What is Specialty Coffee?

What is Specialty Coffee?

A Brief Intro to Specialty Coffee from the team at Coffee Beans Perth.

“What is specialty coffee?"

Our team here at Coffee Beans Perth have been in the Perth coffee industry for over ten years now (both as a long-time Perth Coffee Roaster and as the owners of a well-known Perth cafe) and one of the most common recurring questions we get from our customers is “what is specialty coffee?”

If you've been a coffee drinker for a little while, you've probably heard this term bandied around and may have wondered what it actually means. 

So we have written this short 5-point guide to succinctly answer the question "what is specialty coffee?" and give you a quick intro to the specialty coffee industry, it's importance and history.

Whether you are an industry pro or have never heard of specialty coffee, as a coffee lover we hope you'll find this article useful (and will appreciate the humble coffee bean in a whole new way).

This short specialty coffee guide is broken in 5 sections:

1. Coffee is actually a fruit.
2. The craft beer of the coffee world.
3. The origins of specialty coffee.
4. A little bit like wine-making.
5. Why does specialty coffee matter?


 1. Coffee is Actually a Fruit

Okay, so before we jump head first into the world of specialty coffee, it's important to understand that coffee is a fruit that grows on trees. 

This is important as most people think of coffee as a hard, brown bean-y kinda thing that comes from a bag and makes a delicious black (or white) drink. 

So then…

You know how the best apricots come from your Grandma's backyard tree that she gives plenty of love and attention and yet commercially grown Coles apricots taste pretty meh? 

Well coffee is exactly the same (because it is also a fruit).

So just like your Gran's apricot's, the BEST tasting coffee is grown with attention and care by small coffee farmers who REALLY CARE about their soil, trees and coffee beans.

Coffee trees produce a cherry - a little red fruit that kinda tastes like a cranberry and contains two fleshy green pips that are actually green coffee beans.

We'll do article on the history of coffee another day, but needless to say that people figured out thousands of years ago that green coffee beans were good for nothing unless you dried them and roasted them, in which case you could then grind them up to brew a delicious drink with stimulant properties.

So without going further down this rabbit-hole, the first-take home point is that because coffee is a fruit, it will taste better if you grow it in small quantities with the right growing techniques, optimal soil conditions and plenty of care (just like any other fruit).


2. The Craft Beer of the Coffee World

The simplest way to answer the question “what is specialty coffee?” is by thinking about the craft beer industry. 

For the best part of the 20th century, beer was seen as a cheap, mass-produced beverage that was manufactured as a commodity. 

(coffee was viewed in a similar light during this period and became even cheaper and more accessible to consume with the invention of things like instant coffee).

In the 1970's chefs, farmers, artisans & foodies began to question the commoditisation of food such as beer, bread and coffee and began to experiment with ways to improve the flavour and ethical production of these goods. 

This shift in thinking gave rise to the modern craft beer, sourdough and specialty coffee movements that are alive and kicking today. These food movements where often described as “third waves” as they build on the previous ‘waves’ of knowledge that had come before them. Specialty coffee is therefore often described as third wave coffee.

So in short, specialty coffee is like the craft beer of the coffee world.

Just like craft beer is defined as being different to generic mass-produced beer (think the difference between Boston Brewing in Denmark and Carlton & United), specialty coffee is best defined by what it's not (i.e it's the opposite to mass-produced commercial coffee or commodity coffee).

Note - To give you an idea of what we mean by commercial coffee (or commodity coffee) think about the cheap generic coffee beans you might find at a supermarket, big coffee chains like Coffee Club in Australia or Starbucks in the US, cheap instant coffee that tastes like cigarettes, coffee pods sold by multinational corporations and marketed by Hollywood stars - you get the picture (specialty coffee is not just ‘regular coffee’).

Specialty coffee is about ethically sourcing high quality green coffee beans directly from the coffee farmer, roasting them in small batches to preserve their characteristic flavour, and brewing them with care for coffee drinkers who really appreciate good coffee and where it comes from (just like wine aficionados or craft beer nerds).

So the second take-home point is this - specialty coffee is all about better growing, sourcing, roasting and brewing better quality coffee. 


3. The Origins of Specialty Coffee

While the modern specialty coffee movement blossomed in the 1970s, it's roots reach back to the early 1900s when coffee producers in Latin America and Africa (such as Costa Rica and Ethiopia) began to pioneer new methods of coffee farming and processing that focused on improving quality and flavour. These early efforts laid the groundwork for what specialty coffee would become​​​​.

