Specialty Coffee and Defective Beans!
“What is specialty coffee?”
I’m pretty sure that was the response I got back from at least one parent and several friends when I told them about de Fer. It’s a GREAT question—especially because the follow-up question is so often “…and why does it cost so much!?”
I’m sure books have been written on the topic, but I wanted to give my very-short version of an answer, because if you’re taking the time to read this, you deserve to know. PLUS, to coffee nerds like me, it’s actually interesting.
First and foremost, ‘specialty coffee’ actually does have an objective definition:
The Specialty Coffee Association defines it as a coffee that scores at least 80 points out of 100 in a formal cupping—which is a standardized way of tasting and comparing coffee.
What makes a coffee score 80+ points you might ask? In general, a great coffee achieves an optimal balance of sweetness, acidity, body, flavor and aroma. In other words, it tastes great. But what causes all those things to happen? Is it the farmer? The variety of coffee plant? The roaster? That is where it gets interesting.
There are literally hundreds of factors in determining how good a coffee is (or isn’t)—but here is the way-oversimplified version. First, the beans must be from a good, quality coffee plant. Usually that means some type of Arabica plant grown well above sea level, as opposed to Robusta which is easier and cheaper to grow but doesn’t taste as good. Secondly, and just as importantly, there should be very few defective beans in the coffee. Only fully-formed, well ripened red coffee cherries should end up in your coffee. One rotten bean in a bag for instance can lower the overall quality of the whole batch by a significant margin. And apparently, it’s tough be a nice coffee bean.
Beans can be underdeveloped like those tiny peanuts you find sometimes in the shell, or they can be partially eaten by bugs. They could be moldy, under-ripe, over-ripe, or just plain stanky. Getting only ripe cherries would seem easy, but it’s not. Coffee cherries happen to ripen at different times on the same tree—meaning someone is going to have to make multiple passes over the same tree over the course of weeks. After picking, more sorting is required to avoid defects that are not visible to the eye of the picker. This is usually done by putting coffee through water tanks that separate cherries according to the old ‘float or not float’ test. After milling (the pulp is removed, exposing the seed/bean), more mechanical and/or visual sorting is required. It’s not uncommon for top quality coffees to be sorted 10+ times using several different methods (though most are by hand/eye, done by humans).
So it’s easy to see how the cost adds up—and that is a big part of what drives the cost of specialty coffee up. The other big factor is that most specialty coffee importers, roasters and drinkers (thankfully) want to make sure the workers growing, harvesting and processing the coffee can earn a fair living. On the other end of the spectrum—commodity coffee—there are years when farmers can’t even cover their costs due to market-driven fluctuations in the commodity price.
Typical specialty coffee can cost anywhere from two to five times the commodity price—for very good reason.
I worked in the wine industry briefly and see a correlation here. When people ask what makes wine good or not, the simplest answer in my opinion—is how well the grapes were sorted. Was it harvested or sorted by hand? If it is, then at least you know your wine is mostly made of grapes. On the other hand, big wineries creating lower-end wine simply machine harvest, then squish up whatever they harvested and there’s your juice. There will be lots of grapes in there, yeah, but also a lot of leaves, sticks, stones, spiders, rodents, bugs, birds and whatever else was unlucky enough to get ‘harvested’ that day. I saw that process first hand. Didn’t exactly make me want to run for a baguette and a block of Roquefort.
So anyway—that’s the super short of it. Specialty coffee is Arabica coffee, grown in optimal (often high-altitude) conditions—and was well-sorted to avoid stanky-ass beans going into your coffee—and (hopefully) those people doing all that harvesting, sorting, milling and drying were getting paid a fair wage.