Defining Specialty Coffee and the Case for Standards

By Ric Rhinehart

For the past year or so, concerns about the supply of quality coffee demanded by the specialty market have swirled about with varying degrees of intensity. Shortfalls in Colombia and dramatic differential rises throughout Central America have raised the noise level on this topic considerably. The question at the heart of the conversation is where will top quality washed Arabicas come from in the years ahead? The answer remains uncertain at this juncture, but one thing we do know for sure is that we must better define the parameters of quality and the meaning of specialty if we are to have any hope at all of addressing the supply issue.

Market forces do a fine job of discovering price in the aggregate, relying on the usual relationships between supply and demand to move prices to spur either production or consumption. Unfortunately, the broad market often stumbles over the more nuanced concepts of quality and specific attributes, especially in a commodity product. So, while it seems likely that market forces will work towards a sufficient supply of coffee in the most general sense, there are real and valid concerns as to whether or not those same forces will drive sufficient production of the coffees we think of as specialty.

The more cynical amongst us will predict that flexibility in our definition of specialty will allow the market to produce “qualities” that will meet demand, regardless of our current expectations about absolute quality. That is, unless we very clearly define the basis for our assessment of the quality necessary for a coffee to be considered specialty, the market will define it for us, and presumably at a lower level than we consider acceptable now. Increasing tightness of supply will push the limits of specialty inexorably lower.

The best defense in the face of this possibility is to develop defensible, empirical definitions for quality and embrace standards that quantify and describe them accurately. This is no small task and we have struggled as an industry to accomplish some parts of this. We have managed to develop a green coffee standard that allows us to make a reasonable empirical assessment of quality at the post-processing raw coffee stage. We still struggle with the ultimate definition of specialty coffee as we look across the whole spectrum of the supply chain, acknowledging that ultimately the consumer will be our judge and jury and that the final product is a beverage, not a bean.

In the months ahead, the specialty coffee institutions around the world—from consumer associations like the Specialty Coffee Association of Japan, the Specialty Coffee Association of Europe and the Specialty Coffee Association of America, to research institutions to producer associations—will have to come to grips with this issue. The clear definition of specialty coffee and the standards that support it will have to be our number one priority. Armed with these, we can engage in the real battle ahead, ensuring there is enough great coffee to meet the needs of a thirsty world.

Ric Rhinehart is the executive director of the Specialty Coffee Association of America. He can be reached at