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March | April 2021

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EVOLVING THE CONCEPT OF SPECIALTY COFFEEPart II: Roasted Coffee Products and Cafe Operations

By Spencer Turer
Photos by Julia Luckett Photography

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WITH THE EMERGENCE OF coffee bars and cafe culture in the United States in the late 20th century, the term “specialty coffee” began to encapsulate certain types of beverages—such as cappuccinos, café lattes and café mochas—that were being offered in this setting. With the inclusion of flavored coffee onto the specialty menu, and the addition of whipped cream and sauce drizzles to accent these beverages, specialty coffee became a more general term to describe a beverage that was outside the realm of everyday coffee prepared at home. “Specialty” later incorporated freshly roasted and brewed coffee made with pour-over devices and other manual brewing methods.

Throughout this evolution, the specialty coffee industry sought to appeal to discerning buyers or consumers who are willing to spend more for a better experience—whether it is the taste of the beverage, the physical space and atmosphere, or the customer service and engagement. Michael Sivetz observed in his book Coffee Technology, first published in 1979, “The U.S. retail coffee buyer is not knowledgeable about coffee identities, tastes and original bean sources.” The marketplace began to evolve into two distinct quality identifications—rare, high quality coffee and common, standard coffee.

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In part one of this series, we looked at the historical context of specialty coffee and compared the evaluation and identification standards for green coffee quality. We explored the similarities and differences of many recognizable green coffee quality standards and how coffees are evaluated and identified for specialty coffee. In this second installment, we will explore the terminology of quality ratings relative to roasted coffee products and cafe operations.

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American Woman Coffee presents an illustration of the coffee farm-to-consumer supply chain representing 14 different versions of “specialty” (below). Each node is an opportunity to define specialty, and this further expands the concept into many different directions and definitions.

The complexity of managing the evolving concept of specialty is magnified by each perspective, and the training level and quality perception of each stakeholder from grower to consumer.

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Illustration. The Coffee Supply Chain


As we discussed in the first part of this series, the concept of specialty coffee started with green coffee, evolved into a section of the cafe drink menu, and has expanded to include altruistic supply chain operations, transparency and certifications for farming practices. All these changes lead to conclusions; there is no consensus for the term “specialty,” which causes consumer confusion, and overuse of the word dilutes the true meaning.

The concept of specialty has expanded to the point that a new definition is necessary. At the Specialty Coffee Association (SCA) Re:co Symposium in 2019, Ric Rhinehart, former executive director of the SCA, offered his personal definition: “Specialty coffee may be defined as coffee, from a known geographic origin, that has a value premium above commercial-grade coffee due to its high quality in the cup and to particular attributes that it possesses. We can think of specialty coffee, whether bean or beverage, as being defined as differentiated coffee products that garner a premium to commodity coffee products in the same market.” Loosely explained: If we know where the coffee comes from, and it is more expensive than commercial coffee because of high-quality flavors and other attributes for both green coffee and beverages, it is specialty coffee.

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The SCA’s Price Crisis Response (PCR) Initiative’s Summary of Work reports that consumers are confused about specialty. To them, specialty coffee is perceived as directly supporting growers, which fits Rhinehart’s definition as having a value premium. However, to ensure support for farmers, the quality premiums for green coffee quality must be confirmed as benefiting the farmers, usually via direct sourcing or with a socially responsible program or certification.

Amanda Eastwood, director of supply chain partnerships at Westrock Coffee Company, says, “Even in the case of ‘direct trade’—which is another confusing and both widely and loosely used term—or socially responsible programs or certifications, without increased visibility into the transparency and traceability along the supply chain starting at the farmer level, we’re all still kind of crossing our fingers and hoping for the best, left in the position to trust that each party involved along the supply chain held up their end of the deal.” Simply buying high-quality green coffee with low defect counts and high cupping scores does not guarantee farmer support. “These notions are indeed independent of one another unless intentionally arranged for otherwise,” she says.

