What is Specialty Coffee?
This is probably the most frequently asked question in Japan, as well as in Fukuoka where I live.
Because there are many cafes, roaster cafes as well as private sellers offering ‘ Specialty Coffee ‘ to their customers.
From what I know, a very large number of cafes in Tokyo are catering to ‘ Specialty Coffee ‘ while the number of such cafes are on an increase in Fukuoka.
To explain ‘ Specialty Coffee ‘, I though it best to divide time into two periods; pre-Specialty Coffee and post-Specialty Coffee. Since my coffee background is mostly based in Japan, I will share perspectives of what I’ve seen, heard and read in Japan.
Since Japan is an isolated country, it used to be(and still is at times) difficult to import products from overseas. Moreover, it was difficult to have access to 100% accurate information from overseas which was also the case with imported coffee.
You see, coffee used to come in these huge 70~80Kg hemp bags with labelling of the export destination. And when I say export destination, I mean the last place, the last bit of ‘overseas’ that the coffee left for Japan. This, of course, used to be the ports and docks of such countries. Coffee harvested in Ethiopia were called (and some still are) Mocha/Mocka, since they left the harbours of Mocha in Yemen.
Most coffee producing countries did not necessarily have a system where each farm would sell their own coffee since internet(the readily available ways at present to directly connect with potential buyers) was not available back then and the perception of coffee was of quantity over quality. It was important to produce more coffee. The regional companies or ‘collectors’ would gather all the coffee beans from local farmers and then just mix them into several different lots. But by then you would not know which lot belonged to whom and whether they came from a single farm.
And so the only information cafe owners/roasters/buyers in Japan would have is the name of the place the coffee came from. This caused a lot of ambiguity with information and traceability being lost since not much attention and care was taken for such aspects.
Since quantity was high in demand, overall care was sacrificed in order to produce and harvest as much coffee as possible. This resulted in an overall low quality of coffee which made it rather difficult to roast at a lighter degree.
Hence, the coffee had to be roasted darker tending to produce a smokey, espresso-ish and charcoal-like bitterness. Of course, not all coffee would taste bad if roasted to a darker level, but overall the coffee had to be roasted to a darker degree which didn’t work out well for some varieties of coffee.
According to Mamoru Taguchi and Yukihiro Tanbe, authors of the book コーヒー美味しさの方程式, Japanese people in general are inclined to prefer and pursue the taste/umami aspect of food rather than the aroma/fragrance. I definitely agree; from the complex yet simple flavours of the Japanese broth using kelp and bonito flakes to the well-balanced seasoning of sushi rice that tingles one’s palate. Japanese people have gone far in search of umami; and the same can be said of coffee.
Instead of trying to find and roast coffee producing wonderful aroma/fragrance, they went in search of finding the best umami of coffee from what they had. And of course, since it was almost impossible to attain pleasant tastes from lightly roasted coffee, the coffee was roasted dark and were blended to form some very complex and interesting flavour profiles.
Perhaps the Nel-drip may have even been invented for this purpose. To remove the impurities while retaining all of the delicious umami in a cup. Although the nel-drip tends to absorb quite a bit of the fragrance of the coffee, it was preferred by many to attain the desired cup of coffee.
To put it simply, quality started to outweigh quantity. And there was a very huge shift of perception that took place. That shift of perception now tends to be known as ” From Seed To Cup “.
From Seed To Cup
Yes, from seed to cup. Traceability and transparency are probably the two key aspects which define this way of thinking.
Since quality started to outweigh quantity, it became a priority to have as much information as possible about the coffee at hand. And together with it came many questions. Where did the coffee come from? What variety of coffee? How was it processed? Who takes care of the coffee farm? When is the harvest? What altitude range is the farm located at? What’s the average temperature throughout the year? What’s the environment like?
Such questions, together with the formation of the COE (Cup Of Excellence) made it possible to find and buy some of the highest-quality of coffee.
What then took place is the showcasing of these quality coffee at local roaster cafes/cafes around the world with the intention of better assisting customers of what ‘good coffee’ is and should taste like.
How to Define Specialty Coffee
So, I just gave an over-view account of the pre and post periods of specialty coffee.
Now I’d like to go a little more into detail about what makes up Specialty Coffee. I’ll be quoting the book 田口護のスペシャルティーコーヒー大全 written by Mamoru Taguchi, who shares the general characteristics of Specialty Coffee in Japan.
- Traceable ( to an almost 100% extent ); in accordance to ‘ from seed to cup ‘.
- The coffee has bright and pleasant acidic notes and a lasting feeling of the natural sweetness of the coffee.
- Coffee that tastes amazing and one which customers also enjoy having.
- Have gone through a cupping test (usually by the SCAJ or SCAA) and received more than a certain amount of points ( I’m not exactly sure but I think it may have been 80 points ).
If you read number 2, it says that the coffee has bright and pleasant acidic notes. Now, there’s a common rule of thumb that when you compare lighter roasts to darker roasts, the lighter ones tend to be more acidic. Which means that coffee most likely to be under ‘specialty coffee’ are ones which taste amazing when roasted lightly.
That’s why you tend to find many speciality coffee cafe’s serving coffee with bright acidic and fruity notes. The big characteristic of Specialty Coffee is that they are not roasted too much.
Another aspect is the fragrance. The SCAA (Specialty Coffee Association of America) tends to prioritise the fragrance of coffee. There is another common thumb of rule, which is that lightly roasted coffee tends to emit more fragrance than darkly roasted coffee. Also, the fragrance emitted tends to smell fruity and bright. That’s also another reason for the light roasts.
But that’s not all.
Roasting lightly allows the coffee to show it’s unique character as aroma/fragrance. So, coffee from Irgachef Ethiopia and coffee from Antigua Guatemala can easily be distinguished when lightly roasted, but more difficult when roasted darker.
That’s why you also tend to find many roaster cafes/cafes serving specialty coffee as single origin coffee. Sometimes the blends are perceived in a negative way since they destroy the originality of the specialty coffee.
But again, every roaster has their own philosophy and methodology to roasting coffee and so that’s up to them.
One of the biggest characteristic of the ‘Third Wave of Coffee’ is the serving of single-origin coffee which has enough quality and character to be in the ‘specialty coffee’ rank.
Misrepresentations of Specialty Coffee
When something becomes popular, some people try to take advantage of that popularity without understanding the story behind it.
There are those who try to use the fame of ‘specialty coffee’ to make profit. And that’s when specialty coffee is misrepresented as a consequence of profit motives and lack of respect towards the commodity.
As we’ve been seeing, From Seed To Cup is probably the most important message. If farmers don’t take great care or attention, or if cuppers don’t do a good job of sampling, or if roasters don’t properly roast the coffee, it won’t end up being specialty coffee. And finally, If baristas don’t extract the coffee properly, you won’t be having specialty coffee. From the beginning to the end, passion and attention must be ever-present to make a cup of specialty coffee.
Coffee takes a journey through various borders and various hands to finally end up in our cup. We have to make the most of it and respect the dedication and work put in producing that precious one cup of coffee.