It has to be good when it has the word ‘special’ in the name. Right?
Actually, specialty coffee is pretty darn special. Especially when compared to what you might drink around the office. You know, that immortal, soul-ravaging substance that dissolves at first sight of moisture.
The old adage of ‘you get what you paid for’ couldn’t be truer in this case. That daily cup of Melbourne coffee (ballpark $4) racks up to over $1,000 annually!
So, the time has come to shed a little light on our energy-inducing friend because after all, why the heck do we pay so much?
We’ve all heard of the terms robusta and arabica beans.
Instant coffee may be the first thing that springs to mind when thinking about robusta beans. Conversely, the coffee from your beloved local café is very likely serving arabica beans.
Why do you pay more for arabica beans?
For one, the taste. Robusta is typically known for having a bitter, burnt taste, which is due in large part to its high caffeine content (~2.7%). Caffeine being bitter, of course!
“Hey, but I love my caffeine high!”
Don’t worry, the caffeine content in arabica beans (~1.5%) is more than enough to give you those all-too-familiar hand tremors. There’s also a much higher fat and sugar content in arabica beans that contributes its deliciousness. It’s like an energy-inducing hamburger that won’t make you fat. Sold!
Now for an introduction to the ‘coffee gods’.
The Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA) are the guys who say whether a coffee is specialty or not. Although they’re based in America, their classification system is what’s adopted globally.
Classifying coffee is no easy task. When determining whether a coffee is specialty-grade, it needs to score greater than 80 on a 100 point scale. Bean defects like discolorations, dryness, fungus damage, presence of foreign matter, maturity, chips/cuts/breaks, hulls/husks, and insect damage all affect a coffee’s rating.
The other side of this is the actual taste. The acidity, aftertaste, body, balance, sweetness, uniformity of the cup are all considered as well.
The result after all this scrutiny?
Assurance that you’re getting what you paid for, and that’s some damn fine specialty coffee.
Like with most things, the more variables you can control, the more likely it is you can achieve the outcome you want.
When we're talking about specialty coffee, this is certainly the case.
For the roasters, it’s about knowing exactly where the bean is at every stage of the process, from the country of origin, the farm, and even the micro-lots on the farm itself.
Although, it doesn’t stop there, as all the below factors greatly influence the quality of bean and are meticulously monitored by the farmer and roaster:
- Coffee varietal (robusta and arabica)
- Growing altitude (higher is generally better - more on this another time)
- Processing method (dry process; semi-dry process; wet process)
- Date of harvesting (variations in seasonality)
- Transportation method
Geez. Since when did coffee become so complex?
Tell us about it. Each one of the above points could be an article unto itself.
Understanding these elements and going to the effort to ensure that everything can be traced is one part of why you pay a premium for specialty coffee.
The question is, can anyone give the same information about your instant coffee?
If you pick a gloriously ripe apple from the tree, when’s the best time to eat it?
The same principle applies to coffee, when the best time to roast the beans is typically as close as possible to the harvest date, as to prevent any degradation in quality.
Then there’s the roast date itself. As a general rule, you want to be enjoying that coffee around 7-10 days after it’s been roasted. This will give you the best aroma and balance of flavours.
Every time you visit a café with specialty coffee, you can be sure that the little extra you’re paying is to taste the coffee at its peak.
On the other side, instant coffee is often consumed long after the actual roast date, making the roast date irrelevant. The instant coffee is also packed into vacuum sealed bags, shipped to whatever corner of the globe to sit in storage until it’s sold.
What’s more, the harvest date tends to become irrelevant too as beans from different harvests are frequently mixed together. Hmm, more like Frankenstein coffee… *shudders*
And there you have it! Three no-nonsense reasons to justify why opening your wallet for specialty coffee is well worth its weight in beans.