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What is "specialty coffee?"

There are two types of people in this world: Those who drink specialty coffee and those who settle for regular.

A bit cliché, but we started with the "two-types of people" phrase to illustrate how overused words and phrases can lose meaning. When someone says “two types of people,” you know it’s probably not literal. When someone says specialty, however, it may be. Especially if that person is talking about coffee.

You might be surprised to learn that there are in fact three types of Arabica coffee: Specialty, premium and regular.

What is specialty coffee?

What is specialty coffee?

Specialty is a very specific coffee grade. In fact, it's the highest grade a coffee can receive: Grade 1.

All coffee beans are graded on a scale from 1 to 100 in a process called cupping.

The Specialty Coffee Association (SCA) specifies that only Arabica coffees with a cup score of 80 or above can be called specialty.

In order to achieve a score of 80 or higher, many things must happen. First, the coffee producer must pay careful attention to quality at every stage of production. Then, the beans must be cupped by a Certified Q-grader.

Specialty beans must be free of most defects, so farmers must carefully cultivate plants and harvest at the appropriate time.

Coffee producers must adhere to stringent processing practices and follow appropriate storage protocols.

Regular versus specialty coffee

Regardless of how refined your palate is, you’ll notice the difference in taste between regular and specialty coffees.

Regular coffee is anything that’s graded at 79 or lower. Sounds okay, right? Well, regular coffee enjoys some good marketing. The average low-maintenance person may think a regular cup of Joe is right up their alley. But what happens when you replace the word regular with the word inferior?

A regular cup of coffee isn’t looking as good now, is it?

Specialty versus single-origin coffee

Specialty coffee may be single-origin, but not all single-origin coffee is specialty. When a coffee is labeled as single-origin, it must come from one region. This usually translates to a country. For example, a blend of beans from Yergacheffe and Harrar can be considered single-origin because both places are in Ethiopia

Health benefits of coffee

You’ve undoubtedly heard about the many health benefits of coffee. These include reduced diabetes risk, cancer prevention and improved cognition.  

The reality is that most of these studies are done with specialty beans. Specialty beans are the purest and best-grown coffee beans, so they contain more of what’s good and less of what’s not.

Have you ever gotten hungover from a cheap bottle of wine? Most people have a similar experience with coffee. When you drink inferior coffee, you’re more likely to experience negative side effects, including jitters and anxiety.

Bottom line

It’s up to you to choose what kind of person you’d like to be. Are you a specialty coffee drinker or someone who settles for regular?