Level Up: What the Hell is Specialty Coffee?

Welcome to Level Up, a series of columns about upping your coffee game by our friend Dan Gentile, a writer and coffee enthusiast based in Austin, Texas. Images provided by our favorite roaster and coffee shop in Brooklyn, Sey Coffee.


Although all coffee beans share the miraculous ability to make people less sleepy, not all cups are created equal. The path from a coffee cherry to a delicious drink is long and winding. If you’re willing to spend just a few dollars more on beans, you can brew the cream of the crop, AKA “specialty coffee.”

That basically means beans that receive at least a B on their report card. Beans are scored on a 100 point scale by Q graders, coffee industry deities similar to wine sommeliers. 80 or better is considered specialty, anything below sells on the commodity market next to pork bellies and typically ends up in coffee hell (metal cans or instant packets). Scoring in the mid-90s is the equivalent of a high school shooting guard signing to Golden State, but even an 80 requires that quite a lot of people don’t screw up.


Acevedo, Colombia

Sure, an extra buck at a cafe adds up, but do you really want to drink coffee that barely passed its exams? Two Buck Chuck has its merits, but there’s a reason people pay for fine wine. With coffee, the main reason for the upcharge is to pay farmers a premium. Importers develop long terms relationships with farms, rewarding them for increases in quality over time. The best producers become iconic in the industry and their names and faces end up on coffee bags.

These farmers are treated like tennis players on Wheaties boxes because producing excellent coffee isn’t easy. You need the right soil, elevation, and weather, a combo lovingly referred to as a microclimate. Match that with the right varietal of coffee bean, pray for the perfect amount of rain, and pray again that your plants don’t catch The Black Death (AKA coffee rust). Then process the beans without polluting the fragile flavor compounds and you’re one third of the way there.


The drying process at a coffee farm owned by Maria Bercelia


Next in line is the roaster, whose main duty is not to ruin all the farmer’s work. A specialty coffee roaster should treat every batch of beans like snowflakes, unique and special, before blasting them with an unimaginable level of heat. Commodity coffee aims for a flavor profile between Hershey’s Kisses and mud, but specialty roasters develop specific tastes from each bean. Wild flavors like raisin, tangerine, or tomato acidity. So less like dirt, more like fresh fruit.


Bagging freshly roasted beans at Sey CoffeeEsmeralda is a fairly famous farm in Panama that was the first to popularize the Gesha Varietal, which is known for complex fruit characteristics and prevalent florals. Beautiful branding and packaging- check. 


Once the beans are bagged and stamped with a logo illustrated by a well-dressed designer, the journey isn’t over. There’s still plenty of opportunities to spoil this delicate coffee dance. Next the responsibility turns to either you or your (often tattooed) barista. Grind the beans incorrectly, use the wrong temperature water, or brew it for too long and you can kiss that tomato acidity goodbye.

Navigate all those steps gracefully, or at least well enough to score a B, and you’ll have a well-earned cup of specialty coffee.


Hate searching for good coffee when you’re on the road? Us too. We created a first-of-its-kind travel coffee kit that gives you a way to make a great cup without leaving the comfort of your hotel room. Learn more and follow along at www.paktcoffee.com, or take the quiz and find out your level of coffee snobbery.

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