In most industries, words like “specialty,” “premium,” “top grade” or “gourmet” are often regarded as marketing buzz, while also vaguely designating a degree of quality above what might be commonly available on the bottom shelf of grocery aisle – the existence of “specialty” infers the existence of “ordinary.”  

The coffee industry has embraced the word “specialty” as a defining characteristic of its existence, but there’s a lot of disagreement about what it actually means. 

The Trade Association Definition 

Most recently, the Specialty Coffee Association (SCA) defined the phrase as “a coffee or coffee experience recognized for its distinctive attributes, and because of these attributes, has significant extra value in the marketplace.” The definition, published in a white paper in 2021, relies heavily on outlining certain attributes about specific coffees that may qualify as specialty, such as cupping score, certification, taste descriptions, origin, and export designations (like a coffee’s screen size or grade – examples include Sumatra Mandheling Triple Picked, Kenya AA, Colombia Supremo, Ethiopia Yirgacheffe Grade 1, Mexico Altura HG, or Guatemala SHB EP, et al). 

The paper stops short of pinning specialty coffees to a specific cup score and green grade, which is how the industry traditionally marked coffees for perhaps the last 20 or more years, and in many cases continues to do so. The old SCA heritage standards indicate specialty coffee must achieve cup scores of 80 or above, a green grade free from primary defects and quakers, and a water activity below 0.70. 

Cuppers, graders, and other coffee professionals can be certified by various groups, the most prominent of which is the Coffee Quality Institute, which issues its well-recognized Q Grader certificate to anyone who passes a rigorous exam and maintains “calibration” to their established standard of quality, meant to in some ways enforce and regulate what may and may not be called specialty quality coffees, based as much on journeyman-style tradecraft as it is on sensory science.  

Cupping at The Crown

The Origin of Specialty Coffee 

The phrase “specialty coffee” is usually attributed to the progressive and outspoken coffee importer Erna Knutsen, in a 1973 interview published in the Tea and Coffee Trade Journal. Her evolution in the coffee industry is intricately tied to the inception of our understanding of what specialty coffee actually means. Knutsen, who passed away in 2018, was eulogized eloquently by Mike Ferguson for Sprudge, lauding her at one point as “the unofficial spokesperson for the industry,” and crediting her with “launch[ing] an industry” – not by coining a seminal phrase (which she did) nor by shattering the glass ceiling (which she also did), but by selling small amounts of coffee to small roasters. 

Erna rose to prominence at the multi-commodity San Francisco based importing company B.C. Ireland, hired by one Bert Fulmer. She eventually bought out the company, fired the men who crudely barred her from the cupping lab, and renamed the place after herself in 1985. Talk about a power move! 

Leading up to that, with Bert’s encouragement, Erna Knutsen began selling less than full container loads of coffees to regional roasters (not just the major players). Coffees were traded not just on country of origin, but on a coffee’s flavor. It was a major shift in strategy, and it began to reap results. Others began to follow suit, including Royal Coffee, founded in 1978 by Pete McLaughlin and Bert Fulmer’s son, Bob. Royal now carries an array of coffees both easily recognizable as specialty as well as offerings that toe the line of commodity.

The Distinction of Specialty vs. Commodity 

If there can be one truly definitive distinction between “specialty” coffee from the rest of the beans grown in the world, it’s likely rooted as much in its trade as it is in its taste. Knutsen recognized this about a decade before the rest of the field. 

Today, commodity grade arabica coffee is defined by how it is sold, not how it cups. The Intercontinental Exchange (ICE), the owner and operator of global exchange and clearing house markets, tracks Coffee “C” Market Futures arabica contracts from twenty deliverable origins to eight delivery locations during five contract series months at a size of 37,500 lbs., and aggregates trading activity to publish the “world benchmark for Arabica coffee.”  

The defining nature of most commodities is their fungibility. The market recognizes no difference in commodity coffees from Tanzania, Papua New Guinea, or Mexico. Commodity beans are traded without the inclusion of a farmer or cooperative’s name, an indication of any flavor notes or cup score, or any other distinctive properties, other than the boundaries established as standardization mechanisms (e.g., bean size, allowable defect counts, etc.). The products are valuable because they are interchangeable, recognizable specifically as baseline “coffee” and nothing more. 

Thus, Specialty grade coffees, if there can be any definition we can all agree on, must be distinctive in some way or another, in a way that adds value, above and beyond the base layer of “commodity coffee.” In this, the SCA has roundaboutly hit the nail on the head.  

Specialty Subjectivity 

Is the coffee you’re drinking today “Specialty”? The answer isn’t as clear-cut as we’d like to imagine. 

