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Speciality Coffee: Understanding Coffee Quality Score

If you've ever wondered what 'speciality' (also known as 'specialty') means when referring to coffee, I'm going to dive into the fascinating world of coffee scoring and see why we're obsessed with offering our customers speciality coffee.

What Makes Coffee "Speciality"?

Speciality coffee is more than just a fancy marketing term: it's a badge of the coffee's quality. The arbiter of this quality badge is the Specialty Coffee Association (SCA). This organisation applies a rigorous process to classify coffees and score them out of 100 based on a wide range of criteria.

A coffee must score at least 80 for it to be classified by the SCA as speciality. But what makes these coffees so, well, special? Let's break it down.

The coffee quality scoring-system: more than just numbers

The SCA's scoring process involves assessing various aspects of the coffee's quality, including 'cupping', a taste evaluation carried out by the SCA's professionals. Here's the SCA's exhaustive criteria to score a coffee:

  • Fragrance/Aroma: The dry coffee grounds are smelled before brewing to assess the fragrance. After brewing, the aroma of the coffee is again evaluated. This aspect can hint at the coffee's origin, processing method, and freshness.
  • Flavour: This is a critical component and refers to the taste of the coffee after brewing. Evaluators look for a balance of sweetness, acidity, and bitterness and also for the complexity and richness of the flavours.
  • Aftertaste: This criterion assesses the residual taste left in the mouth after swallowing the coffee. A quality coffee will have a pleasant and lasting aftertaste.
  • Acidity: Often misunderstood, acidity in coffee is a positive quality that contributes to the brightness and liveliness of its taste. It should not be confused with sourness, which is undesirable.
  • Body: This refers to the physical properties of the coffee, particularly its weight and texture on the palate. A coffee might have a light, medium, or full body.
  • Balance: Balance is crucial in coffee and refers to how well the flavours, acidity, sweetness, bitterness, and body work together. A well-balanced coffee does not have any overpowering elements.
  • Uniformity and cleanliness of cup: These criteria assess whether the taste is consistent across multiple cups and whether any off-flavours are present.
  • Sweetness: A quality coffee often has a natural sweetness that needs no additional sugar.
  • Defects: The coffee is checked for defects, which can significantly lower its score. Defects might be due to poor harvesting, processing, or storage including mould, insect damage, sour beans, or stones.

Based on the score a coffee receives, it is then classified as follows:

  • 90-100 - Outstanding Speciality. Coffees this good represent a small fraction of the total speciality coffee market.
  • 85-89.99 - Excellent Speciality
  • 80-84.99 - Very Good Speciality
  • Less than 80.0 - Below Specialty Quality. These coffees are not considered speciality. You'll usually find these coffees on the shelves in general food and drink retailers like supermarkets.

As mentioned earlier, to be classified as a speciality coffee, the SCA must award it a score of at least 80. The coffees we select are all in the 80+ range. At the time of writing, we have a very limited supply of an 'outstanding' speciality coffee, Felipe Arcila, that scores a whopping 90 - a coffee with a score this high is a rare find!

So, it's all about the coffee score?

Well, yes, and no! A high-quality score is only one part of what differentiates the speciality coffees we sell to our customers: it's also about our relationships and the support we provide to sustainable, ethical coffee farms and charities worldwide.

We take an ethical approach to sourcing our green beans because we want farmers, their families, and communities to be rewarded appropriately for the excellent beans they produce and to encourage sustainable farming practices. You can read more about our approach in 'From bean to cup: a roaster's journey'.

So, next time you choose one of our speciality coffees, you're not just getting a quality cup of coffee but you're also supporting a whole chain of ethical and environmental goodness. So, sip away and enjoy our speciality coffee's rich and responsible flavours!

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