Many perceive speciality coffee as fancy, and most casual coffee drinkers are only familiar with commercial coffee. Some may not even be aware there’s a difference between commercial and specialty coffee. Rather, they think all coffee is bitter and acidic.
The biggest difference between the two lies in the way they are harvested and processed for consumption. Speciality coffee involves more care and attention, while commercial coffee is usually mass-produced.
What Is Speciality Coffee?
Speciality coffee, also known as gourmet coffee, is the highest grade of coffee in terms of quality and taste. This involves stringent controls all along the supply chain to ensure top quality at every step. Speciality coffee has gained traction thanks to the third wave of coffee.
The third wave of coffee started around the early 2000s, showcasing a shift in how coffee is presented. Now, many see speciality coffee as artisanal, on the same level as expensive wines and cheeses. This created a demand for high-quality coffee at both bean and cup levels. Now it isn’t just about how the coffee tastes. It’s also about how it is grown, harvested, and processed.
Speciality coffee comes from the coffee-growing belt between the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn, mostly from South and Central America, Africa, and Asia.
On a more technical level, the Specialty Coffee Association (SCA) has a detailed rated scale for judging whether coffee is specialty or not. Many wine lovers can compared this scale to the Wine Spectator’s 100-point scale. A score of about 80 out of 100 is considered speciality coffee, with the top tier scoring more than 90 points. In addition to this, there are three minimum criteria for a coffee to be considered speciality coffee:
- The coffee must be harvested by hand
- It scores above 80 points on the SCA grading scale
- It must have fewer than 5 defects per 12 ounces
The definition is now evolving to include more checks on sustainable farming and environmental factors. After all, how good can the coffee be if it’s grown with harmful substances and is detrimental to the environment?
What Is Commercial Coffee?
Any mass-produced coffee sold by big brands, roasted and sold in large portions is called commercial coffee. Commercial coffee is most people’s first introduction to coffee. Typically, it comes in the form of instant coffee.
Commercial coffee isn’t prepared with as much care as speciality coffee, and it’s often more acidic and bitter. Commercial coffee is treated more as a commodity. People trade it on the stock market and produced it in bulk by big national and multi-national brands. On a quality scale, commercial coffee rates 75 points or lower on a scale of 100.
Difference Between Specialty Coffee And Commercial Coffee
There are several differences between speciality and commercial coffee:
1. Type of beans
There are two main types of coffee varieties: Arabica and Robusta. Arabica is the dominant type, comprising 60% of the market. Arabica beans have more value since they are less bitter and have a wider palate of flavours. Robusta beans are more resilient while growing but are also more bitter.
Speciality coffee is exclusively Arabica, while most commercial coffee is entirely Robusta or a mix of Arabica and Robusta.
2. Cost Of Production
One of the most obvious points of difference between commercial and speciality coffee is the price. Speciality coffee is more expensive because of the labour-intensive nature of its harvesting and processing. In addition, since it’s Arabica, it’s harder to grow. Thus, the harvest yields are lower, further driving up the price.
Speciality coffee also costs more due to the care taken at each step of processing - from roasting to packaging. Everything is done in small batches, and with more human intervention, which makes it more expensive. The benefit of this is the transparency at every level and the high quality of the final product.
3. Origin of the beans
The coffee belt, where most of the world’s coffee is grown, lies between the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn. Most speciality coffee is sourced from this region. The origin of your coffee affects its overall taste and quality. Factors such as climate, altitude, soil type, and other growing conditions affect the final taste.
The origin matters to a lot of consumers, especially those more involved in coffee. Single-origin speciality coffee is a huge market where the origin is the pivotal factor. Commercial coffee, on the other hand, is often sourced from multiple markets to drive the cost down. However, this results in a mixed taste and unclear flavour profile.
4. Picking conditions and quality control
One of the most fundamental differences between these commercial and speciality coffee is how they’re harvested. Speciality coffee must be hand-picked, and only ripe red berries must be chosen. With hand-picking, we can ensure that only the best berries are picked and minimum damage is done. However, this makes the process heavily reliant on manual labour, bringing in questions of working conditions and fair trade. Speciality coffee can actually help improve working conditions by valuing fair trade over the simple commodification of coffee.
Commercial coffee may also be hand-picked, but it’s most often done by machines to speed up the process and keep costs low. Speciality coffee involves further steps in the selection process, carried out by skilled workers to remove any defective berries. This gives speciality coffee a clear advantage in quality control.
So, which is better? For a true taste of coffee, nothing can beat speciality coffee. Commercial coffee brings convenience but at the cost of unfair working conditions, average quality control, and harmful farming practices. With speciality coffee, you know exactly when your coffee was roasted, where it came from, and what to expect from a cup. Ultimately, it’s the better choice for both consumers and the coffee industry.