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IS SPECIALITY COFFEE REALLY SPECIAL?

Updated: May 30, 2023

What is ‘speciality coffee’ and why would a cafe want to promote itself as using speciality grade coffee.


Without going into too much details, each coffee is graded by professional tasters called Q-graders. Coffees graded 80 and above (on a scale of 100) are classified as speciality coffee. Anything over the grade of 90 is considered of exceptional quality.


Several processes affect the quality of coffee. Some of the most impactful are harvesting practices: processing (washed, natural, honey, anaerobic natural etc…): green bean storage: transportation: roasting and finally the brewing equipment & barista’s care and skills. Each of the above processes can either enhance or decrease the sensory qualities in the finished product. Lets not forget about terroir & coffee plant varietal…


Every now and then we welcome overseas visitors amazed at the coffee culture in Australia and and in awe of the existence of shops entirely dedicated to coffee. As a frenchmen, I remember coffee being this awfully bitter and watered down version of what I know now as an espresso. It would need a couple of sugars to be drinkable. Add a cigarette and a croissant - voila - breakfast was sorted. It was never the norm to walk around with a 'latte' in hand. I would normally have 'un petit café' in the morning and after lunch. When it comes to great coffee shops and amazing coffee culture, we are definitely spoilt in Australia.


With so many options and such a variety of providers of ‘speciality grade’ coffee, the meaning of speciality coffee has somewhat been blurred and diluted. Andrew Kelly’s (World renown coffee roaster) puts quite simply: “Specialty coffee” – a description so common in the modern marketplace that it’s become meaningless”.


Why do I agree? Because just about any café using speciality grade beans can call themselves a speciality coffee house. While the average coffee is quite good in Australia by international standards, there is a widening gulf between the low and high end of the coffee industry. The level of training, care, equipment, maintenance, cleanliness (the list goes on...) may be drastically different between two 'speciality coffee houses' - but you wouldn't know until you tried or looked deeper into things. At the end of day, it's down to having respect for the product and respect for your customers. As industry professionals, we owe it to every single person involved in the coffee production process to get the best out of the product we are given. Otherwise, the labour going into picking the hundred or so coffee beans that went into the shot of coffee about to be served is all for nothing.


Things to look for when going out for your next coffee.

I'm not sure about you but I rarely have an espresso unless I am certain the establishment will be good. I usually start with a piccolo. If the piccolo is good, I might have a black coffee and a filter. I've put together a small list of things that may indicate a quality offering.


Multiple brewing methods.

Speciality coffee that only serves espresso based drinks is a bit of a red flag. The espresso coffee might be delicious but I believe this exemplifies the lack of strict definition of what a speciality coffee house should be. At the very least there should be batch brew on offer.


Multiple single origin on offer

Also multiple guests roasters unless the cafe is also a roaster which then is actually a level above.


Knowledgeable barista.

Barista don't need to be at Q-graders level but they should at least know what they are selling from a flavour perspective and have tried most of the coffees on offer at a minimum. If the barista can offer recommendations, even better.


Are scales being used?

No scales, bad sign. Coffee extraction is the same as cooking, you follow a recipe. No scale, no measurement, no idea.


Do you see brewing recipes somewhere in the shop (often it will be on the grinder)? That's a good sign.


Is the hopper on the grinder clean and free of oil stains?

If no thats a sign the cleaning standards are not great and it will affect the flavour of your coffee. I bet the burrs on those grinders haven't cleaned up for a while either.


In summary, the same great coffee might be served completely differently by two establishments. One might butcher it, the other could open your eyes (or palate) to something incredible.


[Next post]

What can we do as an industry to improve?

What can customers do to help?



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