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Buying the perfect bag of beans can be a confusing task some times. More often than not, every bag of coffee is labelled as being something special and it can often be difficult to see through the marketing and give an accurate value to the product.

What is Gourmet Coffee?

Many people are familiar with and identify with the term ‘gourmet’ which has been used to market a vast array of products for many years. When purchasing a bag of ‘gourmet coffee’ there is an assumption that it is in some way superior to other products which helps to justify the higher price it is often sold at. Unfortunately, this term is not actually regulated or defined in any way and can in theory be applied to any grade of coffee whether that be a speciality bean or a low quality commercial. It seems this descriptor is responsible for a lot of the consumer confusion we come across – this term gives no indication to the quality of the product but supermarkets will often dedicate whole aisles to ‘Gourmet Coffee’, separating it from the lower quality instant ranges. There is also absolutely no guarantee that a ‘Gourmet Coffee’ has been produced sustainably or sourced in a manner that respects the role of the farmer.

How we perceive quality is of course subjective and we acknowledge that everyone has a different preference, however we would encourage you to ask more of your coffee supplier as opposed to purchasing their product based on the use of the term ‘gourmet’. There is simply no guarantee that either quality or ethics has played a role in its production and there are some other really important factors to take into account such as when and how it was roasted.

Nowadays, the term ‘Specialty Coffee’ can provide more insight into these factors and is a more accurate way of valuing coffee’s quality.

What is Specialty Coffee?

This term was first used in the 1970s as an answer to the ambiguity of the word ‘gourmet’ – however it is probably most known for its use in the late 80s/90s with regards to some of the world’s rarest coffees such as Jamaica Blue Mountain, Australia Skybury, Kopi Luwak, Hawaii Kona and Monsoon Malabar. Although these coffees were deemed as being special in some way, again this term did not acknowledge the quality or ethics of the bean. In cases such as the Kopi Luwak coffee (which is harvested from the digestive tract of palm civet cats) the trade of these beans has caused an industry which thrives solely on the capture and force feeding of animals. Monsoon Malabar is technically coffee which has been aged in a humid port until it loses all the characteristics which made it special in the first place, so much so that the raw beans are actually the colour of straw rather than green. It is difficult therefore to understand how these coffees came to be some of the most expensive in the world, fetching prices as high as $200/200g and again, the industry was left with a term that did not standardise quality or ethics.

The Specialty Coffee Association of America was established in 1982 by a small group of industry professionals who required a forum which allowed them to discuss and set standards for quality in coffee. Since then, this industry body has gone from strength to strength and developed the Q Grader system in 2004 as part of an effort to quantify quality. They define specialty coffee in the following way:

The term “specialty coffee” refers to the highest-quality green coffee beans roasted to their greatest flavor potential by true craftspeople and then properly brewed to well-established SCAA developed standards. Specialty coffee in the green bean state can be defined as a coffee that has no defects and has a distinctive character in the cup, with a score of 80 or above when graded according to SCAA Standards

Finally we had a quantifiable way of categorising coffee of a higher grade which has led to a separation of total world production classifying coffee as either Specialty grade or Non-Specialty grade (commercial). Nowadays, Specialty Coffee represents only 3% of the total global production and therefore truly is the best coffee that you can buy in the world.

So what makes a specialty coffee so special?

Specialty coffee is usually traded on a much more personal and local level with farmers and cooperatives and is more often than not purchased in a way which pays homage to its quality, therefore meaning the producer usually receives a higher price for their coffee. This is something we would always urge you to clarify with your roaster though as it is solely dependent on the importer they used to source their coffee – many specialty classified beans can be sold on the global coffee market which can often drop to levels below the costs of production so it is worth checking that your roaster is partnered with a responsibly minded importer who will protect the farmer in these times.

For a coffee to make the specialty grade, it must be grown at an altitude that will contribute towards complexity in the cup. The cherries must also be handpicked only when they have reached optimum ripeness and they must be processed in a way that respects the need for cleanliness and consistency. The beans must then be roasted and brewed in a way that shows off their characteristics, rather than masking them. This approach throughout the supply chain creates coffee of a superior grade which once tasted, is hard to go back from!

Our El Salvador Finca Bonanza coffee is a perfect example of a fantastic specialty grade coffee. It was grown at altitudes of around 1490 metres above sea level amongst rich, volcanic soil. The cherries were then handpicked by a team of experienced pickers over the course of the harvest before they were delivered to the El Borbollon mill in Santa Ana where they were processed meticulously by a team with decades of experience. The processed beans were then bagged into GrainPro lining and jute sacks before being shipped to protect them from high moisture levels and damage during the voyage. Finally, they made their way into a purpose built specialty coffee warehouse in Bury St Edmunds before being delivered to our roastery where we spent a good month profiling the coffee on our Giesen to work out how best to bring out everything we love about this coffee. We then sell the beans to some of the UK’s best specialty coffee shops such as Upshot Espresso in Sheffield who develop a brew recipe on their beloved Faema machine which will really showcase the nuances of flavour.

Although all our coffees are unique and have very individual flavour profiles, we approach every one of them in the same way right the way from sourcing to roasting. This means we place a lot of importance on our relationships with the farmers and cooperatives we work with and are eager to trade in a way that guarantees the sustainable supply of their wonderful coffee for years to come. At North Star, we believe it is impossible to have quality coffee without ethics and specialty coffee should mean a symbiotic relationship between the two values.

What is Third Wave Coffee?

You may also have come across the term ‘Third Wave Coffee’. This relates more to a movement within the industry than to a specific grade or quality but is usually used when referencing the general push towards purchasing quality, rather than being solely focused on price.

We are currently riding the Third Wave here in the UK with more and more members of the public becoming more discerning about the coffee they are drinking, treating it as a high-quality artisanal product as opposed to a commodity. From our perspective, coffees included in this movement have to be of a specialty grade to produce an end product which stands out from the crowd. It requires all of the factors of ethical and quality focused sourcing, craft roasting and meticulous brewing to come together to produce an outstanding brew which will amaze and entice the consumer. Freshness is key along with attention to detail throughout the various processing methods. You might find the shelf life is less than your average supermarket bag of beans – that is because producers of ‘Third Wave’, ‘Speciality’ coffee will not compromise the quality of their product to satisfy the consumer. Instead, the focus must be on buying little and often from your local roaster to ensure you are always getting the absolute best from your beans.

It has been our pleasure to witness the start of many people’s journey through coffee as they begin to appreciate the numerous different flavour profiles available along with the effects of using different brew methods. Coffee becomes a real hobby for many people and this only looks set to continue. The specialty market in the UK is set to grow by one hundred per cent by 2020 – this is an incredible and exciting time to be involved in the coffee industry and we really look forward to seeing what happens over the next few years. Our main concern is the guarantee of supply of high quality beans as the demand increases. We feel a keen responsibility to ensure coffee farming is an attractive profession for years to come to sustain the role of these incredible farms.

So there you have it – a basic guide to understanding some of the terms used in coffee marketing. If you’d like to learn more about specialty coffee and in particular how our coffee is sourced and roasted, then get in touch, we’d love to hear from you.

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