Specialty coffee, like craft chocolate, is a category that continues to evolve. The term “specialty coffee” was coined by Erna Knutsen during a 1974 interview in the Tea & Coffee Trade Journal. Erna, considered one of coffee’s living legends, used it to describe unique coffees from Ethiopia, Yemen and Indonesia that had been produced in special microclimates. While in her early 40s, Erna worked as an executive secretary for a San Francisco coffee and spice importer and decided she wanted to cup coffee so she could better describe the flavors to potential buyers. Although she had the blessing of her boss, her male colleagues were less than supportive. “If that cunt comes in here, we’re quitting,” she described them as saying. But she didn’t quit—and they didn’t, either.
In 1985, Erna founded Knutsen Coffees and became the first woman to go from secretary to global coffee seller. She later helped launch the Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA) and a burgeoning movement to recognize and reward the care that select farmers, roasters and brewers put into their coffee.
Although the specialty coffee industry is small, it’s become mighty. Characterized by meticulous care from cherry to cup, it is distinct from coffee sold on the commodities market and, in the United States, has grown from 9 percent of the total coffee market in 1999 to 31 percent in 2015. Commodity coffee sales, meanwhile, have remained flat.
Specialty coffee is, in a nutshell, “coffee that’s special,” explains Peter Giuliano, one of my coffee mentors and senior director of the SCAA. The sector is vital to the sustenance of the entire coffee industry because it holds not only the hope of increased deliciousness, but also access to the more diverse varieties needed to sustain the crop. But deciding where and how a coffee becomes a specialty coffee isn’t an exact science. “In green coffee?” Peter asks. “In roasted coffee? In the cup of coffee? It’s a multifaceted question. At the very least, it has to mean absence of bad things and presence of good things.”
Historically, the starting point for the “absence of bad things” was in physical defects in unroasted, green coffee. As Peter explains, “It’s the ways the coffee seed has been physically compromised by insects, bacteria, chemicals and the like.” Or, as Aaron said during cuppings, “no mold, no earthy notes, no astringency … coffee that is picked when ripe and has all the rubbish sorted out.”
Through the 1980s and 1990s, the SCAA developed a cupping protocol that didn’t just explore defects but also evaluated the presence of things, namely positive flavor attributes. Peter explains: “Specialty coffee has expanded from the original reference to one that highlights specialness, from the region to the farmer, and from the roaster to the barista.”
At the end of each blind cupping, coffees are scored based on defects (which subtract points) and attributes (which add them). “If the coffee scores less than 80 points,” Peter says, “it’s not specialty; if it’s above 80, it is. And above 90, things get really great.”
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