Technically, the term “specialty coffee” refers to coffee that has been graded higher than 80 on the SCAA coffee grading system. In practice, it means that specialty coffee is some of the best coffee in the world.
Apart from the grading, we also differentiate between specialty and commercial-grade coffee. The difference between the two is how the coffee is sourced, treated, packaged, and sold to the consumer.
The commercial-grade coffee is what you can find on the supermarket shelves. It is produced in bulk, under large franchise brands. It can come pre-ground, vacuum packed, it has no single identifiable origin, and tastes pretty average.
The production of specialty coffee happens with much more care and precision and can be usually traced to one farm, country, or estate. The green beans are often roasted locally to ensure freshness and peak flavor.
This means that the specialty coffee has a characteristic taste depending on the origin and roast. For example, the specialty coffee from Kenya will taste fruity and floral while the specialty coffee from Guatemala will have a chocolatey taste.
Because there is so much more to specialty coffee, it is better enjoyed when prepared with a method that allows for more control, ideally with a manual brewing method, such as Chemex or V60.
Hope that helps!