How much do you know about specialty coffee?
Let’s start with what Specialty Coffee is not.
Despite what you might think, specialty coffee has nothing to do with the length of a man’s beard who is serving your coffee or the number of tattoos on their arm. Specialty coffee doesn’t have to be snobbish or tied to any specific indie band’s fanpage.
Most certainly, specialty coffee is not ambiguously sourced, effortlessly brewed, or thoughtlessly presented to you…the consumer.Now that the air is clear, we can take a closer look at what Specialty Coffee is really all about.
By its simplest definition Specialty Coffee is a quality standard that acknowledges all the painstaking steps that the coffee product goes through from seed to cup. It can be defined as a philosophy of ethical and sustainable sourcing that is carried over to every subsequent step of the long and glorious coffee chain.
Specialty coffee, sometimes closely linked with the terms third wave or speciality coffee in Europe, means that the coffee that you are drinking is a work of art. For more information about defining specialty coffee, check out the Specialty Coffee Association’s wonderful insights into the history of the term.
So, let’s talk about that flat white that you have every morning on your way to work.
Where did you get it?
Did you pop into a huge Starbucks or was it a small coffee shop desperately clinging to the corner of a little-known avenue? You might be surprised to find out that none of that really matters in terms of specialty coffee. Big store, little store – either can be considered a specialty coffee shop if they respect every step in the coffeemaking chain.
Is Starbucks considered specialty coffee?
Well, it depends. Can the barista tell you exactly where this coffee came from, the name of the country, the region, the farm, the elevation, or any details about the roasting method? As a former Starbucks barista myself, I can assure you that this information was limited, except in the case of a guest espresso.
At best, a Starbucks barista knows the country of origin, general sourcing ethics of the company, roast level (dark), and that’s not quite good enough for specialty coffee.
When you walk into a third wave coffee shop there are usually displays that show exactly what type of coffee is being brewed. Take a closer look at that bag of coffee and you’ll most likely find information about exactly who grew that coffee and how it was processed before it reached your cup.
Now, ask that barista about the coffee beans and their face should light up with excitement. From a consumer’s perspective, that should be your first test for whether the coffee you are drinking is considered specialty coffee.
Now, a quick word about latte art. I once met a girl who told me:
If my coffee doesn’t have good latte art, then I send it back and I won’t even taste it.
You should know that latte art is the least important factor in the quality of your beverage. If the beans were not properly extracted, then your lovely unicorn latte art is just polishing a turd, (excuse my vulgarity). Beneath that pretty liquid art is a bitter or watered-down waste of your money…but it sure does look nice. The point I’m trying to make is that you shouldn’t view latte art as the measure of how good your coffee is.
Here is what latte art means:
The barista who made your beverage has poured so much milk and prepared so many beverages that they have elevated the craft of creating coffee to an elegant artform. It is evidence of the experience level of your barista and in that way, latte art is related to specialty coffee.
So, back to that Starbucks. People love to hate them, but Starbucks is the father of specialty coffee. They have to be respected as the creators of modern coffee culture in America and in other places around the world.
Starbucks created the demand for premium coffee and opened the market up for all of these small indie shops to flourish, so they are due some respect by people in the third wave community. If there was no Starbucks, then there would be no indie shop. Period.
So, why does Starbucks coffee taste so bitter and why do you have to add so much sugar and milk?
Starbucks can’t have coffee that tastes like oranges in California and have chocolaty notes in Chicago. Starbucks must create a uniform experience throughout their thousands of stores worldwide, so the coffee beans are usually darkly roasted. Dark roast blanches out most of the subtle flavor notes of the beans and will consistently present a flavor that is described by many people as “ashy” or “burnt” – similar to cowboy coffee.
To counter this lack of initial taste, Starbucks introduces lots of flavoured syrups and additives to create unique beverages. Their cup sizes are big, and their beverages are milky. They generally cater to customers who are less in the know about specialty coffee and more on the go and need a quick pick-me-up.
Now, let’s look at the husband and wife shop on the corner. They only have one shop, so their coffee beans can taste like cardamon in July and lemon in August. They prefer to use light and medium roast coffee beans because at those levels, more flavour notes come through.
Customers might refer to their coffee as “fruity” and “bright”. Baristas at this shop will frown if you ask them to add some vanilla or caramel syrup because that will adulterate the natural flavors already present in the coffee. They will also tisk-tisk if you put a ton of sugar in your cup.
Their cup sizes are small and they have lots of alternative milks on stock such as coconut milk, almond and Oatley. Their customer base are people who don’t mind paying a higher price for the absolute best cup of coffee they’ve ever tasted. That’s specialty coffee.
Hopefully, you’ve gained some insights into what makes Specialty Coffee so special. Yet, this is just a starting point. You should visit all different types of coffee shops and try to learn as much as you can about the coffee that you’re drinking.
If you’re looking for some direction, then check out Liz Clayton’s book Where to Drink Coffee. Also, you can keep your eye on this space for coffee shop reviews, home brew methods and further insights into coffee culture.