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When is Speciality Coffee Not Speciality Coffee?

September 06, 2013

Speciality coffee is often rightly described as hard to define. Some descriptions are more specific, such as a coffee that scores above 84* on the cupping table. Whilst other definitions are more about an ethos and a general idea of quality. This last notion is tricksy and not particularly helpful to anyone. The cupping score definition I can kinda get on board with. But what really is a cupping score? It's a number that correlates to a taste experience, and that's really what speciality coffee is, a taste experience. A cupping assessment is a reflective term for taste aesthetics that have in some way been defined. If they hadn't then you couldn't judge coffee at all, there would be no means to quantify it. So in the field there has been a quantifying of what speciality coffee roughly means. ( "roughly" as explored in subjective post )

Here I wanted to ask when does a drink cease to be the same thing it was once labelled as elsewhere - when is speciality coffee not speciality coffee?

When a coffee is cupped, scored and described, it is most often roasted to a light test batch cupping roast. It is freshly cropped and freshly roasted, and extracted to a reasonable degree using suitable water. Under those circumstances it is tasted, considered and quantified. At this point in time the assessment is relatively accurate (even with the consideration of human variability). Lets say that this particular green bean is then sold to a roaster somewhere in the world and then lets say the roast is uneven, tipped and scorched or taken long into development. Is the drink that is produced form this ingredient relatable to that which was scored back when the coffee was harvested? Would the same panel who tasted it originally now score this coffee the same? Is it still the same coffee? would it achieve the same/similar reaction from those who originally graded it?

In essence the question should perhaps be, does a speciality ingredient necessitate a speciality output?

I think the answer to these questions is no. It is really then a different thing entirely. Of course, it is an evident quandary in coffee that each coffee is different in some way all of the time, considering its very nature, with different water, equipment, brewers and so forth. I’m sure we have all tasted coffees that have very positive origins and stats, but because of various factors in-between we deem it not to be good.

During a recent blind cupping I was shocked to react very negatively to coffees that several months ago I found outstanding. Due to their age from harvest, their previous qualities were completely unrecognisable.

A viewpoint exists which suggests that if an ingredient was in some context deemed speciality then whatever you do with it, it will always be speciality. For example, here is a speciality green bean, the result after roasting and brewing is irrelevant as we still started with a certain grade green bean and therefore it is a speciality coffee product.

A bag of beans or a coffee on offer at a bar may likely be accompanied by credentials , a stat page if you will. It may include the coffees cupping score and some of the flavour notes picked up at the time. But if you take away its i.d. tag does it deliver on similar taste criteria? ( yes flavour notes provide their own problems).Now I'm not saying that a speciality coffee cannot taste different whilst delivering the same level of quality. But that's what I really mean, does it display the same quality as the categorisation it was originally given.

Lets take this further, lets say a coffee that cupped well, was then roasted carefully focusing on and aiming to represent a similar quality that was sampled on the cupping table. It is then carefully and successfully extracted as a filter coffee, one that would score equally well (all things considered) if tasted and judged by the same panel that scored it on the cupping table. Now, that coffee, which reflects speciality coffee, is served and then combined with milk. If the panel were to taste the coffee now, would they react to its quality in the same way, would it meet speciality coffee criteria, is it speciality coffee?

The flavour notes and the descriptions of its quality are no longer relevant, it would need to be tasted and described again. The same goes for espresso. When we brew an espresso we aim for the kind of character and qualities that we would describe as speciality coffee, I appreciate this is not a completely definable thing but I think there is a ballpark. The barista or shop owner then puts this coffee up on the board and explains where its from and how they think it tastes. Lets say that a panel of speciality espresso judges scored this highly but then water is added to it to make an americano or sugar is added, is it now the same coffee that was described on the board or by the barista? Is it still speciality coffee?

Of course if the cupping table is our only definition of speciality then espresso brews would not count as they are a totally different type of drink, but of course they do play a big part in what speciality coffee is. Espresso (in speciality coffee) is judged and considered in similar ways to cupping but with different context and expectation. Flavour is still paramount and there is still a lot of espresso that wouldn't be deemed speciality espresso (and not just because of the raw ingredient).

