Speciality Coffee in white bag with Souter Bros label changing hands

What to know before buying speciality coffee

‘Specialty coffee’ sounds like another buzzword to sell overpriced coffee with a bigger profit margin, right? In reality, the opposite might be true.

Specialty coffee is better for the environment, human welfare, and your tastebuds. However, you’ve got to know how to sniff out the real specialty coffee from the marketing hype.

In this post, we’ll cover what specialty coffee is, why you should buy it, and where to find it (at a reasonable price).

What is speciality coffee?


Specialty coffee is the highest grade of coffee available. The entire supply chain is considered — from smallholder farmer to roaster to barista to coffee-loving consumer.

Think about coffee coming from one place (called “origin” in the specialty coffee world) — usually one farm, handpicked to select the mature coffee beans, going to a specialist roastery to bring out specific flavours, and finally brewed by a specialty coffee shop.

While there is no official “speciality coffee” stamp, there are guidelines. The Specialty Coffee Association (SCA) developed standards for making and testing coffee, called the “coffee cupping” protocol. They recommend that a coffee achieves specialty status when it scores 80 or more on their standardised taste test.

Welcome to the ‘Third Wave of Coffee’

Remember when Starbucks, Cafe Nero, and Costa popularised flavoured, sugar-laden coffees with the calorific content of a full meal? That was the second wave of coffee. 

 (The first wave, by the way, was stale, tasteless, low-grade coffee with zero traceability.)

Luckily, we’re now well into the third wave: caring about the taste of the coffee while also considering every aspect of the supply chain. 

So, what’s the difference between specialty and regular coffee? Let’s break it down.

Specialty coffee vs regular coffee


There are two popular coffee species: Arabica and Robusta. Due to its superior complex flavours, specialty coffees are almost always Arabica

Robusta beans are more robust — hence the name — and cheaper to grow. They are usually consumed by poorer coffee-export countries, reserving the Arabica for export. However, you’ll notice that some coffee packages aren’t labelled “100% Arabica”. This means they’ve blended in Robusta to cut costs.

 The big problem is you can’t always trust labels. Many “100% Arabica”-labelled coffees are adulterated with Robusta. Specialty coffees are less likely to contain Robusta because it would affect the flavour profile. Some still do, though, and scientists are currently working on new methods to detect adulterated specialty coffees.

Within the Arabica bean family, there are many varieties, each with distinct flavours. Roasteries can blend these to create new flavour profiles.


Speciality coffee is grown in one area of one country, usually by one smallholder farmer, like the farm where we source our beans. A consistent climate is important for the final distinctive flavour profile.

It also gives more control over the harvesting process. For regular coffee, the beans are strip-picked, meaning all the coffee cherries are removed from the plant in one — ripe or unripe. 

The beans handpicked for speciality coffee avoid defective, unripe beans. These would affect the taste and — according to the SCA’s standards — specialty coffee may only have a maximum of five defects per 350 grams of beans.


Regular coffee isn’t usually fermented. To cut costs, the beans are simply washed and then dried in the sun. Specialty coffee beans, on the other hand, add an extra step: fermentation — the “wet” method. 

After washing, the beans are soaked and put into a fermentation tank. This is critical to the taste of your coffee because fermentation removes the bitter compounds. 

You can change the flavour by modifying the fermenting bacteria. Different combinations of bacteria and yeasts create different flavour profiles. 

Studies show that the greater the diversity of bacteria present during the fermentation, the better the flavour profile, and the more likely the coffee is to be classed as a speciality coffee.


Regular coffee is usually a darker roast to cover up the poor flavour of lesser-quality coffee beans. This makes it overly sour and bitter, necessitating milk, sugar, and cream to balance it out (remember the second wave of coffee?).

But for speciality coffee, roasting is an art form. Special coffee roasteries, like Souter Bros, perfect the roasting level of each origin coffee bean, bringing out the best flavours — usually by using a light to medium roast.

Studies also show that independent farmer families make more money when they sell green coffee beans directly to international roasteries, as opposed to selling them pre-roasted (as often happens with regular coffee). 


Unlike regular cafes, speciality coffee houses pay attention to how the coffee is packaged (if selling white-label coffee) and served. 

The packaging design of speciality coffee significantly changes consumers’ expectations of the coffee’s acidity and sweetness. Even the shape of the coffee cup matters when it comes to taste. Coffee experts said coffee smelled stronger in a tulip cup, while the sweetness and acidity were more intense in a split cup (the classic “builders’ tea” straight-sided mug).

Health benefits

Coffee is generally good for you, helping balance blood sugar and stave off lifestyle diseases like type 2 diabetes. But speciality coffee is even better for you. 

Speciality coffee beans are higher in healthy “bioactive” compounds — antioxidants like polyphenols and flavonoids. And coffee processed using the wet method has the highest antioxidant levels. 

What about caffeine?

Most people think the health benefits of coffee are due to caffeine. That’s not the case; even decaffeinated coffee provides the same benefits.

Speciality coffee has the same amount of caffeine as regular coffee, meaning you can get better health-promoting effects without a caffeine overdose. 

Where to buy specialty coffee

There are certain things to look for when choosing your speciality coffee beans:

  • Buy whole beans. Ground coffee may lose its aroma.
  • The “roasted on…” date. Forget “use by” dates. Coffee beans will only last a few months after roasting, so speciality coffee should always tell you the date it was roasted.
  • The origin. A good speciality coffee should even be able to tell you the farm their beans come from.
  • Roast and acidity level. Good speciality coffee will show the roast level and acidity. This is crucial information to know how to brew it well.
  • Specific bean variety. There are many subvarieties of Arabica coffee beans, and a speciality coffee house needs to know which they are working with.
  • Processing method. The way the coffee beans are processed changes the final flavour so, again, this is critical information.
  • One-on-one advice. A good roaster will let you know the best way to brew their beans.

You’ll find all this information and more on our wholesale coffee beans 

Why choose speciality coffee

Speciality coffee is a level above regular coffee. You can usually tell them apart because a speciality coffee will tell you exactly where it’s from, what the roast level and flavour profile are, and maybe even how to brew it to bring out the best flavours. 

Like good wine, there are millions of speciality coffee flavours to try out and enjoy. Due to high traceability, you will always know that every part of the supply chain has been fairly treated — from crop to cup.

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