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Specialty Coffee—What Makes it So Special?

Selecting Coffee Beans Then Roasting Them is Similar to Making Wine. Andrew Robertson, Director of Retail at Press Coffee, Explains

The specialty coffee scene has exploded in the United States—and elsewhere—in recent years. Most major cities have at least one specialty roaster, and new brands and hip coffee shops are opening constantly across the country. But is all the hype warranted? Is the separation factor merely in the hipster décor and modern finishings? Or, is the coffee concretely different in the specialty scene? 

In short—yes, the coffee you find in a specialty (also known as third wave) shop is different from what you will find elsewhere.

Aside from not having blenders, flavored syrup options, overly sweet drinks or air pump pots, the coffee itself must meet a minimum standard to be called “specialty” grade coffee. 

The “specialty” designation is the most important part of this quality focused movement. Rather than deceptive marketing words like “premium,” “gourmet” or “fancy,” to achieve specialty grade status, a coffee must meet specific criteria and achieve a score of 80 points or higher on the specialty coffee review scale. This score accounts for farm level defects, moisture content, taste, and many other factors that all contribute to the final grade. There is even a Wikipedia page for specialty coffee, which goes into further detail about the history and defining moments in our quality-focused revolution. 

In selecting a coffee, we at Press receive samples from farms the world over. This green coffee can be naturally processed, washed processed, or even incorporate some elements of both methods. The processing method is crucial in highlighting the flavor of the coffee bean and is responsible for bringing out the big fruit notes in natural coffees, or the tea-like honey notes in washed versions once the beans are roasted and brewed. One coffee from the same farm can taste completely different when processed different ways. The roasters at Press try to offer different processing methods continuously, as consumers tend to favor one particular type. 

The roasting team sample roast around 10 options in very small batches, and then “cup” them—a process involving lots of slurping, tasting, and analyzing the flavors. Roughly 5% of the coffees we try are selected, and then the real work begins—developing a roast profile.

Roasting coffee is cooking. It is the maillard reaction and controlling the variables of roasting determine the flavor of the coffee. As a roaster, you have the ability to highlight certain flavors, but can also destroy a great coffee quickly with even a small mistake. 

The basic process involves preheating the roaster to a certain temperature—this is called the “charge temperature.” You then drop in your green coffee beans and let the coffee and the roaster equalize before adding any heat. This turning point is called “the delta,” and once you cross this threshold it is time to add heat. High and heavy in some cases, low and slow in others—every roasting process is different depending on the beans. The rate of temperature rise per minute (RoR) is one of the most important variables in the roasting process. Our roasters want a smooth and steady increase in temperature, with no spikes or drops at any point. At 377-degree Fahrenheit, the coffee reaches first crack, and with audible pops announces itself as nearly ready.

It goes from absorbing heat (endothermic) to releasing heat (exothermic) and the application of heat must be adjusted to keep it slowly climbing in temperature. If it stalls out, it is ruined.

As it approaches the 400-degree mark, the coffee must be smelled constantly and released from the roaster the second it arrives at its perfect point. Knowing when it is perfectly done is the hardest and most important part of roasting. Skilled roasters can bring out nuanced flavors of the beans, allowing for different flavors to appear when brewed.

Everything I have just described is true for all the offerings at Press Coffee. The beans we roast and brew are all specialty grade, and all are remarkable in their own way. However, we also launched a line of truly unique and exceedingly rare coffees we call Allocation. This new line of Allocation beans are typically high scoring, hard to get, and come in very limited quantities.

Through poor marketing and misinformation, most consumers would name Jamaica Blue Mountain, Kona, or Kopi Luwak as the best coffees you can buy. But you will never see these in a specialty shop—and for a great reason. They do not meet specialty coffee standards.

Pink lemonade, bubble gum, lime, and cherry cola—these tasting notes are not uncommon in our offerings and must be experienced to be believed. Coffee on this level is like fine wine. Everyone has a different palate and preference, and finding and experiencing the right flavor profile is half the battle—and half the fun!

I will leave you with a sneak preview of our upcoming Allocation selection. It is a Canberra Geisha, and is one of the most sought-after coffees in the world. Blackberry juice and the taste of a very pricey cognac are extremely prominent in this coffee, and we could not be more excited to show it off.

Coffee should be a “treat yourself” moment every day. The specialty scene has numerous offerings for every palate, find what you love and keep exploring!

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