Given the option to choose between specialty, premium and regular coffee, most people would likely pick among the first two. But what, really is the difference?
Basically, it’s like the difference between orchids and sunflowers. Some coffees are higher quality, grown under near-perfect conditions, processed very carefully and eventually roasted in small batches to find the ideal flavor profile. They’re meant to be savored within a few weeks of roasting. Those are the most expensive beans, and generally the most expensive coffees. The rest of the beans might be slightly less premium, might have some defects, or might be downright plebian. Pedestrian beans. That’s the difference.
About the Beans
Let’s start with the beans. About 30 percent of the world’s coffee is grown from Robusta coffee plants. The Robusta plant bears fruit earlier, grows in more climates and kinds of soil, and is hardier than Arabica beans. So Robusta is typically cheaper than Arabica and is mostly used in the least expensive kinds of coffee. The focus here is all on price—the cheapest way to grow, harvest, and roast coffee. Many commercial growers mix Robustas with the more expensive Arabica beans.
Arabica beans, on the other hand, take about two years longer to come to fruit. They have deep root systems, versus the shallow root systems of Robusta beans. They grow at higher altitudes, which means, generally, that they grow in mountainous areas where machine harvesting is often more impractical or difficult to do. So the coffee cherries are often harvested by hand. They also yield fewer cherries per tree than Robusta beans. And they’re more susceptible to disease. About 60 percent of the beans used today are Arabica beans.
Because Arabicas have a more delicate flavor potential than Robustas, they tend to pick up the flavors in the terroir. They absorb the taste of the fruits and flowers around them, are enriched by the soil content, sun, rain and climate levels and have many layers of flavor because of these conditions. The flavor profiles, body and acidity levels can change greatly from region to region and even from farm to farm. In ideal growing conditions, with perfect care and processing, extraordinary beans may result. Coffee farmers know where the best coffee will grow and nurture those as specialty crops or micro lots. Coffee companies, like us, will pay more for those beans in an effort to pass that difference in the cup on to our customers.
Of course, even coffee grown in the best places will have varying grades of quality. Farmers sort the best from the lesser and sell it to different roasters at different prices. The best beans go for the highest prices and more defective beans go for less.
The international Coffee Association and Specialty Coffee Association of America have very specific grading metrics for the quality of the coffee. The SCAA has specific rules about the amount of coffee that can be used for grading—300 grams. It has rules about what kind of surface can be used for the grading and even the lighting in the room.
The grading process includes measuring various levels of defects. A fully black, unroasted coffee bean, or stones and sticks in the coffee would be considered primary defects. A broken, chipped, insect damaged or partially black bean, or a water damaged bean would be examples of secondary defects.
To be considered Specialty Coffee, the green coffee beans that have been processed must have no more than five full defects in 300 grams of coffee. They must be of a specific size, have at least one distinctive attribute in the body, flavor, aroma or acidity and have moisture content between 9 and 13 percent. It can’t have any quakers, which are unripened beans.
Premium Coffee, the next grade, is allowed no more than eight full defects in 300 grams. It also has to have a distinctive attribute and have moisture content between 9 and 13 percent. Premium coffee is allowed three quakers.
Exchange Coffee Grade is the next level down but the standards are much lower. Exchange grade can have between 9 and 23 full defects in 300 grams. The beans can be smaller and five quakers are allowed.
The reason the specialty coffee industry is so particular is that a few bad beans can, as they say, spoil the whole batch. Usually specialty coffee buyers have relationships with the farms where we buy their coffee. We search for coffees with a specific flavor profile and a reputation for quality and sustainable farm practices.
Or sometimes, when we’re lucky, we run across a really magical coffee that we weren’t expecting to find. Getting approval to import a coffee is quite a process so we can’t always add it immediately. But we love the serendipity of finding a new farm or varietal of coffee.
We know how special our coffees are, so we roast them in small batches. Roast, taste, roast, taste again, until we find the perfect balance of time and heat that make the beans sing.
Commercial coffee manufacturers tend to buy lower end coffee from various regions, mix them and roast them all dark. This over-roasting tends to mask the defects in the coffee and removes any of the regional flavors that specialty coffee manufacturers so value. We’re talking the difference between a perfectly cooked steak and beef jerky.
So, there are myriad differences between specialty coffee and regular coffee, many of which can be masked by cream and sugar the way steak sauce hides a bad steak. The best way to experience that difference is to taste some specialty coffees, properly brewed and devoid of additives and see what you can detect. Sweetness? Butteriness? A hint of citrus or strawberry?
You really should check it out.