Coffee Questions: What is Specialty Coffee? by Caleb Savage

Specialty Coffee

“What’s the difference between a good cup of coffee and ‘Specialty’ coffee?”

Simply put: A good cup of coffee is any coffee you like to drink. Specialty coffee is a technical standard given to green (unroasted) coffees that meet or exceed a list of standards defined by the Specialty Coffee Association or SCA.

 Green Coffee

Green Coffee

Grading & Defects

Why do some coffees have letters like AA or PB following the name?

It’s their grade or size! Countries may use terms like “Supremo” or lettering to give designation between sizes of the beans or number of defects like rocks or chipped beans found in a small sample of the coffee. 

In Kenya, where lettered sizing is the standard, AA refers to the largest sized beans, AB the size immediately smaller, PB referring to Peaberries, a mutation in which a coffee cherry forms only one seed (or bean) instead of two, and E for Elephant referring to an ear-like shape, similar to the mutation that creates peaberries.


Effects on Taste

“Is a Peaberry sweeter than a normal coffee bean?”

Maybe, maybe not. While most grading systems give some sort of designation to quality, defect, or taste in cup, coffee is still a complex drink with varying techniques of care, preparation, production, and consumption. Coffees harvested from the same farm may contain different varieties of coffee plants. Coffee cherries from the same plant may be processed a handful of ways. Entire crops of coffee may be bought by dozens of roasters and prepared with varying beliefs of roast time or the natural flavors of the coffee. Finally, a brewer may manipulate the taste of the coffee based on all the previous steps to produce a cup that a co-worker might interpret completely differently.


Good, with guidelines

Ultimately, a cup of coffee is only as good as the experience surrounding it. While the diversity of coffee and the diversity of palates create a multitude of definitions of “good”, we can use grading, the standards that define “Specialty”, and the interpretation of coffee that roasters and cafes use to define and describe the coffees they serve as a framework to give us a better understanding of what makes coffee so special.


Coffee Questions

This post is a part of a series of articles written to answer the questions you may have wondered but might not have asked. Have a question? Contact us here!

Why Does Water Quality Matter? by Caleb Savage


Let’s say you have a cup of coffee in the cafe. The coffee is clean and sweet, with a bright acidity. It’s balanced and enjoyable. As it cools, the coffee becomes sweeter and the acidity changes subtly. You buy a bag and take it home. Using all the right tools for the job and following your favorite brew recipe, you nail the pourover. You take your first sip. It’s dull and flat. The acidity is harsh. The overwhelming note present in the cup is one: coffee. What did the barista do that you didn’t? Is it worth buying the best coffees for home if you can’t make them taste the same way at home?


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Coffee brewing is chemistry. Since making coffee is all about proper extraction, (moving all of the good flavors present in the coffee bean to the water/coffee solution) coffee makers should work to optimize how coffee flavors are extracted from the beans and preserved and perceived in the resulting cup of coffee. Variables like time, temperature, particle distribution (grind), the ratio of water to coffee, and agitation during the extraction process all help extract flavor, but it is actually the composition of the water itself that extracts flavor from the coffee bean.


The minerals in water, specifically magnesium and calcium, do a great job extracting the acids and sugars present in the bean and the Malliard reactions that have occured from roasting the bean that give sweet caramelized flavors like vanilla or nougat. So, theoretically, the more minerals like magnesium and calcium in your water, the more you will be able to extract from the coffee bean. However, since we drink coffee, and we’re primarily concerned with the taste of extraction and not just the overall ability to extract, we need a buffer, namely bicarbonate, in the water to balance the chemical changes in the water to preserve the acids as they move from bean to cup. Dashwood and Hendon’s Water for Coffee recommends a 2:1 ratio of general hardness (minerals) to bicarbonate to provide optimal extraction for specialty coffee. To hear more about Water for Coffee, check out Maxwell Colonna-Dashwood’s 2015 Re;co Symposium Lecture

What it means

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Companies like Third Wave Water are working to take the research being done by coffee professionals and make it accessible to the average consumer. You can find Third Wave Water Packets for Pourovers and Espresso in the shop. The team at Barista Hustle has some great info on making your own water recipe if you’re interested in learning more about how various coffee professionals optimize their water with easy to use recipes.

Coffee Questions: What is Coffee? by Caleb Savage


Let’s talk about coffee. Not coffee the plant, nor coffee the seed; coffee the drink. When we talk about “just a cup of coffee,” what are we referring to? Is espresso a coffee? Is a Chemex a coffee? Confused? So are the professionals. Today, we’ll explore coffee the drink in the context of the shop.

