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What Is Specialty Coffee? SCA Offers a Fresh Definition

Specialty Coffee 1

The phrase “I know it when I see it” was not a colloquialism until 1964, when United Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart famously penned it to describe the threshold for what constitutes hardcore pornography as opposed to free speech.

As technical definitions go, the Stewart threshold is woefully insufficient, although it might reasonably be applied to the term “specialty coffee” over the past 40-plus years, since Erna Knutson first applied the term.

While the specialty coffee industry has continued to gain global market share as compared to its foil, “conventional coffee” or “commodity coffee,” definitions of the term “specialty coffee” have remained largely debatable, blowing around with the prevailing market winds, and subject to individual “I know it when I see it” interpretation.

That said, the definition of specialty coffee has almost always centered around the concept of “quality.”

What is specialty coffee

Today, the Specialty Coffee Association released a white paper that offers a fresh definition of specialty coffee — one that focuses not merely on “quality” but on “attributes.” Moreover, the definition takes into account whether or not the attributes of a given coffee make it more desirable in the marketplace.

“Since the introduction of the term ‘specialty coffee,’ there has been a continuing difficulty in concretely defining its meaning,” the SCA paper, which was written by SCA Chief Research Officer and Coffee Science Foundation Executive Director Peter Giuliano, states. “Definitions range from the tautological (‘specialty coffee is special’) to the narrow and highly technical (‘specialty grade samples must have zero category 1 defects and no more than five category 2 defects’; ‘specialty coffee is coffee graded above 80 points on a 100 point scale’).”

Giuliano and the SCA team said that such definitions tended be either “too vague to be useful,” or “too specific to be broadly applicable.”

The authors wrote, “a concise, comprehensive definition for specialty coffee has never been published by the Specialty Coffee Association (SCA), despite the fact the most commonly asked question of its leaders is: ‘What is specialty coffee?’

In short, the new definition the paper proposes for coffee is this:

Specialty coffee is a coffee or coffee experience recognized for its distinctive attributes, and because of these attributes, has significant extra value in the marketplace.

The longer version of this definition, plus an overview of the work that went into its creation, can be found here.

Giuliano told DCN that the SCA board has been requesting a revision of the group’s definition of specialty coffee “for years.”

“Recently, in doing market and economic research, that need became even sharper: for example, in our recent research aimed at understanding any differences in labor conditions between ‘specialty’ and ‘non-specialty’ coffee farms, we needed a meaningful definition so we could categorize the farms being researched,” Giuliano told DCN via email.

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The SCA introduced some of the new concepts at a Re:co session last May, while the paper’s title — “Towards a Definition of Specialty Coffee” — suggests that the work will be ongoing.

Giuliano said the new definition was in part inspired by an academic case study led by Togo M. Traore and others that explored the factors that explain specialty coffee scores and prices using data from the Cup of Excellence program. The paper showed how various sensory as well as non-sensory attributes affected cupping scores and the auction prices that resulted.

“It then dawned on me that a definition of specialty could be based on this larger concept of attributes, rather than boiling it down to a cupping score, which is not necessarily understandable nor consistently applied,” Giuliano said.

Giuliano and colleagues at the SCA are currently integrating the new definition into various research projects, while promoting its adaptation among stakeholders throughout the coffee industry.



Matthew Daks

This is great progress toward defining a rather illusive concept. My answer to this question, for some time, has always been to say that Specialty Coffee is that which derives its value from something other than price. A bit simplistic, but along the same lines as what has been put forward here… Hope everyone is enjoying a good Expo!

Price Peterson

Sounds like Peter G. I would modify to “Specialty coffee is a coffee with distinctive (superior) attributes, grown in a specific local by a specific grower.” This is closer to the original definitions of both Erna and Ted Lingle.

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