What makes specialty coffee special?

There is nothing like that great cup of coffee in the morning, especially when it is a well-brewed cup of something special. However, it’s not always clear what the differences are between Specialty and Commercial grade coffee.

The rigorous standards put in place by the Specialty Coffee Association of America determine the grade coffee is given based on quality during all points of production. In order to be considered Specialty, it must be graded at 80 or above. Anything less is considered Commercial grade. These standards oversee quality in the following:

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  1. Ethical
  2. Environmental
  3. Farming
  4. Processing
  5. Brewing

A cup of Specialty coffee is not all that there is. There are so many factors that went into play in order to determine how that amazing cup of coffee was going to end up the way it did, and every single step is highly regulated by the Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA) to determine that only the very best beans make it into that cup. Keep reading to find out about these things.

What are the 5 Things That Make Specialty Coffee So Special?

It is an experience in and of itself. Specialty coffee shops are about more than just the coffee they serve, they are trying to build an atmosphere, an experience, and a great brand to keep customers coming back. They are trying to make just existing as a specialty coffee shop to be something special in and of itself.

However, just a person-by-person experience is not enough to make it so special. The SCAA has put into place standards to ensure a high-quality cup of coffee reaches a level deemed gourmet.

Ethical Factors

People are almost as important to the overall quality of the coffee. Most Specialty coffees take into account how their beans were sourced, and if that was ethical.

Questions that might be asked to determine if the beans were sourced ethically:

  1. Are the workers paid an appropriate wage?
  2. How are the workers treated?
  3. How were the beans obtained?
  4. What is the state of their farms?

Both large corporations and small family farms play big parts in supplying the world with coffee. Just because more negative means of collection might be alright in some countries doesn’t mean that Americans want to find out that their coffee came from a plantation where their workers were underpaid and miserable.

Environmental Factors

The fact of the matter is any sort of farming takes up space. Large corporations with their Sun Farms take up far more space and lead to much heavier deforestation than a small, family-owned shade farm will.

Additionally, farms that take use of more sustainable measures are more likely to produce longer term, high-quality produce in a way that makes everyone happy.

There are also a lot of little factors the environment is responsible for when farming the beans, such as soil quality and weather, so the grading of the beans leans heavily on these sorts of factors.


The most popular beans are Arabica beans, which are twice as sweet as Robusta beans, another commonly used kind of coffee bean. Robusta beans typically end up in Commercial grade coffees instead of Specialty simply due to having a more burnt and bitter flavor.

Farming of the beans takes a lot of steps and factors into consideration when grading, such as:

  1. Soil
  2. Altitude
  3. Oxygen
  4. Weather
  5. Ripeness
  6. Delivery

If any of these factors are subpar, it could affect the overall quality rating of the final product. Plants are finicky and require very specific needs to be met or the flavor will not be quite the same.


Once the beans make it to the mill to be processed, every step is crucial to the overall grading of a batch. Even a minor slip can take the beans from Specialty to Commercial.

Processing steps include:

  1. Washing
  2. Skin removal
  3. Drying slowly and evenly
  4. Roasting
  5. Grounding
  6. Packaging
  7. Transporting

It’s relatively easy to find higher quality coffees simply by their packaging. If they have made it all the way to where they are going in a nice package, chances are the contents inside are a higher grade than those in poorer packages.


The final piece of the puzzle as to what makes Specialty coffee so good is that final brew. There simply cannot be a coffee experience if the coffee hasn’t been brewed and prepared for consumption. A certified barista who has gained extensive training and is using higher quality materials to make that perfect cup is going to produce a better product than someone with a cheap machine and internet tutorials might.

It also matters exactly how the coffee was brewed, as that will also change the overall flavor. Such brewing methods include:

  1. Drip Brewed
  2. Espresso
  3. Pour Over
  4. Cold Brew

Once that perfect cup has finally made it to the consumer, it has gone through a lot to ensure that it is going to be good stuff. That’s the biggest difference between Specialty and Commercial grade: it tastes better!

Why Should I Buy Specialty Coffee?

Specialty coffee has been put through extensive standards by the SCAA for quality and has to reach a grade of 80 or higher in order to be classed as such. Specialty coffee also typically uses the highly popular Arabica beans, as they are twice as sweet as the comparable Robusta which have a more burnt and bitter flavor.

Due to the fact it has passed such rigorous standards, chances are that cup of Specialty coffee is going to taste way better than that cheap canister of Commercial grade stuff.

Why specialty coffee is special.

Nobody is going to deny the fact that using higher quality ingredients results in a better product. The same goes for coffee, wherein Specialty grade has used all of the best beans sourced from the best farms, processed better, and brewed better than comparable Commercial grade coffees. Specialty coffee is an experience, and it works hard to be a positive one.

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