Most coffee roasters and tasters agree the market is enjoying its best period yet in terms of quality and flavor profiles.
Specialty coffee has never been so, well, special. Every year, exciting new ways to grow, blend and brew coffee beans burst onto the scene and shake things up. It’s a very interesting time to be a coffee connoisseur.
Of course, behind all of this development are real bona-fide farmers who make the whole process possible. Lots of different people play a role in getting coffee beans to cups but farmers are the most important and most often forgotten.
Coffee farmers are at the beginning of specialty coffee. Without their skills and hard work, we’d never know about it in the first place.
So, in this article, we’ll discuss the evolution of specialty coffees, where they come from and why they are important for the future of this beloved beverage.
What Is Specialty Coffee?
Most assume ‘specialty’ to mean special flavors, blends or bean varieties. Often, it does.
However, the term ‘specialty coffee’ was originally used to describe commercially grown products that are globally, socially and environmentally conscious. Over the years, this key aspect of the movement has been lost somewhat.
We have more opportunities to learn where and how our coffee is grown than at any other time in history.
Yet, do we spend more time learning? It’s difficult to say for sure, but the evidence suggests specialty logos and brands are more often chosen for status or the assumption of better quality rather than an interest in what they mean.
This is not a criticism. Who wants a fair trade and ethics lecture every time they shop for coffee? I’m just saying, there’s a world behind those rows and rows of neatly packaged specialty coffee on supermarket shelves.
And it’s worth exploring because it’s vibrant and fascinating.
Here’s the most accurate definition of the term ‘specialty coffee.’ Specialty coffee is an approach to coffee production that prioritizes globally conscious ethics.
It works to create a fairer, more transparent coffee market in which all the major players – growers, pickers, transporters, etc – are justly rewarded for their contributions and local environments are helped to grow coffee beans in a sustainable, non-destructive manner.
Specialty coffee is a mish-mash of worker’s rights, environmental protections, fair trade movements and lots more. It’s special because, when you have happy growers and pickers, you get delectable tasting coffee (guilt-free).
Specialty Coffee Is Globally Conscious
We start with the idea specialty coffee is more ‘responsible.’ It invests time, money and development in people, not just the global supply chains they enable.
So, we can agree specialty markets are more likely to have boots on the ground in coffee growing regions, talking to growers and experiencing what it’s like to produce these beans.
This is a very new process. The wider coffee industry has been operating for more than five hundred years. Unfortunately, fair trade rights have only been on the agenda for sixty or seventy of those years.
Socially conscious coffee is often thought of as coffee that’s ‘gone back to its roots’ and rediscovered simple, natural farming methods.
It’s a nice thought but it’s not true. The coffee industry started out in bleak conditions and gradually (if slowly) became a more socially and environmentally responsible industry.
The mainstream coffee industry still has a long way to go but, like most markets, today’s version is a big improvement. If we could see what the ‘old ways’ were really like, we wouldn’t be nostalgic for them.
The point is specialty coffee is defined by progress and development. It is actively trying to escape the old ways of slavery, manipulated poverty, violent occupation. It is creating new, fairer ways to grow, trade and sell coffee.
While coffee farmers aren’t forced to work as slaves today, they are still at the mercy of powerful manufacturers that squeeze suppliers for lower prices and, in turn, force unsustainable salaries on local growers.
In coffee producing regions across the world, the everyday costs of sowing, growing and picking beans are wholly incompatible with the falling price of supermarket products.
This creates serious problems as the children of coffee farmers grow up and abandon their family businesses.
They leave rural areas and take their skills to cities which creates even more poverty and leaves remote neighborhoods vulnerable to gangs and criminal activity.
For instance, many farming families in Bolivia have destroyed coffee fields to make way for illegal opium plants. Some are coerced into doing so by local gangs. Others see it as an opportunity to make a build a better life on a higher salary.
Environmental concerns are another big priority for specialty coffee markets. Rising temperatures are forcing coffee farmers to plant crops higher and higher up mountainsides because they’re losing space to urban developments and logging operations.
This further contributes to the ‘brain drain’ described. Families leave the growing business, markets get smaller and mainstream manufacturers invest less money in their future.
I want to stress that things have gotten immeasurably better for coffee farmers over the last fifty years.
It’s not all doom and gloom at all. I just think it’s important for true coffee connoisseurs and tasters to understand the story of their beans.
If you understand that you have choices, you can make more socially informed decisions when shopping.
The Importance of Fair Growing Standards
The Fair Trade movement and brand is the most globally recognized retailer of specialty coffee.
If you have ever bought a bag of Fair Trade coffee, you have already supported specialty growers. It’s a fantastic thing to do and I recommend you do it again.
In exchange for paying just a little more, you get higher quality beans (often rare varieties too) and the chance to contribute to a fairer, more sustainable market.
