Commodity Coffee vs. Specialty Coffee – What’s the Difference?

Commodity Coffee vs. Specialty Coffee – What’s the Difference?

Ever wonder what makes specialty coffee so special that people pay a premium for it? Coffee is coffee, right? If you ask a dozen coffee consumers to define specialty coffee — and don’t even get me started on the definition of gourmet coffee — chances are you’d get a dozen different answers, and nearly all of them would be variations of “I’m not really sure, but I drink it.” Even professionals in the specialty coffee industry skirt the actual definition of specialty coffee with broad brushes like “specialty coffee is coffee grown for the specialist market.”

But there is an actual definition, laid out by no less authority than the Specialty Coffee Association of America, and it’s all about quality. While there’s no law about what can and can’t be called specialty coffee, the SCAA is working very hard to standardize the definitions and quality processes throughout the specialty coffee industry.

So, what is specialty coffee?

The term specialty coffee was first used by Erna Knutsen of Knutsen Coffee, Ltd., in 1978. She referred to coffee beans grown in unique microclimates that had distinct, unique flavor profiles. The SCAA has gradually evolved a definition of specialty coffee that includes coffee beans that are grown using sustainable methods, processed carefully, freshly roasted and properly brewed. In order to ensure that the coffee sold as specialty coffee truly is something special, the SCAA looks for specific markers.

One of the most important markers of specialty coffee is traceability. Commodity coffees — those sold in huge lots on the commodities market — are destined to be turned into supermarket coffee or instant coffee. The closest you’ll get to knowing where the coffee came from is knowing the country of origin — and even that isn’t a guarantee. That’s because the big, international coffee roasting companies buy lots of beans that come from multiple farms and regions and blend them all together.

By contrast, specialty coffee buyers want to be able to trace a coffee all the way back to its roots – no pun intended. That requires a chain of custody from grower to picker to processing plant to importer to roaster, with each actor along the chain ensuring that the coffee is handled according to best practices that preserve its essential qualities.

How SCAA Determines Specialty Coffee Status

According to the SCAA, in order to earn the designation of “specialty grade,” green coffee beans must pass a rigorous inspection by experienced coffee graders. Unlike coffee tasters, these graders examine green coffee beans to determine their quality. There are very specific standards for green coffee beans that make the grade.


The Coffee Quality Institute defines a list of defects that can spoil the flavor and appreciation of coffee and divides the list into primary and secondary defects. Many of these defects are evident in the green bean. In order to be considered “specialty coffee,” a sample of a specific size must have no primary defects and no more than five secondary defects. And by “no more than five defects,” the CQI means no more than five defective beans, even if they all display the same defect.

Why? Because the presence of defects in a sample of coffee suggests that one of the handlers hasn’t properly done his job along the way. For example, the presence of stones or foreign matter in the sample of green coffee suggests that the coffee was picked or sorted carelessly. Black beans, another primary defect, suggests that the crop may have suffered from a malady during growing and more than a few cracked or broken beans suggests that the beans were treated carelessly during processing.

The standards for roasted and brewed coffee are still under development by the Roasters Guild and the Coffee Quality Institute respectively. The Barista Guild is developing a certification for the barista and the Roaster’s Guild is working on one for roasters. In each case, the certifications will secure one more link in the chain of specialty coffee that reaches all the way back to the ground in which the seed is planted.

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