When I was first asked to write on the topic of what makes specialty coffee so special, there was one word that came to mind: quality. By SCAA definition, that is what specialty coffee is. But I thought I would hit the streets of LA and ask a few baristas, cafe owners, and customers what they think makes specialty coffee so special. As I visited various cafes over the last two weeks asking this question, I heard a wide variety of perspectives on this topic and it inspired much deeper conversations.
The most common answers coming from baristas and cafe owners had nothing to do with quality but instead centered around the people: the barista’s passion, the barista’s skill levels being in the top percentile of the coffee industry, and the connection that the baristas have with the customers. One person said that specialty coffee is “special” because of all the hipsters. I think she was joking – or at least I hope she was.
From a customers’ perspective the higher price they pay in a cafe tells them that they are in a specialty coffee shop. For the customers I spoke to, specialty coffee meant higher prices to pay for higher quality products including, but not limited to, coffee. To them, specialty coffee is special because they can know that whether they are purchasing coffee, tea, or baked goods that these are not only quality products but they each have a story behind them. They only have to ask.
Finally, the most intriguing discussion was with one cafe owner who said that speciality coffee is special because it is a lighter roast. Bringing his baristas and a few of his customers into the conversation, we discussed roast profiling of coffees and how that affects the final flavors in the cup. We came to a point in the discussion asking if Don Pachi roasted either light or dark, then would they both still be considered “specialty?” In my opinion, they could both still be considered specialty because to me specialty coffee is, by definition, a coffee that scores at 80 points or higher on the SCAA scale.
According to SCAA definitions, 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.” These standards include an 80 point scale and excellent or outstanding quality in fragrance, aroma, flavor, aftertaste, acidity, body, uniformity, balance, clean cup, sweetness, and overall better taste than your average cup of joe.
What I found through this experience is that each one of us has a different view of what characteristics make specialty coffee so special. I would challenge each of you to have the same conversation with your fellow baristas, with your cafe manager, and with your customers. How would you define what makes specialty coffee so special?