origin
Like every living thing, coffee grows differently each year. Weather conditions, soil quality, and
other factors influence its yield. Commercial-grade farming cannot depend on this moodiness. That’s
why it mixes coffee sourced from different places. This blending ensures the big coffee brands can
always meet the demand, making the coffee taste flat.
On the other hand, specialty coffee is sourced from a single region and you should always be able to
trace its origins. This way, its particular characteristics—its story, if you will—comes through
with every sip. If a given region produces sweet and fruity coffee beans, you will be able to taste
But even Starbucks offers “Single-origin Sumatra” coffee. So the search for the real deal doesn’t stop
at the country-level. Your beans might come from Sumatra, but did they grow on the sunny or shady
hillside? Was it farmed at 5,000 ft (1,500 m) above sea level, or was it close enough to the beach to
catch the sea breeze?
If you want to go even further in discovering the fantastic flavors, narrow down even further: look for
Fact No. 4: The Best Specialty Coffees? Single-cultivar micro lots
We mentioned earlier specialty coffees come from just one plant species, Arabica. How can farmers
grow one coffee with such a distinct cherry flavor, while another will give hints of Earl Grey?
By narrowing down the coffee to be traced back to a single cultivar from the same micro lot.
While varieties are naturally-occurring mutations, cultivars are plants that have been man-shaped
through years of reproducing the most desirable traits.
The same coffea arabica that originated from the Ethiopian mountains was farmed differently in other
regions of the world, giving birth to new cultivars like Bourbon and Typica.
When a coffee cultivar is grown on the same farm, shade-grown under the same trees, harvested the same day,
and processed together as one lot, we call it a micro lot.
Naturally, these specialty coffees are very limited. But they bring out the best flavors and qualities in the
coffee. No wonder why they consistently score 90 points or above on the coffee quality.
Speaking of which, let’s look at the scoring process.
Fact No. 5: Coffee Grading & The Coffee Quality Score
For coffee to be considered specialty, it has to score 80 points or higher on the cupping score
assessment. To find out more about this process, head over to our coffee quality score guide.