Each year, the National Coffee Association of U.S.A. (NCA) conducts a consumer survey and publishes the National Coffee Data Trends report. The data presents consumer behaviors and perceptions regarding coffee consumption and provides critical historical context since the research was started in 1950. For this research, gourmet coffee is defined as “premium whole bean or ground,” and gourmet coffee beverages are defined as “prepared from gourmet coffee” and include hot coffee, iced/coffee blended with ice,
cold-brew coffee, nitrogen-carbonated coffee and espresso-based beverages, such as cappuccino, espresso, latte, café mocha, macchiato, caffè Americano and flat white.

“We rely on consumers’ intuitive understanding of the word ‘premium,’” explains Matt Cariani, the NCA’s senior manager of education, research and digital media. Evolution creates confusion, such as when the SCA evaluated the data and interpreted consumers’ self-identified gourmet description as specialty coffee. In 2017, using data extracted and interpreted from the NCA Annual Drinking Trends Report, the SCA replaced the term gourmet with specialty and declared, “To put it simply, of all the cups of coffee consumed, 59 percent of those cups were specialty versus 41 percent non-specialty,” in an article explaining U.S. specialty coffee consumption trends. This extreme evolution of the term “specialty” expands and dilutes the definition, reverting to the days when specialty was a category on the drink menu.

“Specialty” should be understood in the context of quality or as a result of special care, not a menu category. Consumers may define quality based on their own perspectives, expectations or opinions of value, not a formal coffee analysis. Consumers are already familiar with many words defining quality for food and beverage items. The vernacular of quality is an expanding and confusing list with overlapping concepts and open interpretations. It is challenging to correlate value or increased prices in a meaningful way to these words. The following definitions were developed to illustrate the various terms in relation to food and beverage products:

  • Artisanal: produced by an artist, synonymous with craft
  • Boutique: characteristic of a small, exclusive producer; an exclusive business offering customized products or services
  • Conventional: conforming or adhering to acceptable standards; ordinary rather than different or original
  • Craft: food or drink made in the traditional or non-mechanized way by an individual or small company; made by hand
  • Fancy: of high quality
  • Gourmet: involving high-quality or exotic ingredients and skilled preparation
  • Premium: of exceptional quality or greater value than other of its kind; superior; of higher price or cost
  • Prime: of the best possible quality; excellent
  • Specialty: a special or distinctive quality, mark, state or condition; a product to which the manufacturer claims to devote special care; unusual or superior quality
  • Standard: regarded as the usual or most common form of its kind; average or normal quality or grade
  • Superior: above average; of higher grade or quality

Coffee professional and barista Alexandra LittleJohn explains that craft should not be confused with quality. “I think it’s unfair to assume just because it’s manually made it’s good,” LittleJohn says. “If I program a super-automatic espresso machine well, and dial it in regularly, it will produce better coffee than a barista with little to no training.” She further explains that the evolving concept of specialty coffee should be coffee that is extracted or brewed well and tastes delicious. “Coffee prep is the key at the end of the supply chain to make the beverage enjoyable.”

Quality ratings for prepared food and beverage items are most often based on consumer and expert reviews, product prices, the atmosphere and service standards, and emotional quality. An evolving concept in itself, emotional quality can be defined by the quality perception as a result of an affinity or animus for a product or producer based on prior experiences, prejudice or reputation. Sara Gibson, head roaster and green buyer at Greater Goods Coffee Co. in Austin, Texas, says, “When it comes to coffee, consumer and expert opinions can vary wildly. Some of the qualities that professional coffee cuppers value (and score highly)—such as fruit tones and complex acidity—aren’t what your typical specialty cafe customer is looking for.”

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Table 1. Proposal for Green Coffee

Eastwood adds: “The personal experience you have with coffee is entirely and just that—personal—and, oftentimes, very subjective. And it may not be reliably counted on to replicate. At the end of the day, value is determined by how much the consumer is willing to pay for it. Does a higher price make it specialty? Not necessarily.” She points out that consumers may not be aware of the characteristics of quality that they are paying for. “It may be more about the perceived quality based on the description,” she says.

