A coffee slow bar with several Chemex coffee makers being brewed

Unraveling the Secrets of Specialty Coffee: A Beginner's Guide


In the ever-evolving landscape of the global coffee scene, the term "specialty coffee" has emerged as more than just a buzzword; it embodies a comprehensive movement dedicated to upholding quality, championing sustainability, and enhancing the overall coffee experience. With coffee connoisseurs and casual drinkers alike seeking to explore the finer aspects of their daily brew, demystifying the intricate world of specialty coffee has never been more critical. This beginner’s guide aims to unravel the mysteries associated with specialty coffee, offering insights and knowledge to increase your appreciation and enjoyment of the world’s most beloved beverage.

A Closer Look at Specialty Coffee

There are an infinite number of unique coffees in the world, each having a distinct flavor. Many factors dictate the end flavor of the bean, from the geographic growing location to the climate, soil, variety, and elevation. What then, given this deep pool of unique options, makes a coffee specialty?

Specialty coffee is a term coined within the coffee industry to distinguish highest-quality coffee beans. The modern definition of specialty coffee is supported by the Specialty Coffee Association (SCA), the largest coffee association in the world. These beans must undergo rigorous taste tests by a panel of coffee experts called Q Graders, scoring greater than 80 out of 100 points. If a coffee scores greater than 80 points, it can be considered specialty, putting aside all other factors. While any coffee, regardless of species, can be specialty-grade, coffees of the Arabica species are predominantly selected. Specialty coffee is also usually hand-picked, grown at high altitude, and free of defects.

Arabica coffee comprises greater than 70% of the global coffee supply and is known for its sweet, clean flavor. Robusta is the second most grown coffee in the world, known for its resistance to disease and higher yield. Robusta coffee generally has a less desirable, harsher flavor profile. There are other, lesser grown coffee species that can be graded specialty, but they are rare enough to be disregarded in this guide. Under each species of coffee, there are a countless number of varietals, each hosting their own unique qualities. Producers choose the varieties they grow based on many factors, several of which are: crop objective, what is common or natural in the area, yield, flavor, and resistance to disease. There are also many hybrid varieties available that help farmers accomplish several of these objectives at once.

Furthermore, specialty coffee is remarkably distinct from other commercial or commodity coffee in terms of quality and flavor profile. But the benefits of specialty coffee eclipse even the biggest flavor benefits. Specialty coffee, as an industry, has supported an enormous increase in knowledge, research, investment, and sustainability throughout the coffee supply chain. Moreover, consumers can expect better quality, roasting practices, traceability, and ethics. As such, this increased focus on quality has revolutionized the coffee industry, ushering in new levels of flavor and diversity that elevate coffee drinking from a simple daily routine to an immersive sensory experience.

The Role of Origin in Specialty Coffee Flavors

Analogous to wine, coffee beans bear a unique flavor that reflects the specific region where they were cultivated. This notion, known as 'terroir,' plays a significant role in determining the flavor profile of coffee. Terroir is defined as the environmental conditions, especially soil and climate, in which a product is grown that gives the product its unique flavor and aroma. For instance, coffee beans grown in African regions often have notes of berries and citrus, while those from Latin American countries tend to have a nutty and sweet profile. On the other hand, beans from Asian regions often present earthy and spicy notes. As such, the exploration of coffee involves a delightful journey across various cultures and geographies, each sip offering a nuanced interpretation of the place of origin. As coffee growing practices develop worldwide, more and more unique flavor profiles are being offered, further expanding the exploration opportunities of coffee lovers.

Tracing the Journey of the Specialty Coffee Bean

There are several steps that transform a humble coffee seed to a flavorful cup of coffee. It all begins on steep, elevated terrain with a coffee shrub standing around 6 feet tall, bursting with large, green, shiny leaves, and vibrant red berries. These trees are planted in rows and are often shaded by trees native to their place of origin.

Growing and Cultivation

The coffee plants take approximately three to four years to bear fruit, known as cherries, with each cherry typically containing two coffee beans. They can reach as tall as 20 feet but are pruned to less than half of their potential height. These plants usually thrive at high altitudes in the tropics between the Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn. Coffee professionals refer to this coffee growing region as the coffee belt. Meticulous attention is given to farming practices by producers (such as what coffee to grow and how to process the cherries) to significantly influence the quality and taste of the coffee beans. Investment and research has dramatically changed the specialty coffee landscape in recent years, further emphasizing the importance of coffee producers.


Upon reaching their prime, the cherries are then harvested. This process is labor-intensive as each cherry must be handpicked to ensure only the ripe ones are selected. This stage is crucial to avoid harvesting underripe or overripe cherries, which could affect the taste of the final product.


The harvested cherries then undergo processing, where the beans are extracted from the skin and pulp of the fruit. Various methods can be employed for this process, including the natural, washed, and honey methods. Each of these methods impacts the flavor profile of the coffee beans, contributing to their uniqueness. Experimental processing methods like anaerobic fermentation and carbonic maceration are rapidly changing the industry by introducing additional processing steps, yielding incredibly different flavor profiles. Below are a few of the most common processing methods:


The coffee bean is dried with the cherry intact. The bean is extracted from the dried cherry at the end of processing.


The coffee bean is removed from the skin and the pulp of the cherry, then dried.


The coffee bean and pulp are removed from the skin and dried. The pulp is removed at the end of processing.

Historically, water accessibility has been one of the main factors dictating the processing method used. In areas with less water, natural processing was used, and in areas with abundant water, washed processing was predominant. However, as the coffee industry has developed, more and more producers are using alternative processing methods to modulate the end flavor of the bean.