If it’s a can of pre-ground beans, a blend from vaguely defined regions meant to emphasize consistency across a broad product line, then the answer is almost certainly no. If you’re handed a single-origin light roast and offered the name of the coffee producer, told the type of processing method, and given expectations of some interesting sounding flavor notes, then in all likelihood the answer is yes. 

But is the dark roast Aged Sumatra at your local Peet’s Coffee specialty? While it goes largely against what most 21st century baristas at late-wave cafes have been trained to repeat to their customers, it might be. 

Let me see if I can explain.  

Those beans are unlikely to score above 80 for the average Q grader, regardless of roast level. The green coffee beans might not be particularly special. However, they were bought and browned with differentiated conditions: cost and purpose far-exceeding commodity. It was treated and marketed carefully by traders and the coffee roaster, which adds value, and can command a premium price at the consumer level.  

It fits our definition of “distinctive in a way that adds value.” This generically grown green captures $20/lb at retail, due to properties like branding, origin, roasting process, and (in this case) its most defining characteristic – its age. 

Value additive properties might be added at one, some, or all nodes in the supply chain from farmer to barista. A commodity grade green could arguably be elevated simply by calling attention to an otherwise overlooked property that earns value for some segments of a market (like for that Aged Sumatra). A robusta bean could be elevated to specialty status by unique processing methods. A collective of modestly grown coffee could be upgraded by earning certifications like Organic, Fairtrade, Rainforest Alliance, and others. Conversely, an excellent green coffee’s inherent “specialty-ness” might be superseded by poor roasting or brewing. 

It’s fairly commonplace for us to understand the devaluation of specialty due to errors or flaws, but for a green coffee, potentially grown under commodity circumstances, to be elevated to specialty status seems to many somehow incorrect. That might be, in part, due to the evolution of specialty roasting and service, as reactionary to commonplace coffees. 

In this way, Peet’s story is also one that’s integral to the definition of specialty, because it highlights the shortcomings of the term. Founded in Berkeley, Alfred Peet’s establishment is frequently credited with starting coffee’s “Second Wave,” defined by darker roasts, highlighting certain countries of origin, and encouraging customers to buy beans directly from roasters. It was a separation from the generic, commodified coffeehouse into a uniquely crafted specialty product and space, placing Peet among the first specialty coffee roasters. 

The emergence of the “Third Wave,” (a phrase widely credited to Trish Rothgeb, borrowed from other contexts) is not exactly synonymous with specialty coffee. However, coffee bars and light roasters paying closer attention to traceability and sustainability could be credited with redefining coffee in the context of increasingly common and commodified second wave locations, most recognizably ubiquitous as Starbucks and – yes – Peet’s. 

Light roasts, sustainability narratives, an emphasis on single origin coffees over blends, and the emergence of new processing methods in coffee production drew distinctions between the specialty of the Third Wave and the Second. Were the coffees first pulled into elegantly poured lattes at Intelligentsia, Stumptown, and Counter Culture inherently better than those at Peet’s or Starbucks? Maybe not necessarily. But they did add value by highlighting new stories and flavors and introducing new preparation methods… which seemingly did evolve into eventually cultivating a movement seeking higher grade green coffee. 

50 years ago, Peet’s started a new wave of specialty. But the definition of both the commodity and the culture built up around its growth, trade, and preparation have shifted substantially, and continue to shift. Today Peet’s owns both Intelligentsia and Stumptown. The Third Wave has crested and washed back into the second. Are all Intelligentsia’s and Stumptown’s beans specialty? Some definitely are. But perhaps some are not; blends virtually indistinguishable from any other coffee on the shelf at Target or Safeway. 

Who Gets to Define Specialty? 

In some ways, the definition of coffee rests on the preferences of the buyer. 

If the buyer is a customer in a café, their willingness to pay a premium for a story, a special roast, or a particular origin indicates their conscious engagement in the separation between generic commercial coffee and specialty. 

In the case of a green coffee buyer, in a specific sense, preference can create room for both conversation and expectations between buyer and seller and establish understandings around volume and pricing. Specialty buyers necessarily have prerequisites for elements like cup score, origin, and processing method that outstrip average coffee. 

However, in a more general sense, the power to define a commodity as more or less valuable than a specific globally recognized benchmark could also be perceived as a form of gatekeeping, where some producing individuals or groups – usually the smallest, and most vulnerable (and keep in mind some 75% of the world’s coffee farmers are smallholders) – are kept at a distance from understanding the value of the product they are responsible for nurturing. 

So, maybe it’s time for a new definition? Or maybe even a different tier of coffee. Specialty’s definition for some 50 years now has hinged on the tangible and intangible characteristics of a bean, as described by an elite few. Does a new kind of specialty need to emerge? One in which the consumption of a cup of coffee includes conversations beyond flavor profiles and quality scores? One in which the supply chain’s shareholders are treated with equity? And who will define these terms?