In the case of spirits, the category designations are much different. Jeff Underwood, the director of foodservice innovations at Doehler North America, says that “well,” “call,” “premium” and “super-premium” are subjective categories designated by bars and restaurants to set pricing tiers.

“Premium spirits are generally between $20 to $35 per bottle, and super-premium category is products with higher price tags and big marketing budgets,” Underwood says. Category designations are not related to the ingredients used, production methods, or quality ratings by experts in “best brands” lists. The delineation is by the price, which is justified by the marketing campaign and product story. The craft category for spirits is hard to define, Underwood says: “Craft distillers tell you about how they lovingly do things in small batches with only the finest ingredients. You’d hear about how things are handmade, and their ingredients are locally sourced.” Much of this storytelling is misleading; at one time the product may have been made in this manner, but as craft companies grow and automate or mechanize, their story does not often change, which may be similar for coffee marketing. Gibson, sharing her optimism for the coffee industry on this front, says, “The upside of this market confusion is that we’ve got an opportunity to create quality designations that are imbued with more meaning.”

Spirits present category designations different from wine and coffee. Both wine and coffee are merchandised similarly with stories of terroir, varietals and flavor profiles. “I see the close relationship wine has with food in the culinary word absent for coffee,” says Tia Hoffman, owner of American Woman Coffee. “The flavor spectrum for coffee is broad and varied, like wine.” Both coffee and wine have premier growing regions that are familiar to consumers, with transparency to the estate and farm being important to the quality expectation. The variations become apparent when comparing sensory profile and physical grade of green coffee with the sensory evaluation of a consumer-ready bottle of wine. Both coffee and wine place a great value on the complexity and flavor nuances. “These nuances are what I love about specialty coffee,” Hoffman adds.

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Specialty coffee is different from other products; it is merchandised to the consumer both as a raw material and a finished product, with similar terminology for both cases. Unlike many other industries, the sales and marketing terms used for raw materials are often synonymous and cross-referenced with those for the consumer. At each point in the supply chain, the seller strives for high quality designation and product differentiation to garner increased revenue. The concept of specialty has now evolved in different directions with similar terminology and contrasting definitions, which causes great confusion for the consumer.

Contemporary definitions of specialty coffee encompass a wide range of information presented by companies and individuals, not by control points or best practice. If everything can now be identified as specialty, what exactly is specialty? Shall we consider all of these definitions as a requirement to earn the specialty designation? What about the instance when one or more of the requirements is not met; does that mean the coffee is no longer specialty? Here are some common claims that now define specialty coffee:

  • Sourced uniquely | Transparent supply chain and direct-trade relationship connect the roaster with the farmer and cooperative enabling long-term relationships to develop.
  • Addresses human rights | Coffee is globally conscious, ethical, moral, environmentally and socially sensitive, and strives to protect the dignity and individualism of all people.
  • Relationship building | Part of a transparent supply chain connecting consumers, barista and roasters to producers for transparent and direct-trade sourcing.
  • Encourages cooperation | Collaboration programs between producers, roasters and cafes to help improve the quality of life on the farm and the quality in the cup.
  • Purposefully roasted | Controlling the roasting process for each batch to develop specific flavors and aromas to differentiate the coffee.
  • Uncommon preparation | Visible preparation, manual brewing methods, and service specific for each customer adds elegance and panache to common and ritualistic coffee making.
  • Distinctive quality | Specialty coffee is a matter of choice, not a beverage of chance. Efforts are undertaken to measure and record quantitative and qualitative date to increase quality and maintain consistency.
  • Merchandised deliberately | Storytelling is de rigueur, as is identifying the coffee’s provenance. Extolling the virtues and differentiation of the coffee to establish a value-added product helps the customer or consumer make an informed decision.
  • Passionate and enthusiastic people | Specialty coffee is a global community of like-minded people who share a collective ideal for sustainability, equality, environmental stewardship, and maintaining the dignity of people.

