Coffee has come a long way since it first became a hot commodity. Many coffee companies are making conscious efforts to ensure their coffee isn’t only higher quality, but ethically sourced and produced. Leading the initiative to improve the coffee industry and uphold equitable standards are specialty coffee distributors.
In order to deliver the ultimate coffee experience, they’re usually involved in every aspect of the trade. Whether planting, producing, procuring the product, or packaging it, they oversee the processes and monitor the progress. Since quality is valued over mass production (quantity), they dedicate most of their time to refining every single detail that goes into brewing the most perfect cup.
Although what comprises one’s specialty coffee can vary across global businesses, there are still some universally accepted standards it always should adhere to: Arabica, Liberica, or Robusta green (or raw) coffee beans must be selectively harvested, have no primary defects, contain 5 or less secondary defects for every 12 ounces produced, and receive a cupping score of 80 or above. It also follows regulations gourmet or regular coffee doesn’t necessarily adhere to: the beans are selectively harvested, graded, and cupped before being sent to the roaster.
- Selective Harvesting
- Ethical Sustainability
- The Bottom Line
In order to appreciate specialty coffee in all of its forms, it’s important to look at its origins. What we know as coffee beans aren’t really beans at all. They’re actually seeds from the fruit that grows on coffee plants. The stone fruits are often called cherries because of their small, rounded shape and reddish texture. Similarly, coffee beans earned the notorious nickname because they resemble legumes.
Before the beans are roasted, they’re classified as green (raw). Green coffee beans are said to have higher amounts of chlorogenic acid than roasted coffee beans. Not only is CGA said to help with glucose regulation and slow down the onset of type two diabetes, but it contributes to the coffee’s overall distinctions. The level of acidity inside a cup of coffee is (largely) what determines taste. It can be subtle, strong, bitter, sweet, or somewhere in between. The darker a coffee is roasted, the less distinct its taste will be. Specialty roasters choose to roast lighter, in order to preserve more of the flavours specific to the coffee’s region.
Coffee plants take between 3 to 4 years to yield fruit at peak ripeness. The cherries must be tended to vigilantly until it’s time to scrutinize and handpick all that qualify as ready. Before that can happen, however, the first step is ensuring that the plants are grown in the most favourable conditions. Climatic factors such as altitude and overall humidity, as well as pH levels in the soil, are only a few of the variables measured. A coffee plant’s optimal temperature range, for example, is between 70 to 80 degrees Fahrenheit during the day and 65 and 70 degrees Fahrenheit at night. The plants also thrive best in rugged terrain. While the rocky landscapes benefit the crops, they also make tending and harvesting arduous tasks.
Adding to the harvesting complexity, specialty coffee relies on the theory that the most mature fruits produce a superior flavour; the riper, the sweeter (more sugar). Specialty harvesters forgo mechanical harvesting methods, which strip all the fruit from a plant. Instead, they selectively harvest their crops, handpicking the cherries they consider ripest. The rest are left behind. While this is best for the coffee’s development, harvesting by hand instead is a laborious and time consuming process.
Once the cherries have been picked, they’re skinned through a process called hulling. Hulling removes all the layers of the outer shell, allowing the green coffee beans to be easily extracted. Afterwards, the coffee beans are ready to be graded.
Whereas many gourmet brands of coffee are marketed in name alone and don't refer to quality, grading systems help ensure that all specialty coffee meets quality standards. Even though the coffee world is currently without one universal grading method, most involve sorting the hulled coffee beans over hole punched screens. The holes increase in size, and the beans that fall inside each screen are labeled according to their size bracket. The brackets are used to ensure uniformity during the roasting process. Batches that use all different shapes and sizes will roast at different speeds and therefore have an inconsistent taste when brewed. Larger beans - size 16 or 18 - are labeled higher quality; more mature (or riper) beans often hold more flavour.
The next two steps work in conjunction, in order to check beans for defects. Defects encompass much more than physical flaws, although that’s where the process starts. Prior to roasting, predetermined sample sizes of collected beans within each screen go through visual inspections, to look for primary and secondary faults. Beans can be damaged in multiple ways: if the beans have black holes on the surface, are broken or chipped during processing, have turned black from lack of water, or tainted from over fermentation during the harvesting phase.
The beans are judged using an equivalency system, meaning not all damaged beans within the sample will count as one full defect. Secondary defects, such as slightly off shapes or surfaces, usually need at least ten matching beans in order to count it against them. Primary defects affect coffee quality in much more significant ways, altering taste when it’s brewed. For this reason, only one completely black or soured bean is needed to earn a full defect for the sample tested. The coffee beans that qualify as specialty are labeled Grade 1 and move on for tasting analysis.
Specialty coffee also undergoes a sensory evaluation before being packaged and sold to consumers. This step, referred to as cupping, encompasses rating a brewed sample of coffee through pre-defined tasting criteria. While cupping protocols can vary, the one most often used comes directly from the Specialty Coffee Association. 10 point assessments of brewed samples rate factors such as acidity, aroma, body, consistency, flavour, sweetness, and aftertaste. These assessments are performed by certified green coffee evaluation experts, either referred to as green coffee buyers or Q graders.
Q graders are praised for their sophisticated palates and usually SCA certified. They score all tasted samples on a scale that ranges from 1 to 100. The final score combines all aspects - visual and sensual - to determine the overall quality. A score of 80 or above is required for specialty batches. Scores of 90 to 100 are labeled as outstanding, 85 to 89.99 are labeled excellent, and 80 to 84.99 are labeled very good. Any batch below that score would be eliminated before the roasting phase begins.
In addition to scoring, Q graders have authority over which coffees they’ll offer consumers, and often write up the descriptions for the final product packaging. They’re extremely influential in both understanding and conveying a coffee’s FAQ to the roasters and baristas.
You can read more about the SCA’s Official Grading Protocols And Cupping Practices here.
Once specialty coffees are officially declared, they’re transferred to the coffee roasters. Coffee roasting is more than a job. Producing specialty coffee that stays true to its roasting profile requires a vast amount of knowledge, as well as a good deal of hands on experience. Like green coffee buyers, most roasters are certified by the SCA. They also have both classroom and hands-on training. Each roast requires close monitoring. An understanding of the scientific principles behind heat transfer (convection and conduction) and a clear comprehension of thermodynamics help ensure the roasts live up to specialty standards of quality. Otherwise, the superior attributes of the roasted beans won’t reach full potential and deliver on promised results.
Although their commitment to quality already gives specialty coffee distributors an upper hand in terms of taste, the biggest motivator to choose them over other brands is their dedication to ethical sustainability. Like many other global trades, in light of past injustices, most specialty coffee suppliers are placing heavy emphasis on impartiality, as well as delivering sourcing transparency to all of their consumers.
Through modern technology, most SCA backed businesses now provide clean water to all of their farmers and harvesters. They also aim to bring awareness to workplace inequality, leading by example to implement positive change. Maintaining nondiscriminatory workspaces for all is one of their primary focuses. Benefits like health care programs are often extended to staff on a global level. Employers take care to remain in compliance with employee regulations for their entire team, not just those local or working front and center in the stores. They also acknowledge the importance of (and prioritize) building strong and long-lasting relationships with their partners, employees, consumers, and clients.
Like the suppliers, specialty roasters doing their part to contribute. Rather than buy Fair Trade coffees from importers and exporters, many are choosing to go to the farms and make their deals directly. This allows them to secure fair wages for their laborers, select their own coffee in person, and build their own relationships. The goal is to improve impoverished communities farming their coffee, not take advantage of them. Per the mission statement of the SCA, “If we can successfully retain more of the coffee production profits in the hands of the farmers, coffee becomes a more viable and sustainable alternative crop.”
Staying engaged and informed in every single part of their product’s journey allows those in the coffee trade to keep better tabs on all of their third party business transactions. With the help of the internet, they’re able to monitor dealings more closely. Deceptive, behind-the-scenes marketing schemes, such as poverty manipulation, are no longer ignored or treated as acceptable. It all boils down to abiding by the exemplary ethical standards put into place by the rule makers, such as those who set the guidelines of the Specialty Coffee Association. The SCA cares for those who are less fortunate, and aims to bring awareness to not just employees, but customers.
Why Pay More
Even though we’ve covered most aspects of specialty coffee production, a looming question may remain: is specialty coffee really worth premium pricing? The answer is yes! Purchasing the cheaper coffee (ironically) comes at a very steep cost. Many other companies still purchase their coffee by taking advantage of less fortunate, impoverished regions. Inadequate wages create disconnects and hostile relationships, ultimately putting coffee trades in jeopardy. The future of coffee depends on adequately compensating harvesters and farmers. So while saving a dollar or two on your beverage may seem like the smart way to go, the money you spend on your specialty coffee helps fund a much larger goal. Globally conscious businesses are positively impacting less lucrative parts of the world.
The Bottom Line
At Two Bears, we are passionate about fostering a positive daily experience through the consumption of their top-tier, high-quality coffee. We support and promote making health conscious choices, offer healthier alternatives to typically caffeinated indulgence drinks, and are committed to helping improve consumer wellness. We strive to serve products that energize your missions and moments, and we hope that upon each and every sip, your passions are reignited and you can reconnect productively with the world around you.