What is specialty coffee?

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The term "specialty coffee" was first used in a 1974 magazine "Tea & Coffee Trade Journal" by Erna Knutsen, who is known as a legend and godmother of specialty coffee. It shouldn´t be confused with terms "gourmet" or "premium", which are usually used for marketing purposes and have no defined standards.

The specialty coffee segment is rapidly growing worldwide and it refers to the whole process from farm to cup. Estimation is that less than 5% of all coffee produced currently belongs to this category. It is grown in high elevations with excellent soil quality and ideal weather conditions. This is key in creating the unique coffee flavours.

The ability to trace the origin of the coffee to the exact farmer/co-op where it was produced/processed is very important. The most famous countries for producing specialty coffee are Ethiopia, Kenya and Panama.

Technical definition by SCAA

The Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA) set up a point system using a scale from 0 to 100. Only coffee that scores above 80 can be considered specialty coffee. They take a 300g sample of green beans to be tested. No primary defects are allowed (black beans, sour beans) and no more than 5 secondary defects (broken beans, insect damage).

Coffee defects, credit: Royalcoffee
Coffee defects, credit: Royalcoffee

Evaluation (cupping) needs to be done by certified Q – grader, who is able to analyze arabica coffee through smell and taste:

  • smell of the ground coffee
  • after infusion with water
  • the sense of heaviness or thickness in your mouth
  • this is simply how coffee taste
  • very desirable characteristic in specialty coffee also called brightness, good kind of sourness which can be found in some fruits
  • intensity of natural sugary qualities
  • how long and what will stay in your mouth after swallowing the coffee
Coffee flavor wheel
Coffee flavor wheel

All these attributes are contributing into final score:

80-84 points
  • very good
85-89 points
  • excellent
over 90 points
  • outstanding

Vietnam already have some very high tested samples at 85-89 points in USA by SCAA standards. Just for the clarification, common coffees which are available in the shops or supermarkets can be considered as a commercial grade on the scale of 40-79 points. Under 40 points coffee is classified as off grade and it is mostly used for instant coffee.

Association which developed coffee scoring system
Association which developed coffee scoring system

Roasting and freshness

Roasting specialty coffee can be very challenging task. To maximize potential and highlight all the beautiful natural characteristics, specialty coffee is mostly roasted to light or medium levels. Dark roasting usually results in bitterness that most people need to compensate by adding lots of milk and/or sugar.

Freshness is a key factor when it comes to specialty coffee. Just like you probably wouldn´t want to consume week old bread or half year open bag of chips, coffee is best consumed within 1 month of roasting. After that, it will begin to loose too much of its distinctive flavour and characteristic. When purchasing specialty coffee you should always look for the roasting date on the package. It's also best to buy in small quantities more frequently to ensure maximum flavour. You can keep your coffee fresh a little longer by storing it in a cool dry place, but don't expect it to taste as good as fresh.

Roasting specialty coffee
Roasting specialty coffee


In Vietnam, it's very common that even coffee shops, restaurants, hotels and luxury resorts are using old, pre – ground coffee. Think of the roasted bean as having a protective shell that keeps all the aromas and flavours locked inside. Within 15-30 minutes after grinding, half of the flavours and aromas have disappeared. To enjoy your coffee to its fullest, the beans should be ground right before brewing. Inexpensive grinders are available everywhere and they make the difference between an OK cup of coffee and excellent cup.

Manual coffee grinders
Manual coffee grinders


All this effort is pointless without proper brewing. There are many variables to consider such as grind size, brewing device, bean quality, temperature of water, coffee grounds to water ratio, etc. Future articles will cover roasting, grinding and brewing in greater detail.

Specialty coffee in Vietnam

Don't forget that numbers will stay always only numbers, everybody have different taste and preferences. Final experience in the cup of coffee depends on all factors from the producing chain. In my opinion shouldn´t be simplified just into one number. At least not to the point that it´s only factor for your decision. Because actually being part of the whole process from farm to cup and developing the relationships with the people, who are on the start of this chain, is worth much more. To see their practices, processing methods and dedication. Supporting farmers and the growing area will ensure rising quality of each crop.

Mr. Ngoc showing us his farms in Cau Dat
Mr. Ngoc showing us his farms in Cau Dat

Before 1990, Vietnam government have been buying each coffee harvest for fixed price. There was little incentive for farmers to improve the quality and/or variety of the coffee they produced. Focusing mainly on production of robusta which is considered inferior to arabica as a export commodity. Just a few years ago, farmers in the highlands areas of Lam Dong province (capital city Dalat in elevation 1500m) realized they had the ideal conditions for growing high quality Arabica coffee. This started a revolution in Vietnam, and specialty coffee world will see much more from this coffee giant in the future.