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By Leo Sainati

Specialty coffee broadly refers to a careful and holistic approach to growing, processing, roasting, and serving coffee that is increasingly common in third-wave coffee shops around the world. From the climate and elevation at which the coffee plant is grown to the method of extraction used in the coffee shop, specialty coffee emphasizes an increased attention to quality throughout the coffee supply chain. It’s this supply chain that distinguishes coffee from other aromatic beverages. The coffee served by a barista has changed hands between farmers, millers, and roasters as well as numerous intermediaries in its route from farm to cup.

From the moment coffee is planted, numerous variables are already acting upon the nascent seeds to influence the final gustatory product. Various micro-climates, based on soil, altitude, humidity, and season all affect how coffee is grown and are crucial in maximizing flavor. Once the coffee cherry is picked at its peak ripeness, it needs to be quickly delivered to a mill for processing to ensure freshness.

During coffee’s processing stage, relative humidity, temperature, and storage conditions are essential in preserving flavor potential. The coffee cherry needs to have the outer layers removed and dried before it can be prepared to be shipped. The drying process, in particular, demands utmost care so as to ensure that the coffee is dried evenly and at the proper speed. After processing, the coffee is packaged and shipped to the roaster, who identifies flavor potential, develops the coffee bean flavor, and then properly packages the freshly roasted beans to increase the longevity of flavor.

Prior to brewing the coffee beans need to be ground to extract the full flavor profile. The coffee is particularly vulnerable to a loss of flavor during this period as the grinding of the beans allows for rapid oxidation and staling, so the coffee should be ground as close to the time of brewing as possible. Brewing and grinding are inherently intertwined, as the method of brewing affects how the coffee should be ground. Brewing methods such as french press, pour over, and drip coffee demand coarser grounds, while espresso calls for much finer grounds. This discrepancy in grind size is essential to maximizing the flavor of the coffee, as the wrong grind size can lead to under or over-extraction.

Finally, the coffee is brewed. As the last step in coffee’s journey from farm to cup, brewing demands particular care as it has the greatest potential to influence the flavor of coffee’s final product. The water used to brew the coffee is of particular importance, as its quality, temperature, and ratio all impact how the coffee is extracted and brewed.

Specialty coffee is not merely the beverage that eventually is served to the customer by a barista, but the holistic process by which coffee is grown, processed, roasted, ground, and brewed. Ensuring continuous care and attention throughout this process is the essence of specialty coffee and is integral to the commitment which many third-wave coffee shops have made in pursuit of serving delicious, quality coffee.

In addition to the broad emphasis placed on the coffee supply chain, the specialty coffee name is earned and administered by the Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA).

Part 2 of this article will explore precisely what specialty coffee beans are and the quantitative markers behind coffee rating and scoring.


Leo Sainati

Student at Northwestern University

Barista at Coffee Lab & Roasters - Evanston

Writing Intern for Ignitus Digital - Evanston

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