What Is Specialty Coffee?

Part II: The stories green coffee tells

Recently, we discussed how to define specialty coffee. Now, we’re taking a deeper look into the process of evaluating the quality of green coffee, which is one of two ways that professionals determine whether or not a coffee is specialty.  

Carly Ahlenius sorting a green coffee sample

Carly Ahlenius sorting a green coffee sample

Green Coffee Quality Matters

The first thing Blue Bottle Green Coffee Specialist and Lab Manager, Carly Ahlenius does when green coffee arrives at our warehouse is assess its physical qualities.

As with any other craft food or drink, where premium raw ingredients elevate a product from mediocre to outstanding, the quality of a particular green coffee determines its potential for deliciousness once brewed. In other words, neither great roasting technique nor expert preparation will ever make up for subpar coffee.

How Do We Know If a Coffee Is Specialty?

Two green coffee samples

Two green coffee samples

We have an open-door policy at Blue Bottle where any farmer anywhere in the world can send in their coffee for Blue Bottle’s consideration. Carly treats all samples the same, auditing them as she would the solicited pre-shipment samples of the coffees we intend to buy.

The process begins with a 350-gram sample, from which Carly sorts out individual beans with physical defects. “Physical defect” is a catchall term for the wide range of imperfections affecting the quality of the bean itself. To an extent, such imperfections are impossible to prevent on the farm level, but careful cultivation and processing methods can mitigate the frequency with which they occur. At the very least, thorough sorting during processing and milling can remove the majority of defect beans.

Carly relies upon a rubric created by the Specialty Coffee Association (SCA), which defines physical defects and gives corresponding values to them.

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“Not all defects impact cup quality in the same way,” says Carly. “So the SCA has classified defects by severity and influence on cup quality, and developed a reference guide of ratios to determine how many defect beans equal ‘one full defect.’”

For Category 1, or Primary, defects, it just takes one full defect to disqualify a coffee from specialty status. For Category 2, or Secondary, defects, it takes five or more to preclude specialty status.

Green Coffee’s Clues

Sorting green coffee to check consistency in screen size

Sorting green coffee to check consistency in screen size

Many of the defects that Carly finds have a direct correlation to how that coffee was cultivated and processed.

A “full black,” for example, which is essentially a rotted seed, could have happened at several points along a coffee cherry’s life cycle. Perhaps there was a lack of water when the cherry was maturing, or perhaps a seed remained in an overripe cherry that had fallen to the ground. Full black defects also can happen during processing if the fermentation stage lasted for too long. Because of a full black’s potential to taint coffee’s flavor, it takes just one to disqualify an entire sample of coffee from being considered specialty.

A “shell,” on the other hand, which is essentially a hollow seed, is a natural genetic mutation. Its impact on flavor is less direct, whereby any effect would likely stem from an inconsistent roast of the malformed bean than the flavor of the bean itself.

“When getting to know a new coffee, or checking in on a new harvest of a coffee we know and love, it’s important to get an idea of its current physical state,” Carly explains.

Imperfections Happen

Even some of the finest coffees we receive have defects, though they’re likely less serious ones. The SCA’s standards are very high, and to meet them, a coffee needs to be carefully treated on every step of its journey. To put it another way, specialty coffee never happens just by accident.

Giving Farmers Feedback

Measuring density levels, which could affect roasting

Measuring density levels, which could affect roasting

Defects aren’t the only thing Carly is counting. She also measures a green coffee’s moisture level, density, screen size, and water activity. While these other findings don’t explicitly affect whether or not a coffee qualifies as specialty, they do cue us into how the coffee might roast, how long its shelf life might be, and its journey at the farm level. Such nitty-gritty details not only influence purchasing decisions—they also give us concrete feedback to share with farmers who are looking to improve upon coffee quality.

A deeper look into this process hopefully gives a clue as to why, when we talk about coffee, we often emphasize farmers’ hard work, from picking only ripe cherry to sorting through each batch of processed fruit. We’re not romanticizing their efforts; instead, we’re trying to specify what it takes to elevate a coffee from a commodity to a specialty crop.

When that jump happens—when a green coffee arrives in our warehouse, and it’s consistent in quality and relatively free of defects—we know that it took nothing less than a coordinated effort between many people at the farm level to make such a feat happen.

Stay tuned for the final installment in this three-part series that will cover the basics of the sensory assessment, or cupping which is the second way to determine whether or not a coffee is specialty.