“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.
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.