What is "specialty" coffee?

If you visit a specialty coffee roaster, you’ll often notice coffees advertised as “single-origin.” Many of those coffees will even be accompanied by far more information about their sourcing, such as the altitude of farm; the species of coffee plant (variety); the method used to remove the fruit which envelopes the coffee bean (processing); the method used to dry the coffee beans after processing; and, many times, the name of the family or individual who owns the farm which grew the coffee. 

For most of recent history, the only information coffee consumers could count on was the brand name of the coffee roaster, and the degree of the roast (light, medium, dark, french, vienna, etc.). The goal of the specialty coffee industry - which emerged around the end of the 20th century - is to bring more attention to the producers of each crop of coffee, in order to put an end to the unethical treatment of those producers which has long plagued this industry, and to showcase the breadth of flavors which become available with good farming practices and lighter, more careful roasting.

Before coffees are purchased, they are graded on the Q-Arabica scale in the attributes of fragrance, aroma, flavor, aftertaste, acidity, body, balance, sweetness, clean cup, and uniformity. This scale is meant to give a quantitative measure to the quality of a coffee, allowing coffees of a higher quality to earn a higher price. The Q-Arabica scale scores range from 60 to 100. Coffees scoring over 80 are considered to be "specialty" grade.

Leveling the playing field.

Coffee farmers, by far, assume the most risk in the coffee supply chain. They are subject to natural disasters, crop disease, poor harvests, fluctuating market prices, and a job which is highly demanding in nature. In addition, farmers have the least power to negotiate for suitable prices for their coffee.

A coffee farmer has to grow and maintain their coffee crops through the entire life cycle of the plant; work to maintain healthy trees throughout the year to ensure a bountiful harvest and income at a future date; maintain healthy soil and environmental conditions to ensure the longevity of the farm and quality of the coffee; hire workers for harvest season to pick, sort, and process coffee cherries; and organize the delivery of coffee to a processing station or to a market. If a farmer wants to negotiate a higher price for their coffee, on top of this full workload, they need to learn the dynamics of business management and commodity trading, and actively monitor the changing pricing of the futures market. 

Is this a solution?

The goal of sustainable coffee sourcing is not simply to “ensure the ethical treatment of producers,” but to create an economic and agricultural system which guarantees that we can continue purchasing and drinking exceptional specialty coffees, while the producers of those coffees are guaranteed a high quality-of-life and adequate reward for the hard work they put into producing those coffees, and the soil and air remain healthy enough to support the growth of high-quality crops in the future. 

With a proper and thorough understanding of the coffee supply chain, we can move past vague phrases and begin to create systems which, more and more, ensure appropriate reward for hard-work and allow producers the margin to take risks and develop even higher quality coffee.