Coffee connoisseurs everywhere might think they know all there is to know about coffee. Maybe they can tell you all about which roast to drink with your breakfast, and which is better to have with your lunch. However, there is one question even the best of them may not be able to answer: what is the real difference between specialty and commodity coffee?
Coffee is a commodity, but that does not mean that all specialty coffees are commodity coffees. Commodity coffees are mass-produced, easily found on grocery store shelves, and often lower quality. Specialty coffee has several guidelines it must meet to be considered above commodity coffee.
In this article, you’ll learn more about the differences between specialty and commodity coffees, where to find each, and which one is a better buy. Read on to find out if the type of coffee you consume really makes a difference.
Coffee as a Commodity
Coffee is technically considered a commodity. Coffee is sold on the commodities market, and the price can fluctuate.
Commodity coffee’s prices are influenced mostly by supply and demand. However, specialty coffee has several additional price factors like quality and production costs. As a result, specialty coffee is usually higher quality and a bit more expensive than commodity coffee.
What are the Differences?
An average person might not really care about specialty vs. commodity coffee from an economic perspective, but they might if they realize that it can impact the taste. The most important differences come from:
- Quality standards
Specialty coffee is subject to approval by the Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA). The SCAA oversees every aspect of specialty coffee making: the farming, the roasting, the trading, and the marketing. In order for something to be considered a specialty coffee, it needs to score at least an 80/100 overall. This ensures that nobody cut corners in producing the coffee to save money so you’re getting the highest quality coffee possible.
Commodity coffee, however, has no such association and is largely unregulated. Brands can impose their own standards, but for the most part, commodity coffee is not subject to the same quality assurance that specialty coffee is.
Commodity coffee, being that it is mostly unregulated, is not always ethically sourced. Some beans are harvested from farms that might engage in child labor or other unsafe working conditions. In addition, commodity coffee isn’t required to be sourced through direct or fair trade, so the farmers themselves are often not paid fairly.
Specialty coffees, as they are subject to the SCAA, are sourced more ethically than commodity coffees are. They go through direct or fair trade, so the farmers themselves make a larger profit. To be considered SCAA certified, these farms must be committed to ethical practices for their employees and the environment.
Specialty coffee has to pass several tests just to get to the roasting stage: the beans, when they’re first harvested, are inspected and confirmed to be free of defects. Then they’re roasted and packaged, typically in whole-bean form, to be delivered to the destination.
Whole bean coffee stays fresher for longer than its ground counterpart. Keeping the coffee beans whole when they’re shipped from the farms ensures that the coffee will taste fresher, even if the distributor grinds it when they receive the shipment. Keeping the coffee whole for as long as possible also preserves the flavor.
In some commodity coffee factories, however, the beans (which have not been checked as thoroughly) are ground on-site, leading to a quicker loss of flavor and freshness. This, coupled with the fact that the beans aren’t always high quality, can lead to a disappointing cup of coffee.
Commodity coffee is sold at market price. It’s also much cheaper than specialty coffee, because:
- There is no quality assurance team, like the SCAA, to pay
- Commodity coffee doesn’t have to source from ethical and sustainable farms
- Lower quality beans = less initial cost
However, specialty coffee is pricier than commodity coffee. The price considers the price of commodity coffee, as well as needing to cover the costs of quality assurance and ethically and sustainably sourced, high-quality coffee beans.
All of these factors may make it seem like specialty coffee is hard to find, but realistically, it’s not. Some big-name brands like Starbucks sell specialty coffee which can be found on most grocery store shelves. You can also find specialty coffee at most local coffee shops.
Specialty vs Commodity Coffee Explained
If you’re committed to better quality coffee and sustainable sourcing, specialty coffee is the brew for you. Commodity coffee, though cheaper and sometimes easier to access on the go, just won’t provide the same bold flavor.