Brewing Culture

Coffee’s desirability as a stimulant as well as its widespread cultivation and consumption by way of the age of exploration and colonialism has produced a variety of cultural styles of coffee brewing. Various methods of brewing have been designed and refined over the years to match the demands in price, style, and culture of the people who demand it. Old methods like Turkish coffee remain culturally popular; Italian espresso revolutionized coffee consumption; English consumption led to a long string of improvements in home coffee brewing.

Strength, Body, & Brewing

What makes a strong cup of coffee?

For some, it’s a dark and robust drink that is both bitter and sweet like a dark wine. For others, it’s about being able to feel your heartbeat after the first sip. If we’re talking about caffeine, our pourovers have generally the same amount of caffeine as standard brewing recommendations for home coffee pots. Two “scoops” or tablespoons is around twenty grams; our dose for a single pourover on the Stagg XF Dripper.

When we talk about the taste or body of the coffee, factors like origin, roast, brew method, extraction come into play. Just like apples grown in different regions or different varieties, coffee can vary in flavor depending on country of origin, coffee cherry variety, or processing method.

Coffee Brewing.jpg

Just like a specific coffee on pourover might taste a little different than what it tastes like on espresso, there can also be a difference in flavor between your usual brewing method at home or work versus a cup from the shop.

A lighter bodied cup doesn’t necessarily mean less caffeine or a weaker cup. Further, home brewing options like a French Press, Aeropress, or Moka Pot, might give you the style of coffee you’re looking for at home!

Coffee, extracted

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As a drink in any form, coffee is a solution in which certain soluble particles are dissolved from the roasted coffee bean by water. Extraction, the process of pulling out those water-soluble coffee particles from the ground coffee bean, is the chemical process of making coffee. The goal of coffee-making, whether espresso, coffee pot, or pourover, is to extract as much of the good tasting coffee particles while also not extracting as little of the not so good tasting coffee particles as possible. We use variables like water temperature, grind size, and time to manage the extraction process.

While there are a variety of different brewing methods and desires for flavor in coffee; coffee made well or evenly extracted, should also be the goal. In our desire to serve really good coffee, we make each coffee by the cup to ensure freshness, quality, and consistency. Our friends over at Modbar & Fellow help us provide these standards.

Coffee Questions: Is Espresso Coffee? by Caleb Savage

First in our Coffee Questions series, what’s the difference between coffee and espresso? With espresso flavored chocolates and desserts and coffee roasters creating blends specifically for espresso, the difference between espresso and coffee is easy to spot but can be difficult to describe.

What is Espresso?

From Maxwell Colonna-Dashwood’s “The Coffee Dictionary," espresso is “an intense, highly concentrated coffee beverage of a short measure. It is brewed under pressure, which creates a layer of foam on the drink called the crema."  Espresso is coffee, but coffee is not necessarily espresso.

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Generally put, espresso is the product of grinding any coffee far finer than you would for normal drip or filter coffee methods and using an espresso machine to extract all the warm fuzzy feelings and sweet acidity into a small one-to-two ounce beverage. We make our espresso using Victoria Arduino’s Black Eagle.

Strength and Flavor

For the daily “cup of coffee” drinker, drinking a shot of espresso is an intense, caffeine-filled experience.  While a great Chemex pour over can have a nice light body, with a sweet, clean, finish. Espresso can be brash, with a prominent flavor of something fruity or nutty, sweet, yet acidic. If we’re using the same coffee, and espresso is really just another way to make coffee, why is there such a clear difference in flavor and strength of espresso? While a 12oz pourover is about 12 times larger than a shot of espresso, we use roughly the same amount of dry coffee to make each beverage.  This concentration means more caffeine per sip and a more pronounced presentation of the different notes of the coffee.

So what’s an Espresso Blend?

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When coffee roasters put together an espresso blend, they’re looking for balance; they’re looking for flavors that can shine through milk; they’re looking for consistency from shot to shot. Sometimes they will find a coffee with a neutral flavor profile to base the blend and then highlight it with something spectacular. Just the base might taste bland, and just the highlight might make you pucker from sourness, but together, they can taste sweet and balanced, just the way we like it.

Blending coffees usually means finding coffees with similar densities, grown at similar elevations, so they have similar solubility, so they’ll extract at the same rate. Without matching solubilities, you might risk overextracting one coffee while you underextract another. Not sure what all that means? We’ll just have to cover that more in depth in a future Coffee Question!

Next time you need a cup, try a shot of espresso instead! Have question you’ve wondered about but never asked? Let us know!