Eastwood asks, “How interested is the final consumer in developing relationship links, cooperation and emotional connections in coffee sourcing?” She adds, “Should it dictate how we source our coffee and the dignity we incorporate into the process? Maybe it is not about the consumers’ deep-rooted interest in this, but rather about building this dignity into the DNA of how coffee is bought and sold behind the scenes.”

While there is an opportunity to refine how the coffee trade conducts itself, there are some hurdles to jump. “As an industry, we can determine how we define and elevate quality,” Gibson says. “The challenge is to find a way to balance a variety of parameters—price transparency, human rights, environmental sustainability, cup score, etc.—without overwhelming or losing the interest of consumers.”

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Table 2. Proposal for Roasted Coffee

The concept of specialty is now extending beyond the coffee product to the company that provides it. Does a company or a coffee need to meet all these criteria to be considered specialty? Is there a hierarchy of consideration? For example, is flavor quality the most important aspect of specialty coffee, or is it having a global conscience? Are these two criteria required above all else? Can a roasted coffee product meet the aforementioned qualification for specialty coffee, but not meet the industry standard for specialty-grade coffee by cupping score or defect count?

Gibson suggests that flexibility is needed to benefit both producers and consumers. “If I find a farm that’s working hard to make improvements and do right by their people and their land, I might like to be able to support them by buying a lot that scores in the high 70s and still pay a ‘specialty’ price for it,” she says. This creates a valuable connection between sourcing and serving, which further evolves the specialty concept. “If I can roast it in a way that will taste great and that customers will enjoy, we all win,” she says.

“The difficulty of this is coming together as an industry to an agreement of these standards and being clear on criteria and establishing of guidelines,” says Bronwen Serna, 2004 U.S. Barista Champion, coffee educator and roaster. “Also, helping the consumer understand the importance of choosing specialty coffee products over others and how that impacts the supply chain” is important, she adds.

There should be a clear path for companies to follow regarding identification and differentiation, or product quality and company operations. The reason for differentiation is to establish a compelling story to help consumers realize the value of the product and appreciate the care and individual effort required to grow and process the coffee. Merchandising should be a tool to clearly communicate the features, advantages and benefits of a coffee, allowing the seller to justify a higher selling price, not to obfuscate or intentionally mislead the consumer.

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To address some of these hurdles related to the terminology around coffee quality designations, the industry should consider a separation of terminology between green coffee and roasted coffee—resetting the grading system and vocabulary for green coffee (see Table 1 above), roasted coffee (Table 2 above4) and coffee beverages (Table 3 below).

Any change to the quality designations would affect the value of coffee throughout the supply chain, so careful deliberations are necessary to protect the financial security of coffee producers and other stakeholders.

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Table 3. Proposal for Beverages

Coffee has transformed from specialty and conventional quality, from regular and decaffeinated, and from drip brewed and espresso-based to a vast array of different qualities, preparations, sourcing programs and social requirements. The evolution and expansion of the specialty concept has had such great velocity in the past 20-30 years that it is challenging for both consumers and professionals to keep up.

History has demonstrated that the term “specialty” lacks clarity and understanding. The proposals presented here are a first step in simplifying the terminology that we use, resolving confusion, and providing opportunities for the sellers of coffee to better define the quality of their products and business operations. When the concept of specialty has evolved to the point where it is clearly defined and fully understood, the result will be a more knowledgeable marketplace.

Evolution includes eliminating the ambiguity and clichéd concepts of specialty coffee throughout the farm-to-consumer value stream. Gibson says, “I’d love it if we could create a system where we’re doing more than just storytelling for the sake of marketing, yet consumers still feel included in the conversation.” Alignment of terminology will result in informed decision-making, appropriate value judgments, and the increase in relative worth of green and roasted coffee and coffee beverages.


SPENCER TURER is vice president of Coffee Enterprises in Hinesburg, Vermont. He is a founding member of the Roasters Guild, a licensed Q-Grader, and received the SCAA Outstanding Contribution to the Association Award. Turer is an active volunteer for the Specialty Coffee Association (SCA) and the National Coffee Association of U.S.A., and is an Ambassador for the International Women’s Coffee Alliance.

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