Speciality Coffee: what’s behind all this in 2020?

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Updated August 2020

I used to drink coffee just as a fuel so it wasn’t a good relationship at all. I used to make it with a Moka pot adding sugar (hard to hear in the speciality coffee contest) after brewed it to cover the unpleasant experience.

Just after many years, I realised what I was used to drinking: a “first wave” coffee, hard to smell and lacking of good flavours. Mostly a burnt liquid (made especially with pre grounded robusta beans) with hints of ash and leather and a bitter taste.

At a certain point, I questioned myself about what I was drinking and after many kinds of research, I discovered a different world called speciality coffee. I mean, obviously, there’s another world in-between from a dark roasted robusta and a speciality coffee, but let’s skip this gap and jump straight away to speciality coffee. But before talking about this topic, let’s take a step back to the origin of the world.

coffee_mokaWhat does “Speciality Coffee” means”

The term speciality coffee was first introduced in 1973 by Erna Knutsen in the Tea & Coffee Trade Journal to describe a special coffee cultivated and grown in a special condition. After that, the SCAA (Speciality Coffee Association of America) defined the term speciality coffee and said:

“the term specialty coffee refers to the highest-quality green coffee beans roasted to their greatest flavor potential by true craftspeople and then properly brewed to well-established SCAA developed standards. Specialty coffee in the green bean state can be defined as a coffee that has no defects and has a distinctive character in the cup, with a score of 80 or above when graded according to SCAA Standards”.

specialty coffee according to scaa

In short, any coffee scoring less than 80/100 fails to meet the target to be defined as a speciality coffee. The higher the score the higher the quality and the more expensive it will be. Coffee is graded and classified to evaluate its quality by the number of defects, screen size and cup quality according to the SCAA protocol.

The SCAA defines speciality coffee in its green stage as coffee that is free of primary defects, has no quakers, it’s properly sized and dried, presents in the cup free of faults and taints and has distinctive attributes.

Before evaluating a sample roast, 300-350 grams of green beans sample are examined: defects like insect damage, fungus damage, breakage, discolourations, immature and malformed beans, presence of hulls and floaters are evaluated.

Speciality Coffees Grading protocol

Depending on how many defects, coffee is graded in speciality grade, premium-grade, exchange grade, below standard grade and off grade.

SCAA ClassificationFull Defects AllowedPrimary Defects Allowed
Speciality Grade0-5No
Premium Grade0-8Yes
Exchange Grade9-23Yes
Below Standard Grade24-86Yes
Off GradeOver 86Yes

Speciality Grade

To be a Speciality Grade (Grade 1) the sample has no primary defects and no more than 5 full defects in 300 grams of coffee. The range of the screen size cannot exceed or be less than 5%. Moisture has to be between 9-13%.

Premium Grade

Premium Grade allows up to 8 full defects and a maximum of 3 Quakers.

Exchange Grade

To be Exchange Grade the sample needs to be in the range of 9-23 full defects must be 50% by weight above screen 15 and no more than 5% below screen 15. Quakers are allowed up to 5. From Speciality Grade to Exchange Grade the samples must be free from faults.

Below Standard Grade

Below Standard Grade (Grade 4) has no less than 24 and no more than 86 full defects.

Off Grade

Off grade must have more than 86 full defects.

But first of all, there’s one thing more important than achieving the speciality grade: that’s the understanding of what there’s behind all of that. Speciality is about the relationship (direct trade) with the farmer, ethical sourcing and sustainability, traceability.

At the very beginning of a new direct trade relationship, what happens in most of the cases is that the coffee grown in that farm does not reach the score of 80 and so, cannot be defined speciality coffee and can’t be sold at a higher price. It’s through a long-term relationship that farmers get the money to invest in new technologies, changing the farm management, experiencing new processing methods and so on.

speciality coffee grades

There are so many steps that need to be observed to maintain and deliver a speciality grade coffee in the cup. Look at every single step implies a lot of effort and involves different actors of the coffee chain: coffee needs to be grown in a proper area (terroir), picked by hand, processed properly, packed and shipped properly.

Then it has to be roasted with a medium-light roast profile, de-gas for about a week, stored at room temperature, grounded not too fine and not too coarse and brewed with a proper ratio between coffee and water.

Drinking speciality coffee is a lifestyle. It’s supporting the small farmer, it preserves nature, it pays more for a better product in terms of honestly, and quality in the cup. It’s just be respectful for the effort that goes through every single stage.

Then, there’s the Cup of Excellence, an annual competition in which the best speciality coffee battle to be awarded Cup of Excellence. But that’s another story that deserves a dedicated article.

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