The beans are subsequently dried to reduce moisture content before they're packaged and shipped off to roasters around the world. Beans or cherries are usually sun-dried on raised beds or patios, depending on their processing method.

Importing and Exporting

After the coffee is packaged for shipping, it is purchased by an importer or exporter for its journey overseas. These coffee professionals are responsible for the evaluation of the coffee and the negotiation of price. Exporters will form long-term relationships with producers or cooperatives to purchase large quantities of coffees for export. They will then market those coffees to purchasers like roasters or importers. Importers also create relationships with producers and importers, seeking out quality coffees from around the world to sell to coffee roasting companies.

Understanding the Coffee Roasting Process

Roasting is a crucial stage in coffee production, marking the transformation of the raw, green coffee beans into the aromatic, brown ones we are familiar with. This process requires a delicate balance between art and science, with each roasting decision impacting the taste and quality of the final cup of coffee.

The balance of roasting time and roasting temperature plays a significant role in determining the roast level, which is loosely classified into light, medium, or dark roasts. Light roasts are roasted for a shorter duration or to lower temperatures, allowing them to retain more of the bean's original flavors and characteristics. On the other hand, dark roasts are roasted for longer or to higher temperatures, allowing the heat to draw out the oils in the beans, leading to a bolder flavor that is often associated with the roasting process itself. Medium roasts offer a balance of these characteristics.

Brewing Specialty Coffee at Home

Brewing specialty coffee at home can offer arguably the most enjoyable and satisfying coffee consuming experience. The key to achieving this delight lies in choosing a brewing method that complements your taste preferences. Beyond the common drip coffee maker, several other brewing methods exist, each offering a different flavor experience.

French Press

Known for yielding a full-bodied brew, the French Press method allows coffee grounds to steep in hot water, which then gets separated by a metal filter.

Pour Over

The Pour Over method involves pouring hot water over coffee grounds in a filter set over a carafe or mug. This method emphasizes the clear, nuanced flavors in the coffee.


The Chemex is similar to a pour over. Hot water is poured over coffee grounds in a filter set in a glass vessel. While a pour over typically makes 1-2 cups, a Chemex can brew as many as 10 cups of coffee.


This method involves steeping and then forcing coffee through a filter by pressing down a plunger, resulting in a brew that is strong and full-bodied.


Espresso is a brewing method where a small amount of near-boiling water is forced under pressure through finely-ground coffee beans. This method yields a concentrated, intense cup of coffee which can be consumed alone or mixed with a variety of other ingredients to create coffee beverages like lattes or cappuccinos.

Tasting Specialty Coffee: An Exercise in Sensory Exploration

Tasting coffee, or cupping as it's known in the industry, provides an opportunity to explore the depth and breadth of flavors that coffee can offer. Much like wine tasting, coffee cupping is a sensory experience that requires practice and patience to discern the myriad flavors and aromas present in each cup of coffee.

Cupping is the process of sampling various coffees or roast profiles by steeping a small amount of coffee with hot water in a ceramic cup. The coffee is then stirred by spoon to end the brewing process and sipped quickly to aerate the coffee and spread it across the tongue.

The Specialty Coffee Association and various other coffee organizations have standards by which this process should be done to best sample coffees. The Specialty Coffee Association's flavor wheel is a comprehensive tool that helps identify the potential range of flavors present in coffee. This spectrum extends from broad categories like fruity, floral, and spicy to more specific flavors like berry, citrus, clove, and many more. By practicing and using this flavor wheel, you can refine your palate and better appreciate the complex flavors present in your cup of specialty coffee.

Tips to Maintain the Quality of Your Specialty Coffee

Once you have your hands on a bag of specialty coffee, proper care can ensure that you continue to enjoy its optimum flavor and freshness. Here are some tips:


Store your coffee in a cool, dry place away from light, heat, and moisture. Aim to consume your fresh coffee in under 2 weeks. The best place to store coffee is usually in the kitchen pantry. Take care when storing coffee in the refrigerator or freezer as coffee can absorb flavors and moisture from items stored around it, which could impact its taste. Store coffee in a container or bag sealed away from oxygen. If possible, press as much air out of the coffee as possible before resealing.


It's advisable to grind your beans just before brewing to maintain the freshness and avoid oxidation that can degrade the coffee's flavor. Proper storage can also help keep both ground and whole bean coffee from oxidizing too quickly.

Water Quality

The quality of the water used for brewing can significantly affect the taste of your coffee. It is recommended to use fresh, filtered, clean water for the best results.


The world of specialty coffee is a captivating one, brimming with nuances and details that can significantly enhance your appreciation for your daily cup. This journey from a humble seed to a flavorful cup of coffee is a testament to the skill, dedication, and passion of the many hands involved in bringing this treasured beverage to your table. As you delve deeper into this world, you're not just partaking in a beverage, but partaking in a global movement that values quality, sustainability, and the shared love for a cup of coffee.

About the Author

Nathan Jones is the owner of Canyon Coffee Roasters in Lincoln, Nebraska. He has extensive experience (10+ years) in the coffee industry, both as a roasting professional and barista. Nate’s love of coffee, people, and community inspire him to share his knowledge with others with the aim of demystifying the rapidly expanding world of specialty coffee and create meaningful relationships along the way. Nate’s favorite way of drinking coffee is either as a latte or from his Moccamaster, shared with his wife Kate. Nate enjoys spending time with his friends and family when he’s not posted up at the roaster.