Once upon a time, there was an Ethiopian goatherd named Kaldi. As he cared for his goats, the creatures would wander here and there for the finest tufts of grass to snack on. One day, Kaldi noticed his goats were acting particularly rambunctious. Frolicking, leaping, and dancing around, they refused to fall asleep during the evening. Kaldi knew something was odd, so his curiosity brought him to bushes he’d never seen before.
The goats had been eating the rich red berries from these mysterious bushes and their behavior was delightful to him. Kaldi, too, ate from the trees and was so energized, he danced around with his goats. Overjoyed by his discovery, he brought the berries to a nearby monastery to tell the monks there. They chastised him for using the berries thus and cast them into the fire.
Soon, a pleasing aroma wafted from the fire. They quickly retrieved the roasted berries from the embers, ground them up, and boiled them in water. This, so the legend goes, was the world’s first cup of coffee.
From Kaldi to Keurig to That Roastery Up The Road
Whether or not you believe the tale of Kaldi and his dancing goats, we’re here now, barely thinking when buying coffee with lofty claims of specialty, sustainability, free trade, and a litany of equally amorphous terms. What truly makes coffee specialty?
It seems to be a term that can’t boast definitive categorizations, yet it does have some. Specialty coffee focuses on source, quality, consistency, and transparency from the harvest of coffee berries to the brewed final product we know and love to drink.
Let’s look at some key factors that make your roast boast specialty.
- Around the world, coffee grows along the equatorial zone. In case you didn’t know, that’s a pretty big zone. Altitude, soil, water, air quality, growing process, sunlight, and a list of environmental factors differentiate coffee beans from each other. If you think South American coffee and Ethiopian coffee are the same, you’re wrong. Source and origin matter.
- Piggybacking off source, ethics play an important and growing role in the world of specialty coffee. Farmers grow the coffee that ends up in your cup. How did it get from farm to you? Are the farm workers treated well? Are they paid fairly? Are their farming practices environmentally sound? Are middlemen cutting out profits that should be going to the coffee farmers? Specialty coffee accounts for these questions, among many others, and prides itself in practicing ethical production and consumption.
- Coffee grows on trees in cherry-looking berries. There are two ways to process the berries before getting them to the roastery.
- The roasting process is the care taken in testing how the end product will taste when it reaches your cup. If every bean was roasted in the same way, flavor profiles are blended and overlooked. By roasting small batches and tasting them in numerous cuppings, roasters have a better idea of what they’re serving the end customer.
- Coffee brewing rituals and processes differ around the world. They’re different for bean source and type from various regions, too. It can be overwhelming and complex, but one thing remains true: measurement and respect for the accuracy of the brewing process is paramount to a perfect pour.
In the end, specialty coffee stands firmly by paying close attention to the whole coffee acquisition process from start to finish. Next time you’re buying coffee, whether by beans or barista, pay attention for some of the notes listed above. From there, you’ll gradually become more conscious of your morning pick-me-up.