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The Evolution of the Term "Specialty Coffee"

by Elixir Specialty Coffee | | Blog | 0 Comments

If you're a lover of great-tasting coffee, some-time in the last decade or so you'll have heard terms like "Third-Wave Coffee", "Craft Coffee", and "Artisan Coffee". 

These phrases started becoming more regularly used around the same time your local friendly barista began dressing like an Abercrombie and Fitch catalog model; wearing a button-up shirt with sleeves rolled up just enough to show their beautifully tattooed sleeve(s), amazing hair, perfectly tilted fedora, and latte art skills that left you feeling just a little stressed every time you stirred your coffee, trying to avoid messing up that beautiful rosetta or love heart.  


It was the late '00s and '10s and specialty coffee shops around the world were serving more latte's, pour-overs, Chemex, and siphons than ever before. What Starbucks had done in America throughout the '90s and early '00s to make espresso more popular with Gen-Xer's, Millennials (Gen-Y) were now doing by introducing their favorite and stylish third-wave/craft/artisan cafes to the world via social media.


All the things that went into carefully crafted Instagram posts now became essential in the cafe; chic design, a feature wall, great merch, beautiful drinks in beautiful cups, the coolest coffee roaster in town, pretty looking food, woke-ness, and stylish people. Coffee drinking millennials were new on the coffee scene and they were claiming the coffee scene, laptop in hand, as their own. 


These terms; craft coffee, third-wave coffee, and artisan coffee (sometimes also referred to as "fancy coffee" in the less chic parts of town) are all an expression of the same movement gaining momentum in coffee consuming and coffee professional cultures worldwide - the "Specialty Coffee" movement.  


In countries like Australia and New Zealand, specialty coffee has been mainstream for many decades. In North America and on other continents like Europe and Asia, specialty coffee (as opposed to commercial coffee) is still a sub-culture but beginning to gain serious momentum.  


So what is "Specialty Coffee" and what's so "specialty" about it?


Like all things that get popular, the term "specialty coffee" has evolved since it was used for the first time in 1974 by Erna Knutsen #RIP, a legend of the coffee industry worldwide. In her efforts to convey that not all coffee is created equal, Erna wanted people to understand that microclimates in certain geographic regions around the world produced coffee crops with unique flavor profiles. She coined the phrase "specialty coffee" and a whole new industry sector was born that separated itself from the "commercial coffee" sector.


In time, a loose definition of specialty coffee was formulated by the Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA) (now the Specialty Coffee Association (SCA) after having merged with the Specialty Coffee Association of Europe (SCAE)). This article from 2017, written by Ric Rhinehart, a previous president of the SCAA, outlines that definition as - "The SCAA defines specialty coffee in its green stage as coffee that is free of primary defects, has no quakers, is properly sized and dried, presents in the cup free of faults and taints and has distinctive attributes. In practical terms this means that the coffee must be able to pass aspect grading and cupping tests." Further, the SCA standards require that for coffee to be considered "specialty grade", it must also score above 80.0 in standard coffee scoring protocols. As you can see, the term "Specialty Coffee" was initially coined to help this new sub-sector of the coffee industry to define itself. I compass, if you will, that gave a loose standard to aim towards. 


The technical term, established by boomers and Gen-Xer's went on to evolve as a term that explained an Instagramable lifestyle for Gen-Y coffee drinkers. But it wasn't just coffee consuming Gen-Yers that changed the way we used the term. Coffee professionals in that generation also played a role in transitioning the definition of specialty coffee. For the first time, your tattooed, fedora-wearing, button-up shirt tauting "specialty coffee barista" let you know that they knew more about where your specialty grade coffee came from than the generations of baristas that came before them. It became important for them to tell you about the "blueberry and Meyer lemon flavor explosion" that you were about to experience in your $4 single-origin perfectly extracted espresso simply because they wanted to tell you, and you wanted to hear it!! 


Why? Because for the first time, becoming a professional barista was a legitimate career choice in North America. Specialty coffee baristas considered their job aligned with sommeliers (but for coffee rather than wine) rather than a job-you-get-while-you-wait-for-a-real-job kind of job. 


Of course, being a specialty coffee barista in America would never eliminate their student loans, earn them enough money to buy a house (or pay rent), or afford them the luxury of having a family, but specialty coffee millennials had convinced themselves that that would all be taken care of later in life when they got rich from opening their first cafe and selling avocado toast to the next generation, Gen-Z. (p.s. they find out in their future that cafes only operate at 3% net profit, owners get paid less than minimum wage, and Gen-Zer's are much more practical so they make avocado toast at home rather than paying $12 for it at their local cafe #ontoplanC #itallworksoutintheendwepromise)


With the introduction of the latest generation, Gen-Z, into the coffee drinking culture and the coffee profession, we're starting to see specialty coffee evolve yet again but this time with more a social justice woke-ness associated with it. Gen-Zers are (rightfully) focused on matters like the sustainability of the coffee supply chain (particularly at the origin level), the effects of climate shifting, and equality and inclusiveness in their workplace for themselves and their customers. 


