What's the big deal? Coffee is just coffee, right?
Well, no. There are a lot of fundamental differences between specialty coffee and regular ol' industrial coffee. Specialty coffee represents the top 3 percent of the world's coffee production, whereas Commercial Grade is the other 97 percent. In the quick pace of a coffee shop, there's not enough time for these types of discussions, which is why I would like to go in to more detail in this article.
A lot of people believe that coffee is supposed to be really bitter and burnt tasting - that's coffee's nature. The truth is far from it. We believe coffee is meant to be enjoyed. The taste of specialty coffee is like a fine wine in that it has a beginning, middle, and end (finish), which are affected by the terrior (the environmental factor that affects the taste and characteristics), processing, roasting, and preparation. After drinking it on a regular basis, you will begin to taste inherent flavor characteristics of coffee. The joy this brings is why people become coffee snobs. Although, we prefer the term "coffee purists." Although not everyone is ready for it, more and more people are realizing coffee is something that should be enjoyed and celebrated. By contrast, commercial grade coffee often results in undesirable flavors - burnt, harsh, mustiness, or roast defects, requiring lots and lots of sugar and flavors to cover up.
Our coffee is sourced from farms and co-ops that produce great coffee beans using both wet and dry methods. To produce great coffee, a farm has to be at a specific altitude range (which varies based on the region grown), have the right amount of rainfall, have good soil, and methodical processing. Coffee beans are actually not beans at all. They are seeds, which are wrapped up by three sets of skin and one layer of pulp (collectively, "coffee cherries"). Specialty coffee beans are picked by hand when ripe and the skin and pulp is removed during either a "wet" or "dry" process. By contrast, commercial grade coffee is more volume-focused. Oftentimes, all coffee cherries are stripped, whether ripe or not, including leaves, onto the ground. The mixture is scooped, sifted, and dried in the sun (or rain). Later the dried, shriveled skin is stripped off the bean. Poor sorting and processing means the good beans, bad beans, leaves, twigs, coffee fruit (skin), dirt, and stones are all shipped together. For companies that need massive amounts of coffee, is everything going to be done properly?
A specialty coffee roaster has an important role in the process. They source coffee beans with good characteristics, perform quality control (coffee is a crop and is subject to variations) and roast the beans. All coffee beans have desirable and undesirable flavors. A good roaster is able to accentuate the desirable notes and subdue the undesirable notes, through the application of varying amounts heat at different times throughout the roasting process. Part a form of art, part science, it takes years of training to become a master roaster. A roaster will create either a blend or a single origin, meaning the beans originated from a single farm. Single origins are praised for their unique nuances and tasting notes. Blends, in the specialty world, are about composing a flavor profile by pairing desired flavors together. The top rated coffees in the world are almost exclusively single origins, with one exception being the Organic Espresso blend from Cafe Virtuoso, which ranked #15 in 2015 [coffee review]. This is what we use in all our espresso drinks. By contrast, commercial Grade coffee is going to be more volume-focused, rather than quality focused. It's like the difference between mainstream breweries and micro-breweries. Since the distribution of commercial grade coffee takes more time to reach the consumer and the beans' flavor may be undesirable, it is most often roasted to a dark or very dark level. Roast levels are a matter of preference. Dark roasts aren't bad, but the practice of over-roasting to cover up lower quality coffee is.
Coffee is finicky. To have good coffee, you must have good water, knowledgeable farmers, great roasters AND trained baristas. There are many good ways to prepare coffee. With each of them, the barista must be trained to pay close attention to grind size, portion, water contact time, pressures (if espresso), and volume to achieve the desired taste. Each of these factors affects the taste of the beverage. Each brewing method is going to produce a different flavor profiles with the same beans! Getting it right is like that Eureka moment!
While Specialty Coffee is not necessarily organic, it is important to us. Knowing that it doesn't have pesticides, herbicides, and is not genetically modified goes back to our philosophy of purity and taking pride in what we serve. Conversely, chain stores serve coffee that could be genetically modified and sprayed with highly toxic chemicals. Some of the largest coffee chains have, for many years, been getting their milk from a massive international agrochemical and agricultural biotech company.
Coffee is a superfood. It has many antioxidant properties. Some people believe it reduces the chance of some diseases. There's also the diet aspect. If you drink a beverage that is just coffee and water, it's around five calories. Our Italian Cappuccino, for example, has about 65 calories. It has 2 shots of organic espresso and 4 ounces of steamed organic whole milk, which is farmed in one of the best California dairy farms. Without added sugar it has a nice balance and won't break your diet. Even if you drink sweet drinks, ours have less sugar because less is required to create the desired taste. Conversely, burnt coffee takes more sugar. Everyone benefits from Specialty Coffee.
Several of our coffees are also Fair Trade Certified. This means that a 3rd party is verifying that fair living wages are being paid, there is no child or forced labor, and it promotes sustainable environmental farming.
How do I know if I'm buying Specialty quality coffee beans?
With all the marketing from chain stores, it's hard to tell between a steak and a hot dog! Asking yourself or your barista these questions may provide some clues: