Speciality coffee is enjoying a real surge of popularity in the UK and globally, and there are many people who’re just starting to hear the term, and are asking ‘what is speciality coffee?’, if you’re wondering this, then this post is for you.
I’ve been drinking coffee for as long as I can remember, but my relationship with coffee has changed over the years. As a kid I would drink only instant, as it was all I knew, and I drank it with milk and sugar. If you’d have asked me back then what is speciality coffee, I’d have probably replied ‘erm, the expensive instant stuff?’
I used to spend hours fishing, especially at the weekends and summer holidays, and I’d always take a flask of coffee with me. It was always instant, and it was always milky and full of sugar, and had a particular “flask coffee” taste.
Growing up, it was that kind of coffee that appealed to me, when I drank it, it reminded me of the tranquility of sitting by a pool, staring at a float, and usually not catching very much ;-), but enjoying myself nonetheless.
When I left school, and started working, I got into sales, and that meant sales meetings and conferences, and there was always coffee flowing. This was usually in hotels, and it was freshly brewed coffee, usually via electric drip filter machines and sitting in a glass jar on a hot plate. This is mainly where I started learning that there was more to life than instant coffee.
At some point I stopped taking sugar in coffee, I’m not sure if it’s that I was getting to like the taste of coffee more than the taste of sugar, and didn’t feel the need to sweeten it, or that I was getting fat and wanted to drop the sugar, and then got used to it, I can’t quite remember.
Moving forward several years, and I had my own business within web marketing, in a small office, fueled by an electric coffee drip filter machine. I was buying big pre-ground tins of coffee via a friend in the USA who was posting it over to me, far cheaper at the time than I could buy the same quantity of coffee for locally.
Thinking back to the taste of this stuff now, it was strong, dark roasted, bitter (as I’d have it sitting in the jug on the heat). This was partly down to the kind of coffee I was buying, but more to the way I was brewing it, I really didn’t have a clue. Coffee for me at that time was purely fuel, it wasn’t about savouring and enjoying, it was about keeping me awake and productive, as I was putting in some serious hours.
Fast forward to today, and my relationship with coffee is a lot different. I don’t drink coffee just for fuel, It’s become more of a hobby, and it’s more about the taste. I look forward to getting bags of coffee in the post from various coffee roasters, different coffee varietals, different origins, different farms, different processing methods, and noticing different flavours. I savour it, I try to properly appreciate all of the subleties of the flavours.
In short, my experience with coffee now is about enjoyment and discovery, not solely about staying awake and focussed.
This has happened because of my move away from just coffee, just whatever coffee is in front of me, cheapest, quickest and easiest – to speciality coffee, meaning coffee that is among the best quality available, grown, picked, processed, roasted and brewed in a special way, in order to get the very best that the coffee beans have to offer.
So, what is speciality coffee?
The last paragraph really answers the question ‘what is speciality coffee’. But if you’re looking for a more concise description, I met SCAE (Speciality Coffee Association of Europe) Barista trainer Andreas Constantinou recently, who was giving a talk as part of the brew school at Adams & Russell coffee roasters in Birkenhead. He gave a really simple description of speciality coffee which I think sums it up best, when he said that “Speciality coffee, is coffee that has been grown, picked, processed, roasted and then brewed in a special way. “
He gave a great very detailed talk about the way that coffee is grown, and all of the important elements that go into speciality coffee. Including the location & elevation of the farm, the choice of the coffee tree varietals, the way that the coffee cherries are harvested, processed, exported and roasted. He then went on to demonstrate the proper way to brew coffee using various brew methods, and at the same time I got to try a few of the various recently roasted coffees at Adams & Russell, needless to say I was in my element ;-).
When he describes the way this kind of coffee is developed, it’s obvious to see the difference between speciality coffee, and commodity coffee.
Commodity coffee is what you’re likely to get via the big retailers & supermarkets, either as instant coffee, or bags of pre-ground coffee or wholebean coffee, that has been purchased based solely on price, and imported, roasted & packaged in whopping great quantities, with the focus being on price and profit margin.
This isn’t at all a put-down of supermarkets and big retailers by the way, it’s purely the nature of these kind of businesses, this is what they’re about. That is, FMCG (fast moving consumer goods) is all about getting what the consumer wants, at a price point designed to produce the biggest sales volumes, the goal being to move as much of the product as physically practical. This isn’t to say that anyone is wrong by buying this kind of coffee, it’s what I drank for the majority of my life as a kid and as an adult up until not all that long ago, so I’m certainly not saying that, I’m just pointing out what the difference is.
Speciality coffee involves smaller farms, less productive coffee trees picked for the quality of the resulting coffee rather than for their yield, smaller volumes and small batch roasting, so this just doesn’t fit in with the way supermarkets work. Also when it comes to supermarkets, they need as long as possible shelf life, which is usually 12 months or more with coffee. Those involved in producing speciality coffee know full well that to be enjoyed at it’s best it needs to be consumed within days or weeks of roasting, certainly not several months or years. What would be the point of putting so much effort into producing the best possible quality of the resulting cup of coffee, if it’s then going to sit in a bag in storage for moths, losing it’s ability to fully deliver the taste that it could do if consumed closer to roasting and packing? This is especially true of pre-ground coffee.
Does Single Origin Coffee Mean Speciality?
This is a good question, because it would appear that retailers would have consumers believe that single origin coffee is better and worthy of a higher price tag, and fancier packaging. The truth is though that while most speciality coffee is single origin, not all single origin coffee is speciality coffee. Being single origin is one element of speciality coffee, but it’s not the only element, there are many more.
The point of single origin coffee is the particular flavour profiles that come from that region, so by using only coffee from that same region, the consumer enjoys the particular flavour profile synonymous with that region. The point of speciality coffee is to do the very best with all of the important elements that go into coffee, to ensure that the resulting cup of coffee delivers these flavours as well as possible. If you’re to start with single origin coffee, but then to pay no attention to the way it’s processed after picking, or what coffee varietal is used, or how it’s roasted, or how it’s brewed, then what would be the benefit in going for single origin, other than being able to display that on the packaging as a selling point?
If you want to try speciality coffee brewed by a Barista, then go to an indie speciality coffee shop with a good reputation. If you grab an indi coffee guide for your area, you’ll find some great coffee shops where you will be able to experience some great coffee.
For brewing great coffee yourself at home, just grab yourself a cafetiere, or V60 or Kalita wave or chemex pourover dripper, or an Aeropress, or Moka pot, or a cold brew pot. Or a decent espresso machine such as a Gaggia classic, Rancilio Silvia, or Sage Barista Express (lots more espresso machines available, and I’d recommend you put a lot of time into research if you’re looking at spending hundreds of pounds on a pro-sumer machine). If you want to cheat with bean to cup ;-), and you have deep enough pockets, an auto machine such as a Jura. Even better still, get most or all of these brewing methods at home (as I have) so you can brew depending on what mood you’re in :-).
You will then of course need the coffee, and we’re really lucky now to have a wealth of small batch UK coffee roasters, hundreds of them, all over the country, and most of them sell their freshly roasted coffee beans online.
The final thing to say is about grinding, it’s highly recommended (not just by me, but also by just about every Barista and coffee professional you’ll meet) that you grind your own coffee, instead of buying it ready ground. I started off with a hand operated grinder, I then got fed up of having to grind by hand, and I hacked it by using a cordless hand drill (on the weaker power setting, and doing it slowly, so not to break the grinder). I then invested in a sage smart grinder pro, which I have been using for the past 5 months, which is brilliant!
So now you know what speciality coffee is :-).
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