Yes, it’s socially conscious.
It asks for extra from consumers in the form of slightly higher prices. Yet, it’s not a completely altruistic act either. Supporting sustainable, socially aware markets is the single best way to ensure those markets continue to exist.
Over the next decade, coffee producers will face unprecedented threats from climate change.
Without widespread research and development from specialty coffee markets, today’s growers might not be here tomorrow. As a lifelong coffee enthusiast, I can’t think of much worse.
So, let’s protect our beans.
Fair Trade Certification
Fair Trade isn’t the only specialty coffee retailer but it is the most well-known. Fair Trade Certifications work by awarding compatible buyers and farmers a globally recognized commercial brand.
When you see this brand logo, you can be confident both buyers and growers are receiving fair payment for their work.
Fair Trade has boots on the ground in diverse coffee growing regions around the world. It spends lots of time on farms and performs checks to determine which supply chains are meeting ethical standards.
Essentially, it’s doing the hard work for us. We can go to the supermarket, pick up a Fair Trade bag of beans and contribute to the fight for sustainable markets with minimum effort.
Again, it’s not a criticism.
This is exactly how it’s supposed to work. Our contributions as consumers are small. Yet, cumulatively, our decisions have a huge impact on people and environments across the planet.
Simply by knowing a little more about where coffee comes from, we can be sustainability heroes.
Fair Trade has been working on the ground in coffee regions for over a decade. Its coffee certification system has brought much needed investment to rural communities, saved neighborhoods and families from poverty and provided reliable access to healthcare, employment and education.
Today, hundreds of thousands of individuals lead safe and fulfilling lives because of Fair Trade. I buy Fair Trade. I hope you do too.
Fair Trade has changed the market for coffee retailers as well.
Over the last decade, it has become much easier for independent sellers and small manufacturers to gain commercial traction.
Public interest in rarer, exotic and specialty beans has soared and more shoppers are willing to consider higher-priced, premium products.
This has led to the emergence of new trading methods. It’s no longer unusual for coffee roasters to source beans directly.
More companies are doing it the ‘Fair Trade way’ and traveling out to farms to inspect crops and interact with farmers. Before, they may have sourced specialty beans from Fair Trade to have the assurance crops were produced ethically.
Now, many are taking the bull by the horns and finding out for themselves.
This is known as Direct Trade.
Rather than purchasing certified coffee from Fair Trade, roasters personally fly out to farms and make the sales directly. While I don’t want to steer people away from Fair Trade products – keep buying them, keep supporting farmers – evidence suggests DT can be even more beneficial.
The two most important things it achieves are the elimination of the middleman and a more personal trading relationship.
Getting rid of the middleman leaves more money to be distributed among fewer contributors. It means DT buyers can offer coffee farmers higher prices and invest more money in farming equipment, supplies and education.
The trade relationship becomes deeply personal. Coffee farmers are no longer faceless, nameless entities. They’re valuable colleagues working towards shared goals.
Direct Trade relationships are responsible for bringing education, fair salaries, sustainable growing methods and clean drinking water to many coffee producing regions throughout the third world.
Some DT retailers are now contributing more to the development of ethically sourced coffee markets than Fair Trade.
Intelligentsia Coffee and Tea is one of my favorite specialty coffee brands. Check out its products if you get the chance.
Currently, the company pays local coffee farmers 25% more than Fair Trade. Again, I’m not slamming Fair Trade. It’s a great brand to support.
However, it’s not the only one. There are some tremendously exciting DT coffee partnerships in operation right now.
The Fruit Of Cooperation
Brands like Intelligentsia Coffee and Tea are introducing new ideas and concepts to consumers. Attitudes towards even globally conscious retailers and ethical producers are changing.
For instance, commercial messages about the way companies ‘change lives’ alienate some shoppers today.
Contemporary retailers walk a tightrope between cooperation and colonization which isn’t always an easy concept to grasp.
In recent years, Fair Trade (Oxfam too) has lost some popularity as coffee lovers gravitate to brands that focus more heavily on facilitation as opposed to utilization.
It all comes down to how you view the world. Are specialty coffee companies transforming lives in third world countries? Or are they simply returning the opportunities farmers were entitled to in the first place?
The roles of colonial history and geopolitics make this a complicated argument. Many argue the key to genuine sustainability is the transition from colonizer to collaborator.
They say trade is only fair when it occurs between equal parties and isn’t based on the assertion one party is saving the other.
This belief ignores the fact, if not for centuries of oppression and domination, many third world countries would already have the resources specialty coffee markets provide access to.
Are we giving coffee farmers a better quality of life? Or are we giving back some of the opportunities and freedoms we took away in the first place? It’s a very interesting question and one that sits right at the heart of the specialty coffee movement.
