Specialty coffee uses single origins coffee beans that are freshly roasted and perfectly brewed. The term refers to the entire process of coffee making – from bean farming, the preferred processing method, and packaging, right down to the beverage being poured in the consumer’s cup. There are special geographic climates that produce coffee beans with unique flavor profiles, which is what makes it a specialty coffee.

The first time it was mentioned was in 1978 by Erna Knutsen (Knutsen Coffee Ltd.) while she was delivering a speech at an international coffee conference in Montreuil, France. The fundamental premise is that specialty coffee beans should always be well-prepared, fresh-roast coffee that’s appropriately brewed – and that was the craft of the coffee industry that has been slowly evolving since the 1950s.

Specialty Coffee in the 21st Century

The Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA) defines specialty coffee as green coffee beans that have no quakers, are free of primary defects, are adequately dried and sized, presented in the cup free of taints and faults, and have distinctive traits. In other words, specialty coffee needs to pass grading and cupping tests according to established standards that define specialty coffee in its raw form.

To this day, all specialty coffee definitions may vary, but they all share a common theme. The highest quality green coffee bean is roasted to the best flavor potential and brewed perfectly to meet industry standards. It doesn’t include the work of just one person in the entire lifecycle of a coffee bean. Specialty coffee is produced when everyone involved in the coffee value chain maintains a focus on excellence and standards from start to finish. Graded by certified coffee tasting, specialty coffee beans need to hold a score between 80 and 100 points, according to a scale by organizations such as the SCA (Specialty Coffee Association). Every step of the process is carefully monitored and understood.

Consumers have many choices regarding specialty coffee, such as the coffee producer and growing region. Buying the best coffee can be based on the coffee growing regions, by the coffee blends designed for a specific coffee flavor, by the type of coffee roast, and even times of the day it should be consumed. One important characteristic of specialty coffee is that you’ll always find it to be stored or delivered as whole beans that need to be ground before brewing. It is often roasted in independent stores or small factories.

All Stages of Specialty Coffee Production

The ways in which we can develop, recognize, and promote a specialty coffee product is the unique chain of the coffee’s custody. There are many factors involved in the production and delivery of the final coffee beverage. Coffee typically arrives in the consumer’s hand after a series of handoffs – from coffee farmer to miller to intermediaries to roaster to brewer – with the final experience being dependent on no single participant in the chain. Therefore, we need to examine the roles that each one of them plays in order to truly understand what specialty coffee is and where it comes from.

1. Coffee potential and preservation

To start at the ground level, we need to limit specialty coffee to those drawn from the right intersection of cultivar, soil chemistry, microclimate, and husbandry. The coffee’s potential is the first key concept because, before the coffee is roasted and brewed, the concept of specialty coffee beans is only a possibility. Planting coffee in the wrong soil or at the wrong altitude prevents us from producing a specialty product.

The next important concept is the preservation of a ripe coffee cherry that was planted in the right soil, grown with the right climatic conditions, and cared for appropriately. To preserve the potential for excellent specialty coffee, it must be picked at the peak of ripeness. After it’s been harvested, the coffee cherry needs to undergo some initial processing. The time between the harvest and the beginning of processing can also have a significant impact on the final coffee product.

2. The initial processing

In the initial processing stage, the coffee beans must be treated carefully to avoid damage. First, the skin and pulp get removed, and then the coffee beans have to be dried. If they are dried insufficiently, unevenly, too slowly, or too quickly, it can be disastrous to the final quality of the specialty coffee bean. Before undergoing further stages of raw processing and preparation, the coffee must be rested in storage containers where the temperature and humidity can be controlled. The coffee beans need to be hulled, separated by size (using screens), and packaged for shipping, and even the smallest mistakes in screening or storage conditions before shipping can take away from the coffee’s potential.

3. Roasting and grinding

From green coffee beans, the coffee enters the next stage of transformation – roasted coffee. During the roasting process, the roaster must identify the potential for the coffee, develop the flavors appropriately, and package the roasted product properly. Poor packaging practices and materials, equipment not operating properly, or having an unskilled roaster to do the job can result in disaster.

Also, when it comes to distribution in a processing plant, a coffee roaster can utilize tubular cable and drag conveyors to improve production efficiency, reduce operating costs, protect the coffee beans from cross-contamination, and minimize coffee bean damage.

When this stage is performed the right way, the potential remains intact, and the coffee is ready to be ground. Specialty coffee is delivered to coffeehouses as beans because grinding should be done as close to brewing as possible. Upon grinding, many delicate aromatic compounds are fully released, while ground coffee is subject to rapid staling and oxidation. What is also critical in this stage is the size of the ground particles. This is determined by the brewing method. If the grind is too fine, the over-extraction may destroy the coffee. On the other hand, if the grind is too coarse, the coffee may not develop its full coffee flavor potential.

Tubular cable and disc conveyors can be used for conveying both whole coffee beans and ground coffee because they operate significantly slower than bucket elevators, augers, drag chain conveyors, and other conveying technologies. The product is treated gently without force or friction build-up within the inside walls and with no destruction to the bean using airflow.

4. Brewing

Upon entering the brewing stage, specialty coffee beans are now one step away from the coffee aficionado. A coffee barista is a person specialized in preparing and serving specialty and espresso-based coffee beverages. The term may also apply to coffee shop employees who prepare regular coffee with a french press or another coffee maker, as well as espresso coffee drinks, or anyone with excellent skills in making espresso shots and drinks (e.g., cappuccinos and lattes).

What’s common to these different definitions is that a barista is certified with many hours of course work and hands-on experience. Also, the barista is informed about the origin of the coffee bean, as well as its flavor profiles. If the specialty coffee isn’t brewed correctly, then its full potential can never be exposed to the coffee consumer. Whether it is going to be prepared as drip coffee or espresso, there are standards of brewing temperature, water quality, coffee-to-water ratio, and extraction that must be followed in order to create quality coffee and the perfect cup of specialty coffee.

New Standards are Under Development

From the green bean to the final coffee beverage, various standards are either currently in place or are being developed. For the preparation of drip coffee, for example, the SCA Brewing Standard defines the proper ratio of water to coffee, extraction, brewing temperature, and holding time and temperature. There are also standards for espresso preparation, while those for steeping are under development.

The Roasters Guild has made a great effort to develop better roasting standards by implementing a certification for coffee roasters that helps ensure they’ve been adequately trained in preserving and revealing the true potential of the specialty coffee bean. Also, the Barista Guild is dealing with the development of the barista certificate to ensure the final preparers of the specialty coffee beverage are also experts in the extractions of various coffee flavors inherent in a specialty coffee.

The final analysis is performed to determine the quality of the product (green and roasted beans, as well as prepared coffee beverages) and the quality of life that coffee can bring to everyone involved in the entire process (from cultivation and degustation).

Each year, Cablevey joins specialty coffee exhibitions to demonstrate how our conveyor systems can improve the efficiency and safety regarding the distribution of coffee beans throughout the production process. We have already engineered fresh or roasted bean conveyor systems for production plants (large to small) around the world.