For example, what if a coffee that scored 81 on the cupping table is then carefully roasted and the brewer using great equipment and understanding works towards a brew recipe that highlights what's best in this coffee. Now lets compare that shot to another one: the other shot started life as a valuable and sought after coffee that scored 90 on the cupping table, yet it was roasted on an unstable roaster, or way past second crack, or lets say that actually it was roasted well, but was brewed with hard water, using a high brew ratio with a dodgy grinder. The resulting shot would not match the previous shot for quality. The coffee that had far less potential at the beginning of the journey may actually end up being superior merely by maintaining its quality whilst the other coffees' potential was squandered (or just dramatically changed depending on how you look at it).

Is a steamed milk drink (at a ratio of one part espresso to two parts milk) also part of a sliding scale that moves away from the definition of speciality coffee? Yes. But does it still represent the quality of coffee, yes. Though there is a difference in the taste, you can still taste that it's speciality coffee (in a positive way) when combined with the milk (does depend on the milk quality). I would say that judging a milk drink is a common practice in the speciality world, but judging espresso with added sugar or hot water (americano) or a filter with milk isn't. Why? Because in these latter examples the results more often than not produce a lot of negatives when concerning speciality coffee, and this is not just to those who work in speciality coffee, but also to those more familiar with traditional or commercial coffee - I do appreciate that this is not always the case, but its also not predictable. In commodity coffee or traditional coffee, the testing of sugar in espresso is much more common as is the taste testing of a coffee in every which way. Questions such as "how does it translate as a machiatto or as a long black with milk" are asked. I saw this in Melbourne when I was there.The success of a blend created for wholesale was hugely reliant on how it performed across all of the drinks on a standard coffee shop menu.

I have been thinking about this lately. Third wave coffee is effectively a mix of traditional coffee culture with some of the tenets and flavours of speciality coffee. I do not think however that third wave exclusively represents the taste aesthetics of speciality coffee and the accompanying criteria that exist within competitions and grading structures. I do not think I can draw a simple line to delineate exactly when speciality coffee is not speciality coffee, but I do think there are many circumstances in which a drink ceases to be representative or reflective of speciality coffee.

What about signature drinks? A signature drink definitely is not a purist way of drinking speciality coffee, and blind tasted I would not pick it as one (a speciality coffee) or describe it in the same way as on the cupping table or as an espresso. The thing is though, a signature drink is a presentation of a particular speciality coffee. At a competition it is inspired by and offers opportunity to frame a coffee in an valuable way. The ingredients are chosen to be reflective primarily of the coffees characteristics (is that why sugar** is added to espresso or milk to a filter?). In fact I do not think any signature drink would score particularly well without a clear and logical reasoning of how it relates to the coffee in a worthwhile way. And especially so if the judges were unable to taste the coffee on its own as a reference point. Most importantly I feel, nobody drinking a sig drink thinks its a direct presentation of the coffee, it is apparent to the drinker that they are consuming a cocktail containing speciality coffee. Whereas, I would argue that a coffee brewed as espresso combined with sugar or with water as an americano is rarely seen as a cocktail, but is instead seen as a pure cup of coffee and is therefore judged in that way.

I have written at length before on how I think the goals and the intent of the way you are going to use a coffee partly dictates its quality, (setting the the stage, coffee as a cocktail)for example the fact that most Italian roasters will taste test their coffee with sugar means that in this case the success of the coffee relates to and plays into what coffee they buy and how they roast it and blend it. With speciality coffee, the primary goal is not to produce something to work with sugar, that’s not how they are roasted or tested by the roasters and the baristas.(sugar blog).

Importantly though, its not even as simple as saying - “this is how we judge it but if other people want to add sugar to espresso or milk to a filter then that’s up to them, if they like it" this statement is in one way absolutely correct, yes it is up to them. But were they aware that the fruity light filter (were they even aware that it tasted anything but a tasty or good coffee, whatever that is. They are likely to think it will be a close relative to what they have had before rather than something completely different. Ill cover this a bit more in the next post) may not take milk like most traditional filters? They may have decided to try speciality coffee, with no knowledge of the way the coffees' are judged or how their flavour notes are done.

This neatly leads on to the next post - accessibility vs invisibility.



* This arbitrary line is in itself more grey than it may first appear. Is the scoring always the same, does the number correlate across tasters. for example - whose using it. what exactly does it mean in terms of flavour etc. This blog is not really about that, but is instead about noting when something that was classified in a certain way no longer meets that same classification.

** I am aware that the approach to sugar in Italy is not as simple as creating something that tastes fine with sugar, often the thinking goes more along the lines that, the sugar will bring out positive flavours in the coffee whilst also showing up a bad coffee. As stated many times before I don't see this as at all applicable for speciality coffee.


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