Specialty coffee: definition and characteristics

Le café de spécialité : définition et caractéristiques

Coffee is not drunk, it is tasted. It is around this philosophy that specialty coffee was created . In contrast to industrial coffee, which represents 99% of world production, it stands out for its excellence and the diversity of its aromas . Its cultivation , roasting and preparation meet strict requirements. What is specialty coffee ? How to recognize this exceptional product? Focus on a new way to consume this essential beverage.

What is specialty coffee? Evaluation criteria

To evaluate specialty coffee, the Specialty Coffee Association (SCA) has established a rating system. Founded in 1982 in the United States, the American SCA merged with its European counterpart in 2017. Its objective is to make coffee more sustainable at each stage of the process while meeting high quality standards.

Grains without major defects

The first step consists of analyzing the green coffee, that is to say the beans before roasting. A 350 gram sample is taken to be combed through. It must not contain any major defects (category 1). The presence of a foreign body or a fungus, for example, is disqualifying. Up to 5 minor anomalies (category 2) are tolerated, such as damaged or broken grains.

A score of 80/100

Tasters, Q-Graders, are trained to evaluate specialty coffees. And hold on, the tasting conditions are very strict. From the brightness of the room, to the capacity of the teaspoon, including the temperature of the water: everything is standardized to ensure total neutrality.

The Q-Graders taste the prepared drink: this practice is called cupping . Aromas, acidity, body: these expert palates leave nothing to chance. At the end of this exam, they award a score out of 100 points. The product must obtain a minimum score of 80/100 to qualify as specialty coffee. Above 90 points, the beverage is considered exceptional!

How to differentiate it from mass-market coffee?

Now that you know what specialty coffee is, let's see how to recognize it. The easiest way is to pay attention to the information on the packaging.


Most industrial coffee packages indicate the country of origin, but usually it stops there. Specialty coffee goes further. It specifies the region of the country or even the name of the coffee plantation from which the beans come. This transparency aims to ensure better information for the consumer and fairer remuneration for the producer.

The botanical variety

There are 2 main species of coffee trees: Arabica and Canephora. Each of them brings together different varieties:

  • typica and bourbon, for arabica;
  • robusta, for canephora.

Other hybrid varieties emerged over time. Among the best known, we can cite the Icatu and the Catimor. You should find the mention of the variety on your package of specialty coffee.

Harvest date

The coffee fruit harvest takes place 1 to 2 times a year, depending on the region of the world. Green coffee remains “fresh” for a few months, or even a year, but beyond that, its taste quality diminishes. It also risks oxidizing and losing acidity. We then speak of “past crop” to designate grains from an old harvest. Remember to ask the seller or barista for the harvest date to ensure the freshness of the product.

Planting altitude of coffee trees

The higher the planting altitude, the more complex the flavor profile will be. Coffee fruits (called cherries) grow more slowly and produce denser beans. Beyond 1,500 meters, the coffee will reveal more spicy and tangy flavors.

The price of specialty coffee

Price is not a criterion per se. However, specialty coffees often cost more than mass-market coffees. Nothing surprising since they offer superior quality as well as enhanced traceability. In addition, their price is set according to the rarity and excellence of the product, unlike traditional coffee which is listed on the stock exchange.

➡️ Want to try the experience? Taste our best specialty coffees.

Who are the players in specialty coffee? From production to tasting

Specialty coffee isn't just defined by a rating. Each actor in the chain contributes to the high quality of the final beverage.

The producer

He is the first link in the chain. His goal is to grow the best coffee possible. He maintains the coffee trees for several years before the first harvest. The grains which do not present defects will then be selected. This quality requirement makes it possible to better promote the work of the producer and his family.

The green coffee buyer

He is responsible for evaluating the level of excellence of the coffee before purchasing it. It is he who will decide which products will be integrated into the specialty offer. It also notes the taste notes and other information that will appear on the packaging.

The specialty coffee roaster

Certified by the SCA, the roaster influences the heating power, air flow and rotation speed of the machine. He controls cooking times and temperatures to reveal the potential of the grain and highlight the roasting profiles.

➡️ Find out more about our coffees roasted in Switzerland.

The barista

The barista concocts and serves the final drink. In addition to knowing the techniques for preparing coffee, he knows how to tell you about its origin and its aromatic notes. He can also advise you when purchasing coffee beans on site.

In summary, what is specialty coffee?

  • A high quality coffee, evaluated according to a strict process.
  • Exemplary traceability and transparency.
  • A beverage with rich and complex aromas, comparable to great wines.
  • A sustainable and ethical approach.

Did you know that Brazil created a competition to reward the best specialty coffees? Discover the world's leading coffee producing country.

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