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What Defines Specialty Coffee in 2019?

by Michael Cleland

Although speciality coffee needs to hold the value to coffee producers at its core, it has become so much more than a finite definition of quality and ethics.

— Nick Mabey

I was asked recently by a fellow coffee professional what I thought was the most interesting thing happening in the 'industry' at the moment. 

They were, of course, referring to the 'specialty coffee industry,' but at first I hadn't been clear on how to answer. I realised that these days there are a myriad of different coffee related activities commonly implied by the familiar 'industry' so to what specifically were they referring? 

This interaction, however small,  caused me to think. I began to scrutinise my inability to accurately define just what speciality coffee is, or in fact understand whether it’s even important anymore and, if not, then why not?

If I asked myself this same question two years ago I would have said speciality is probably best defined by what it isn’t. Five years ago I would said 'coffee that scores an objective quality score of 80+ points.' Today on reflection, my preferred definition has changed to this:

The speciality coffee industry is simply a network of independent businesses who choose to participate in an alternative to the historically exploitative supply chain, and one that fundamentally reorganises how value is distributed. 

Although I believe this to be ultimately true I also realise, as a green coffee buyer, my experience of the industry can be somewhat myopic. I  spend most of my time looking down the supply chain and developing idealistic views on what virtues an ‘alternative supply chain’ can provide at its origin. 

What I don't see as much of is the broader culture of speciality coffee in the consumer facing 'supply chain north' and the evidence that the idea of 'specialty' has permeated a much bigger audience. We see sub cultures of baristas, social activists, enterprising enthusiasts, competition winners and professional instagrammers all engaging with the their own specialty ideals that cover many more reasons than the delivery of sustainable profits back to producers.

I think it is a mark of progress for how far the industry has come that all of these values are ubiquitous enough to be their own mini-segments within 'specialty', and that the challenge we face now has evolved too. We no longer worry so much about how to differentiate from a commoditised, high street, mass market, (whatever you want to call it) proposition but how to differentiate amongst ourselves.

Though value chain reorganisation seems to be a commonly shared objective of that we, as coffee roasters, are all committed to achieving, there is certainly less evidence that this is the primary consumer motivation or that it's valued to the same extent.

I would presume that most consumers who first encounter speciality coffee are more often than not looking for an alternative drinking experience, and are driven by a desire to support local small business more than necessarily seeking out a higher quality coffee. The learning curve starts here and it may stop here for some people. Their perception of quality might stay typified by their relationship with their barista, or the sunny spot in the window of their favourite cafe. For others the journey is marked by realisations of the complexities of coffee and their favourite single origin cup.

In any case - at some point it seems they also encounter an acknowledgment, even if subconsciously, that choosing to buy ‘independent’ (from a local roaster or cafe) is a more ethical proposition, similar to buying from a farmers market as opposed to a supermarket. The idea of traceability, social responsibility and quality become implicit, and wrapped up in the perception of an 'independent' business. Nowadays, these ideas are rarely the core message of many brands.

The same is true for baristas. Working in hospitality is often just the lens that allows people to pursue means of self expression. For many it becomes a life passion, whether it be cocktails, wine or coffee. And, more and more, the communities that spring out of these sectors become self defining and self perpetuating forms of creativity and business endeavour. I regularly host and participate in events, public cupping and panel discussions with entities such as the Kore Directive and Some People Like Coffee. I am continually amazed at the diversity of people in attendance and the equally diverse motivations that bring these individuals together in a united passion for the industry.

My point is this: 'specialty' is all a choice, triggered by a multitude of motivations but ultimately one that is self expressive.

So if the question remains, what is speciality and should it be confined to a singular goal? The answer is probably yes but we should embrace the diversity of reasons people become engaged with it, and the meaning they gain from being connected to the growing global community.