Defining Specialty Coffee

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What is Specialty & Specialty Grade Coffee?

Specialty Coffee versus Specialty Grade Coffee……yes, there is a difference.

​The Specialty Coffee Chronicle says the market share of specialty coffee is 51 percent, passing non-specialty for the first time.  But the term “specialty” has morphed in definition from the original.  Most people equate specialty coffee with specialty, espresso based coffee drinks which justifies the statistic quoted.

The SCAA or Specialty Coffee Association of America describes true specialty grade coffee as “having a maximum of 5 defects in a standard sample with all cups free of all taints and showing distinctive positive characteristics”. Go to for more on the SCAA’s definition.

On the above basis , it is estimated that no more than 5% of green coffees in the world could make specialty grade.

From how the beans are produced, the great care taken in the packaging and storage of those beans, and the highly skilled roasters that deliver the finished product–this coffee is about an experience, not just a no frills cup of joe.

There are a lot of factors that make specialty grade coffee–well–special, so let’s take a moment to unpack all of that in one place.


Coffee Now: The Third Wave

The development of coffee as a consumer product is loosely categorized into three “waves.”

The first two waves are primarily defined from the American perspective, while the third wave pays more homage to the globalized nature of specialty coffee.

First wave coffee was all about accessibility. The idea here was to make coffee a morning drink every household in America could have.

This wave occurred in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and it’s the reason Folgers and Maxwell House are two of the most recognizable brands in the United States.

The second wave is where big hitters like Starbucks and Caribou Coffee came into play. At this point, people wanted to know where their coffee came from, they wanted to engage more in how the coffee actually happened.

These factors now added to what made the coffee good.

This is when some were trading their Mr. Coffee makers for a french press or going to a local coffee shop more often to enjoy a good cup.

Since the early 2000s, coffee enthusiasts have taken their attention to how the coffee happened to the next level. Thus, we arrive at the third wave.

Fair trade versus direct trade; the purchase of fine coffee beans delivered right to your door; the primacy of artisanship and flavor are all paramount in the third wave coffee experience.

All three of these waves coexist simultaneously. Millions still enjoy a cup of Folgers every morning (first wave), and the third wave heavily incorporates elements of the second wave with coffee lovers congregating at coffee shops–albeit more specialty focused ones.


A Guide to Specialty Grade Coffee Beans

There are the finest coffee beans and less fine coffee beans. All coffee beans start out as a small seed on a Coffea plant, but that’s about all that great beans and bad beans have in common.

So then what’s the difference? It’s not a simple answer.

Farm Conditions

  • Elevation

How high above sea level a farm is makes a huge difference in the quality of its product.

Higher altitude (4,000 + feet) means harder, better beans. One major difference is in the concentration of sugars. The intense heat means the seed takes longer to develop–which leaves more time for the maturing of complex sugars.

  • Shade grown versus sun-grown

This has a lot to do with soil quality and biodiversity on a farm. Good seeds require good soil, and carbon content is a great indicator of soil fertility.

In shade grown operations, the foliage produced by plant life adds to the carbon content in the soil. The Smithsonian Institute reports that in Nicaragua, carbon content in the soil of shaded coffee was found to be 18% higher than that found in coffee with little or no shade.

  • Bio-diversity

Diversity in the flora and fauna on a farm helps greatly with pest control and pollination.

  • Harvesting Techniques

-How the farmers get the cherry off the plant is a big deal. Washed, semi-washed, natural processing, there is a lot to unpack with this one.


You can have the finest beans in the world but storing them improperly will make a bad cup.

Once coffee is roasted, the bean expels carbon dioxide and absorbs oxygen. It is the absorption of oxygen that creates a stale coffee.

Tap Dancers Specialty Coffee addresses this issue by investing in only the best packaging. The bag your coffee comes in is completely sealed yet easy to open.

The two additional special features of these bags are not visible. The bags have a high vapor barrier and a neutral lining. The vapor barrier keeps moisture out of the bag.

If you tear open the bag and lick the inside you will taste nothing. These features all help to insure your coffee retains its freshness and remains untainted.


Methods of Preparation

If you’re investing in specialty grade coffee beans, you need to know how to use them.

Here are some beverages to dive into–some of which you can make yourself and others you may want to leave to your local specialty coffee barista:)

Pour Over

The pour over is a simple and elegant way to prepare your specialty coffee. It doesn’t require much equipment, and delivers delicious, honest flavors when done right.

To learn how to make your own pour over visit

French Press

This is a rich and smooth way to brew your coffee, and probably the most simple next to a drip coffee maker.

You do have to purchase a french press for this, but they aren’t expensive. Here’s how it’s done.


The basis of many coffee beverages. Water is forced through finely packed coffee grounds to produce a small amount of concentrate.

Caffe Americano

The americano is very simple. This “American coffee” is prepared by brewing espresso with added hot water. The americano is intended to deliver a different flavor profile than drip coffee.


The mocha starts with an espresso base like many coffee preparations. This is a chocolaty take that may be prepared with cocoa or chocolate syrup.

Cold Brew

Roughly ground seeds brewed in cold water for 12-24 hours. Final product is a highly caffeinated drink served cold.

Nitro Cold Brew

Similar to the cold brew but with the addition of nitrogen to deliver a charged, almost draft beer style beverage. Served on tap.


Typical Types of Coffee Roasts

American, city, full-city, french roast…there are many different types of roast. But at the end of the day these typical types can be classified under light, medium, medium dark and dark roasts.

All of the four classes are relevant depending on the flavor profile you want in your coffee.

  • Light Roast

Light city, half city and cinnamon roasts are all examples of a light roast. These beans come out with a light brown color. This is the preferred method for more mild coffee.

  • Medium Roast

American, city and breakfast roasts are considered medium style roasts. Slightly stronger than a light roast, and with a non-oily surface on the bean.

  • Medium Dark Roast

This roast is even bolder and accompanied by a rich, dark flavor. You can expect a bittersweet aftertaste out of this one.

  • Dark Roast

Also known as high roast, continental or European roast–this usually delivers a pronounced bitterness in the coffee flavor and oily/shiny black beans.

Specialty grade coffee doesn’t have to be elitist or snobby. It’s just good coffee, prepared by caring hands and consumed by people who are engaged in what they’re drinking!

So what is different about how Tap Dancers Specialty Coffee roasts their coffee?  Because they only use specialty grade beans, there is never any bitterness in the flavor, even when they choose a dark roast.  And, because it is never over-roasted, the beans are never oily which will have your bean grinder thanking you.  The roast is simply the flavor profile they want to highlight…..the best way to showcase a particular bean.

5 thoughts on “Defining Specialty Coffee

  1. […] exclusively sell specialty grade coffee. You can read more about what Specialty Coffee means […]

  2. […] Specialty grade coffee first got its name in 1974 by Ms. Erna Knutsen, now considered “The Grand Old Lady of Specialty Coffee”. […]

  3. […] why we offer specialty grade coffee. It’s 100% organic and on the top beans are considered specialty grade, and they must pass a […]

  4. […] coffees available, a medium and a dark roast. But don’t be fooled by the type of roasting. Specialty coffee’s use the type of roast to bring out the flavor profile, not to determine how strong the coffee is. […]

  5. […] we stated in our Speciality Coffee guide, these conditions are less than ideal for specialty coffee where 4,500 to  5,000 foot elevations […]

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