What’s so special about Speciality Coffee?

Do you fancy yourself somewhat of a coffee connoisseur, but don’t know your Aeropress from your Chemex, or your cortado from your machiato… We tackle the topic head on, and Dr Zameer Brey, Founder of the Cape Coffee Club gives us the nuts and coffee beans about what makes Speciality coffee, special.

In his words…

As the world’s second most traded commodity, only trumped by oil, its often overlooked how much coffee is grown, processed, roasted, prepared and consumed daily across the globe. Think about this for a second, and in that 1 second, 26000 cups of coffee were consumed around the world. That’s right, around 2.25 billion cups are consumed daily. As one would expect at that volume, there are varying levels of quality of coffee, processing and roasting methods and preparations. Everything from a simple, single espresso to a double shot, decaf cold latte with  oat milk, sucrose sweetener, cinnamon sprinkles with wings!

As you read the article I want to think about what made your favorite coffee special. As a relatively serious (just kidding) coffee enthusiast, I engaged with many many coffee lovers and have the opportunity to throw some interesting questions their way. Some say, it was the uniqueness of the flavour, the aroma of the roast, the mouthfeel of the milk, the comfort of the cup even, or simply the lovely company, but all of their best experiences contain a set of connections to what made that experience special. Here we start to unpack what the phenomenon of ‘specialty’ coffee is so the next time you have the chance to experience it, you are able to pause, reflect and enjoy the moment even more.

Now onto some explanation behind the mysticism that we lift the lid on, in this article (excuse the pun). So while it certainly has become a trendy, almost pompous question ‘Is this single origin specialty coffee’ for which a negative reponse sees the discerning customer pull up their nose and order some herbal tea or just hot water!

In doing a little research for this article (sipping a black caffeinated beverage of course) I learnt that even in the early 1900’s certain establishments in France started specifying the quality grades and origins of the coffee they would order and roast for their customers. However it was really only 4 to 5 decades ago that the concept of ‘specialty’ coffee took root, having been driven by trade journals and retailers shifting coffee from the commodity market into the experience market.

Coffee Grading

Coffee is graded for several reasons but primarily as a means of determining its market price. This process is fairly technical and involves the look of the beans (consistency, defects, size), coffee attributes ( aroma, acidity, body and flavor profile). The Speciality Coffee Association has developed a robust methodology to score coffee and all coffees that score above 80 out of 100 are considered specialty. High scoring coffees convey consistent, enjoyable attributes as measured by several judges across a set of criteria. And like gold (after all this is black gold) the ‘purity’ or score determines the price the market will pay for it. If any of you have enjoyed a cup of > 90 (or even those >95) you will likely have savoured the moment, sipped slowly and felt a flash of euphoria that was all halaal 😊

In terms of volume, specialty coffee is a small fish in a beeeg pond (2.5% of global volumes) but obviously is much more expensive and so constitutes a third of global revenue from coffee.  This market is growing rapidly and the increased interest (hopefully you are still reading at this point) in getting higher quality coffee and enjoying the experience that accompanies that. Over the last 10 years, the proportion of coffee consumption that is speicality has grown from single digits (9%) to more than 1/3 of all coffee.

So what? The coffee scores high, what does this mean? It tells us a lot about everything along the value chain from crop to cup. The coffee was likely grown in ideal conditions (often higher altitudes produce higher grade coffee),  there were very few or no defects, it was processed well (this could be natural, washed, experimental and is likely an article for future), then the roaster performed some really smart gymnastics to maximize the potential out of the green bean and the barista who served it made sure she/he used their years of experience to extract those few drops of bliss for you to enjoy.

Speciality coffees tend to offer more unique aromas, flavours, mouthfeel, acidity and after-taste which is often in stark contrast to a commercial grade coffee that’s so darkly roasted you wont see them lying on your black laptop cover! Sorry I’m being judgy now but it pines me that the world is filled with so many amazing coffees, Algamdulillah, that the dark, black ‘strong’ stuff is often so numbing to the tastebuds. It’s the equivalent of trying to enjoy a delicate cup of masala chai after you accidentally chewed 3 chillies from the lamb vindaloo (and the last 3 letters are where you stayed for most of the evening).

Specialty coffee vs commercial grades of coffee.

Specialty coffee can be traced (to where and how it was grown – origin, varietal and terroir), how it was processed at the farm or washing station, graded, its characteristics in terms of appearance, taste and aroma, roast profile (light, medium, dark) and what type of preparation it is well suited for.

For commercial grades of coffee this picture is often incomplete or hard to differentiate. Having said that, its important to note, that like all commercial items, the economies of scale have meant that more commercial grades are more accesible and more obvious to the general market.

Unfortunately, the world of specialty coffee is too often isolated and inward focused and hence the purpose of this article is to take readers on a journey of discovery to the  world of specialty coffee which is vibrant and diverse, offering a plethora of flavors, origins, and experiences for coffee enthusiasts to explore. It’s a realm where passion, craftsmanship, and a commitment to quality come together to create a sensory journey like no other. For many of us, we recall vividly the enjoyable experiences of a unique coffee that tasted like Chappies Grape Bubblegum rolls, or like a Belgian Dark Chocolate sundae, or like a freshly cut fruit salad with touch of honey and lavender.

The Cape Coffee Club

Let’s delve into the variety and diversity that make the specialty coffee world so captivating. At the Cape Coffee Club, our journey has been to support many folks along their journey, at their pace and in the company of other coffee enthusiasts in a way that is helpful, respectful and empowering. To this effect we have built up a community of 200+ coffee experts, roasters, competitors, equipment vendors and ordinary Joe’s (excuse the 2nd pun) or Yusufs like you and me.

We want you to join this community, learn with us and take advantage of the information, special offers, early releases, coffee events and bespoke discussions in a safe and pleasurable environment. Follow us on Instagram @capecoffeeclub or if you prefer Whatsapp, you can request to join this club for free through the Instagram channel. We look forward to welcoming you and guiding you on your coffee journey.

Dr Zameer Brey is a medical doctor by profession. He founded the Cape Coffee Club as way to connect Coffee lovers, share information, access to new spots and lovely beans sourced locally and abroad. His coffee journey started 7 years ago and he has since been able to take many along the coffee exploration pathway. He has published a few coffee articles, completed a podcast and judged coffee competitions. Join the @capecoffeeclub to fund out what’s happening next.
The most comfortable place for Zameer is cup in hand, surrounded by beans from around the world being roasted to perfection!


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