Q-grader doing cupping

Have you ever seen “Specialty Coffee” written on a Coffee packaging and don’t know what it really means other than maybe high quality? Don’t worry we’ve got you covered, in this article we will explain what is Specialty Coffee and all its details.

To understand what is Specialty Coffee first we will explain its origins and its foundations.

In this article you will find:

  • The SCA (Specialty Coffee Association)

    The SCAA (Specialty Coffee association of America) was established in 1982 by Donald Schoenholt, Ted Lingle, John Randall, Phyllis Baldenhofer and Peter McLaughlin and by 2017 it merged with the SCAE (Specialty Coffee Association of Europe) founded in 1998, to become known only as SCA a single organization that overviews Specialty Coffee all around the world.

    The SCA is a non-profit organization built with members from all around the globe that work in the Coffee industry; From farmers to baristas to Coffee aficionados. Their main objectives are:

    • Raise the standards of coffee quality by a progressive and collaborative approach.
    • Create a more sustainable Coffee industry by improving the conditions for all the stakeholders in the coffee industry and protecting the environment.
    • Promote the growth of this industry by the joint cooperation of all its members.

    In their own words: “The Specialty Coffee Association is a nonprofit, membership-based organization that represents thousands of coffee professionals, from producers to baristas all over the world. Built on foundations of openness, inclusivity, and the power of shared knowledge, we act as a unifying force within the specialty coffee industry – invested in creating a worldwide circle of like-minded professionals.”

    Specialty Coffee definition

    This term is used by many in the coffee industry, but what does it mean?
    The SCA uses the term Specialty Coffee to describe only the highest quality green beans which have been grown in special microclimates with the best methods, thus achieving an extraordinary beverage with unique flavor profiles and character.

    How can a Coffee be considered Specialty?

    For a Coffee to be considered “Specialty” it has to go through a scoring system designed by the SCA in which the coffee beans have to score at least 80 points out of 100 to achieve the title of Specialty Coffee.

    To be considered an SP(Specialty Coffee) the beans must have total traceability,  this means that everyone involved in the supply chain must be able to perfectly identify the origins of the beans, where they were planted and what were the processes applied to the final product.

    The SP term refers to beans of the highest quality, that were cultivated at an optimal altitude, at the right season, and that the harvesting was done perfectly so as to not damage the beans. This way, coffee beans can get their best qualities from the farm to your cup.

    Is Specialty Coffee the same as Gourmet Coffee?

    In plain words, No.

    Specialty Coffee is not to be confused with “Gourmet Coffee” which has no regulations whatsoever, it is a term that is used for marketing purposes only. Instead, Specialty Coffee is guided by strict regulations created by professionals of the industry.  

    Specialty Coffee Grading & Classification

    Fun fact: South Korea is the country with the most certified Q graders in the world!

    This scoring is done by certified Q graders which perform a thorough analysis to the green coffee beans who then proceed to roast it, ground it and “cup” it.

    The Final Score is calculated by adding the individual scores of each of the attributes of the coffee beans.

    The Classification after the scoring process looks like this:

    Total Score Quality Classification
    90-100 Outstanding Specialty
    85-89.99 Excellent Specialty
    80-84.99 Very Good Specialty
    <80 Below Specialty Not Specialty
    Source: Specialty Coffee Association

    For more info on the grading protocols, click here.


    While the Coffee industry is still considered as “young” in comparison to its distant relatives Wine & Spirits, it has had a great evolution over the past few decades thanks the efforts of a group of international organizations which have established a set of guidelines such as the Specialty Coffee protocols and fair-trade coffee which regulate the production and the quality of the coffee that’s being produced. This way consumers have been gaining access to coffee of higher qualities more and more, and they also have access to the knowledge that has been produced thanks to this movement, thus creating a more sophisticated consumer-base.  And it is thanks to this process that involves the consumers, the farmers, the roasters and the baristas that the industry of coffee has been able to evolve into a more specialized industry and not just a “caffeine kick provider” that could be replaced with energy drinks or other harmful products.

    Coffee is here to stay and Specialty Coffee is one of its main protagonists. What will the coffee industry evolve into? Do you have any forecasts? Comment bellow, we are eager to read what you have to say!

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