The term "specialty coffee" itself was coined by Erna Knutsen in 1974 in the Tea & Coffee Trade Journal (it was also sometimes referred to as gourmet coffee but this name didn't stick). 

Knutsen's vision extended beyond just growing better quality green coffee beans; she saw specialty coffee as a vehicle to develop good relationships between the coffee farmer, coffee buyer and coffee roaster, each contributing to the coffee's journey from farm to cup​​​​.

So the third take-home is this, the term specialty coffee actually means “specialty grade coffee” and is an empirical measure of coffee quality at the green bean level. But it is also a philosophy of creating a farm-to cup value chain where the farmer, buyer, roaster and coffee-drinker all benefit.


4. A Little bit like Wine-Making

So what's the difference between a specialty coffee bean and a regular coffee bean? 

If you don't work in the coffee industry, to help answer this question it's good to know that coffee production is a little bit like wine-making. 

Just like wine grapes are graded in terms of quality before they are purchased and turned into wine, so too are green coffee beans graded on a 100-point coffee quality scale before being purchased by a green coffee buyer and sent for roasting (e.g. to a specialty coffee roaster like Coffee Beans Perth).

Specialty coffee is defined by the Specialty Coffee Association (SCA) as green coffee beans scoring 80 points or above on their 100-point scale. 

This score reflects a coffee's flavour profile, aroma, acidity, body, and balance. These characteristics are determined by the soil in which the coffee plant is growing in addition to quality of the cultivation practices at the farm level (as these affect the quality of the coffee cherry which is the fruit that contains the green coffee bean, as we noted earlier). 

Our fourth take-home? Specialty coffee production is focussed on growing, sourcing and roasting empirically better coffee beans and therefore stands in contrast to commercial coffee production, which prioritises yield and efficiency over the distinctive quality and flavour of the bean​​.

(for more on coffee quality you can visit the Coffee Quality Institute who train and educate consumers, coffee roasters and farmers about coffee quality).


5. Why Does Specialty Coffee Even Matter? 

The specialty coffee movement is part of what is known as the third wave of coffee, a concept that regards coffee as an artisanal product, rather than a bulk commodity. 

This perspective emphasises green bean quality, preserving a coffee's characteristic flavour and the importance of sustainable and ethical farming practices. It champions the idea that coffee should be crafted with the same care as fine wine​​. 

This movement has been the driving force behind a steep increase in specialty coffee roasters and specialty coffee consumption over the last two decades.

But why does any of this matter?

Firstly, it results in a more delicious cup of coffee for the coffee drinker. Whether drinking coffee at a cafe or at home, this relentless pursuit of better quality coffee has improved the taste of coffee across the whole coffee industry. This is particularly true of specialty coffee beans purchased from specialty coffee roasters (like Coffee Beans Perth) or specialty coffee shops (like our sister business, Jessie's Cafe).

Secondly, it results in a better deal for the farmer. By employing cultivation techniques that improve flavour and by trading directly with green coffee buyers and coffee roasters (as opposed to massive multi-nationals like Nestle) coffee farmers will paid more fairly for producing a higher quality product.

And thirdly, the environment wins. The specialty coffee ethos is tied up with financial sustainability for farmers and ecological best practice as much as it is on enhanced quality so specialty coffee has become a vehicle for growing practices that are better for the environment too.

So our fifth and final take-home is this: when you drink specialty coffee, you're not just enjoying a more delicious cuppa; you're partaking in a legacy of ethical consumerism. Specialty coffee often involves direct trade, fair compensation for growers, and investment in sustainable farming practices. It represents a commitment to the environment and to the communities involved in its creation.


At Coffee Beans Perth we pride ourselves on being a specialty coffee roaster.

This means the history and ethos of specialty coffee are integral to our four flagship products (Day Made, Kick Start, Bright Spark & Late Night). 

Each is selected for its adherence to these principles, offering a taste experience that is not just about flavour but about the narrative that each bean carries. As you enjoy our carefully curated coffee, you're connecting with a rich tapestry of history, quality, and global impact.

Best of all, because of this focus on quality, we can 100% guarantee that our locally-roasted specailty coffee will make your day.

And if it doesn't?

We'll give you your money back and you can still finish the bag :)

>> Try our locally-roasted specialty coffee beans here.

Brew well!

Jess & Cal.

Chief Coffee Wizards.

Coffee Beans Perth.

P.S. In some corners of the internet specialty coffee is referred to as speciality coffee (haha, you have to look closely but there is a difference). For simplicity sake we'll consider speciality coffee as synonymous with specialty coffee and will only use the later as speciality coffee is rarely used in the Perth coffee industry.

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