Gen X and Gen Y are also seeing the urgency in these matters and are embracing the transition of the term, particularly as coffee professionals wake up to the increasing dramatic unpredictable shifting evolving in the complexity of the practical and economic production of coffee. 


More coffee professionals and businesses than ever before are focused on cultivating public awareness of the challenges and costs of producing specialty grade coffee and the skill required to preserve the quality of green coffee (coffee is green before it's roasted and turned brown) as it leaves the country of origin (the country it was grown and processed in) and travels to its destination country where it will be roasted and brewed into beverages like lattes, espresso, brewed coffee, and Elixir (which you should try here if you haven't already 😉 ).  


The reason cultivating this public awareness is such an important part of what "specialty Coffee" is becoming is the current long-standing coffee price crisis that is leading an increasing number of coffee farmers around the world to cut down their commercial-grade coffee trees because it's simply no longer possible to recoupe the costs of commercial coffee production. Moving to produce specialty grade coffee (different varietals and farming/processing practices) is just one alternative for these farmers if they can afford the time and money to transition their farming practices.


As a reaction to the current devastating coffee price crisis across the value chain, a growing part of the specialty coffee movement is gaining traction with more and more specialty grade coffee roasters who are following in the steps of pioneer roasters like Merit Coffee in Texas and Steady State Roasting in California. They're choosing to forge direct relationships with coffee farmers and pay a higher than market value price for "specialty" grade coffee, independent of the ICE Exchange - the exchange where coffee is commercially traded. This is sometimes termed "relationship buying" (Elixir Specialty Coffee only works with roasters that forge these direct relationships with coffee producers).


While the debilitating price that coffee is trading on the ICE Exchange (also referred to as the C-Market) have gone as low as USD 0.87 per pound in the past 12 months (currently sitting at just over a dollar at the time this article is written in February 2020), an increasing amount of specialty grade coffee is negotiated between the roaster and the farmer to ensure that the farmer can create a sustainable long term business by getting a fair price for their coffee.


Because coffee is a complex agricultural product, and the farming practices vary so much based on the different techniques across different origins, it's impossible to define a standardized "cost of production". We do know that, for producers picking coffee cherries by hand (in some origins they pick with machines because they grow coffee on flat land which makes the cost of production much cheaper), the cost can range anywhere upwards of around USD 2.50 per pound. 


Producers often have to take out loans, usually tied to interest rates in the order of 30-50%, to weather these coffee price crisis. Farmers whose families have been farming for generations have simply had to weather too much debt and under a load of inherited debts from previous crises, can no longer afford to take on the burdens of more debt to stay in business. 


As you can see, the situation isn't great and people are predicting that if things continue this way, coffee may become a luxury product and ultimately threaten its affordability for cultures that have become accustomed to drinking multiple cups of coffee each day without even thinking about where it comes from. 


The newest iteration of the term specialty coffee has evolved, at least at the origin level, to place the focus on an alternative for coffee producers to move away from the shackles of undervalued commercial-grade coffee to direct relationship purchasing of specialty grade coffee that's being more widely consumed around the world. 


And there you have it, the general evolution of the term "specialty coffee" seems to have evolved to match the traits of the generation influencing its evolution. For Gen-Xer's, it started as a technical meaning that represented the hard work that went into producing better quality coffee. For Gen-Y, the term was more of a statement of culture and aesthetics. And now, as Generation-Z starts to emerge out of college and into the workplace, "Specialty Coffee" takes on a new focus - a necessary woke-ness (as opposed to a twitter mob and doxing mentality kind of woke-ness) about value chain sustainability focused on fairness and longevity for coffee professionals at origin and consuming countries as well as you, the coffee consumer. Supporting businesses that can demonstrate that they take care of the longevity of the specialty coffee supply chain by demonstrating that the green coffee they've purchased, roasted and then went on to turn into a delicious beverage was paid for fairly so that the producer of that coffee lives to build a more sustainable business. 


If you have any questions about how to identify roasters, cafe's or coffee brands that offer the transparency that's of value to you, ask them in the comments below. Elixir Specialty Coffee is run by professionals who each have over 15 years of experience in the specialty coffee world. The longevity of the supply chain is super important to us and we only work with roasters who build direct relationships with farmers and we demonstrate that transparency with the information we send you when on the postcards that we send with your Elixir. Playing our part in cultivating a better, more sustainable world that is inclusive and takes care of as many people as we can is our priority. 


[Note: the "Specialty Coffee" in Elixir Specialty Coffee is a reference to Elixir being a specialty beverage that's made with coffee. The added bonus is that we only use specialty grade coffee to make, we clearly appeal to millennials, and we 100% aspire to the gen-Z evolution of the term for "Specialty Coffee".]




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