Experiencing Specialty Coffee As a Coffee Drinker
Specialty coffee isn’t hard to find these days, so you may have experienced it already.
Purchasing it for the first time can be a little underwhelming, particularly if you’ve got an imaginary version of those hip coffee shops in your head like I did.
The shop I visited was cosmopolitan enough, but it was mostly unremarkable. So much for joining a new world of suave baristas and bean aficionados.
That was my thought as I watched the barista weigh out my specialty coffee beans, grind them in what felt like a painstakingly slow process, pour them into a strange cone-shaped object and finally add hot water.
I inwardly griped about the meticulousness, the general fussiness of the process. All that for a cup of coffee.
Well, here I am. It’s five years later and I’ve got no fewer than six different coffee brewers at home. I’ve experimented with some very strange beans and blends.
I’ve traveled to various coffee growing regions around the world. And I now write these delightfully in-depth tasting guides for you guys. Was that first specialty coffee worth the wait? You bet it was.
That cup of coffee was bursting with flavors I never thought possible. There were rich chocolatey notes, hints of crisp apple and an almost berry-like sweetness. It was unlike any coffee I’d ever tasted before.
Within six months, my home kitchen was full of grinders and brewers and I was fixated with the chemistry of perfect coffee.
Perhaps you’ve had a similar experience? If you haven’t, don’t despair. It’s what our coffee tasting series was all about. Revisit these articles for advice on how to taste coffee in the professional style.
Tasting must be meticulous and slow to unlock all of these gorgeous, hidden notes and flavors.
Naturally, the quality of the coffee bean is where the experience starts.
However, to get maximum flavor and enjoyment out a bag of specialty coffee, you need high-quality equipment too.
The good news is home grinders and brewers are widely available and very affordable these days.
I recommend paying a little more for premium supplies but high-quality coffee making equipment doesn’t cost the earth anymore. Get yourself a sturdy bean grinder. Then, you need a coffee brewer.
This is a more complex affair because brewers come in so many different shapes and sizes. Read my guides to the best coffee making equipment and supplies for shopping advice.
Oh, and be patient. You might start off with a hurried mentality – four minutes may seem painstakingly slow for a coffee – but it’s worth it, I promise. If you think that’s slow, ask your parents or grandparents about Folgers coffee.
Superior Growing Methods
Direct Trade is favored by many specialty coffee companies.
It doesn’t just generate sustainable wages for farmers, it also ensures only the best quality beans are produced and picked for sale.
This one to one relationship allows farmers and roasters to pool their skills and work together to create exciting new growing methods and practices.
There are massive benefits for coffee lovers because this type of interaction eliminates knowledge gaps by bringing the growing and production worlds firmly together.
What is the best way to make exceptional coffee? You get everybody to share their skills.
Specialty coffee roasters spend time flying out to farming regions where they consult with growers, directly look at and touch the coffee beans and establish collaborative processes designed to produce the best possible flavors. It’s the perfect bean to cup journey and the result is better tasting coffee for the consumer.
It’s one of the reasons DT partnerships are, arguably, superior to Fair Trade.
While Fair Trade’s certifications reward and encourage improved trading practices, they only have a marginal impact on growing practices.
The brand is primarily concerned with whether coffee farmers are being fairly compensated not whether they could be growing differently, more efficiently or in a way that produces better flavors.
Better Roasting and Production
Similarly, as specialist coffee retailers are concerned with flavor quality and not mass production, they spend more time on roasting methods.
Beans are roasted in much smaller batches with a significantly greater degree of precision.
They avoid many of the methods common to large scale manufacturers because they add ashy, carbon-like notes to coffees that aren’t compatible with them.
The finest coffee beans in the world are never homogenous. They aren’t experienced as a singular all-encompassing flavor. Instead, they offer a diverse intermingling of notes, flavors, aromas and mouthfeels.
Careful tasting reveals hidden notes of blueberry, honey, mango, milk chocolate, star anise and more.
When roasting is treated as a skilled craft, as opposed to a method of production, it elevates coffee to a new level.
The Final Word On Specialty Coffees
I hope you’ve learned a little (or a lot) from joining me on this journey.
For some people, enjoying coffee is meant to be a simple process.
They don’t want to add decisions about sustainability and the ethics of coffee growing to what is a straightforward pleasure.
Personally, I have no problem with this. Not everybody has the time or the inclination to consider the plight of third world farmers when they shop. I get it.
What I will say is it’s never been easier to shop for coffee responsibly and sustainably. Regardless of whether you know or care to know about much about bean farming in Guatemala or Bolivia, you can still do your bit to help.
When you next step out to buy coffee, go for a specialty product. I promise it’ll taste extraordinary and you’ll be giving a little back to the world.