What is specialty coffee?

The industry definition of specialty coffee is any coffee that is rated 80+ by a Q grader (a certified coffee specialist). The sad truth of this definition is that there are coffees that can be graded 80 that aren’t anything special. This makes the blanket term “specialty coffee” fairly ineffective as discerning a great cup of coffee from an average one.

The beer industry has very clear rules to what can and cannot be defined as a “craft beer”, which has helped consumers both new to the beer scene and seasoned vets find great tasting beer from independent thoughtful breweries. Unlike the beer industry, the term “specialty coffee” does not have any rule outside of 80+ coffees. This means that large corporations like Starbucks fall within the category. I have nothing against Starbucks. They paved the way for coffee and greatly increased the overall quality of coffee in the US in the 80s and 90s, but the game has been changed since then and there is a new standard for great coffee.

If you want to drink coffee with a wide range of flavors including fruitiness, sweet chocolate, and even bright citrus notes, here are some tips to look for:

  • Drink light roast coffee: Unfortunately this is a subjective term and up to the roaster to decide what is light, but light roast coffee doesn’t coffee up the flavors of the coffee bean with burnt or bitter flavors. High quality beans thrive with a light roast. Many refer to this style as “third wave”. Asking someone if it is similar or within the “third wave” style of coffee is a good way to find great coffee.

  • Tasting notes: If you see tasting notes like “smoky”, “robust”, or “bold”, it is likely a low quality dark roasted coffee. This is not always the case, but has been my experience. Instead, look for flavor descriptors indicating bright flavors like citrus and berry or sweetness like milk chocolate or dates.

  • Awards/reviews: While we and many others don’t roast coffee to win awards or seek praise, these can be clear indicators what kind of coffee they are roasting.