What is the difference between ‘premium coffee’ and ‘speciality coffee’?

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Difference between premium coffee and specialty coffee

The ‘premium’ descriptor is widely used in the food and drink categories

It’s generally a shortcut to describe a product or brand that’s simply better or more expensive than others. For a while, in the beer category it had a specific meaning in that the product had an ABV of 4.5% or above. But with the craft beer revolution even these lines have become blurred.

In coffee, the phrase ‘premium coffee’ really is a meaningless descriptor. It may refer to a higher-priced coffee, packaging with improved design credentials or a single-origin coffee – but the beans could still be commodity coffee that has been thoughtlessly roasted.

‘Speciality’ coffee on the other hand is a very specific descriptor

It means that a coffee has been tasted (or cupped to use the industry term) by at least three Q Graders who are qualified to evaluate coffee objectively against set criteria. Together they will give each lot of coffee from a distinct source a score out of 100. If they find defects, for example, under-ripe beans, insect damage, rot, or simply a poorly farmed or processed bean then they will mark the coffee down. If they find positive attributes in acidity, body, flavour, aroma and aftertaste then they will mark it positively. Speciality coffee must achieve at least 80 points out of 100. Coffee buyers will usually pay higher prices for high scoring coffee. Most Speciality coffees are between 80-90 points. 90+ scored coffee is rare and usually very expensive.

Once a coffee meets Specialty coffee standards it then enters a very different environment to the rest of the ‘commodity’ coffee. It is bagged with specific origin information and generally kept in a separate storage and transportation space reflective of its higher value. This is because someone buys the coffee from the farm, co-operative or estate based on it’s quality credentials and they want it to arrive in their country in exactly the same state. If it doesn’t then they are entitled to reject it.

Let’s consider what makes ‘Specialty’ coffee great…

A great Specialty coffee bean

Just like in a vineyard it’s important that the coffee shrubs are tended carefully throughout the year to ensure the yield is balanced with the quality of their fruit (called Cherry). Pruning and fertilisation is important.

The cherry doesn’t all ripen on the branch at the same time. Pickers should only take the red cherry (or yellow with some varietals) and leave the green ones to ripen further.
Once the cherry is picked it needs to be processed carefully to remove the outer fruit and dry the seed to the correct moisture content. It’s very easy to get this wrong and introduce rot to the coffee beans.

Then the beans need to be hulled in a mill, which is the removal of the skin from the bean and sorted to ensure any defects are removed. This is labour intensive and is generally done by hand.

Careful Specialty distribution

The moisture content of coffee is key during storage and distribution; otherwise a dangerous mould called Ochratoxin can develop which isn’t burned off during the roasting process. It’s important Specialty coffee is kept in temperature and moisture controlled environment.

There is however a well-known anomaly to this rule, which is ‘Monsooned Malabar’ coffee. Historically this was coffee exported from India on wooden sailing ships where the storage areas were open to the weather. The frequent monsoons and humidity during storage and transportation changed the taste characteristics and colour of the green beans. People became accustomed to this taste and lamented when it was lost with better storage and quicker transportation; so in some places the conditions are artificially replicated. But on the whole this process wouldn’t be applied to Specialty coffee as it would certainly be considered a defect.

Roasting coffee by hand

Specialty coffee is generally roasted by hand. What this means is that small batches of Specialty green beans are introduced to a quality roasting drum and the rise of temperature over time is controlled by hand. Often a computer is now used to assist; but much of the process will still be controlled manually with adjustments to charge temperature, gas flow, airflow and drop time done on the basis of sight and sound to get the very best flavour from a particular bean. Adjustments are made based on density and size of bean and the desired taste characteristics. Then if the coffee is being blended the single-varietals are blended post-roast.

Packing coffee with care

Handroasted coffee is generally packaged after around 24 hours of resting, which allows most of the CO2 that is produced during the roasting process to escape. The internal cellular structure of a coffee bean is blown open during roasting, which creates thousands of tiny chambers, which are filled with CO2 gas. This gas continues to slowly escape over time, which is why freshly roasted coffee is always packed in bags with a one-way valve. All pre-ground pod capsules and fully sealed bags must be stale, otherwise they would explode!

Freshly roasted coffee should only be packed in compostable bags. The problem here is that plant-based polymers don’t seal as well as plastic and metal so the coffee will stale quicker. This isn’t a problem if you’re buying fresh and consuming within 4 weeks of roasting like amamus clients. It becomes a problem in retail when it can be months between the coffee being roasted and consumed. This is why we’d encourage at-home consumers to only buy from your local roaster rather than supermarkets if possible. Plus you will be buying better coffee and supporting a talented local industry that creates local jobs.

Precise coffee extraction

Okay, so here the word premium may come back into play. Precise extraction is absolutely critical to create a great cup of coffee. Some sort of equipment is required to dissolve the desired soluble elements from a coffee bean into the water to create your drink. ‘Premium’ kit is required to create the best result. Cheap grinders, espresso machines, filter machines and pod machines just don’t do a great coffee justice as they create inconsistency. Whilst a premium coffee espresso kit is expensive, premium brewing kit needn’t be. Your friend here is a great grinder – with a little knowledge you can get an acceptable brew grinder from around £100. A whole industry has developed providing beautiful and clever ‘premium’ kit to get the best result from your Specialty coffee. The best source of knowledge for the at-home coffee drinker is your local Specialty roaster. If you’re a company then amamus has all the knowledge and experience you will need to meet your ‘premium’ or ‘specialty’ requirements.

Super-premium coffee

There is a small niche sector of the coffee industry where the word premium adds further gravitas to the ‘Specialty’ descriptor.  These are very expensive coffees that are rated extremely highly for quality and taste and are usually very rare.  Obviously a high demand and low supply creates a price premium.  Well known examples are Jamaica Blue Mountain (which we distribute under our Midnight Blue brand) Kopi Luwak and La Esmerelda Panama Geisha.  These Specialty coffees are broadly termed ‘Super premium’.

If you are looking for coffee for your business, get in touch with amamus today by calling us on 0330 133 0281 or contact us here.

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