Specialty has become a buzzword in coffee shops and the overall coffee market, but what is it all about?
The term Specialty Coffee was born in the seventies and it was the idea of the Norwegian coffee guru Erna Knutsen. Erna had worked as a secretary for a coffee company for thirty years and her views on coffee was so well valued that she gathered power across the company and eventually bought it and renamed it Knutsen Coffee LTD. During this time, Erna noticed the changes coffee had gone through during the twentieth century. Most notably, the fact that it went from being the luxurious good it had always been to a mass produced commodity. For centuries coffee production was labor intensive and it required high attention to detail, which in the markets, made this drink equivalent to wine and fine liquor. While it is practical to make cheaper coffee available, Erna found it crucial to make the distinction between labor intensive and cheaply produced coffee.
Coffee production is labor and time consuming. It takes a whole year for a coffee bush to yield a pound of coffee, the beans are often picked up manually as they are sparingly scattered throughout the bush, and in better equipped farms they use a pulper machine to bring the beans out of the coffee cherry. In less equipped farms, farmers step on the cherries the same way grapes are sometimes stepped on before fermentation. Corners have been cut in order to establish cheaper methods of production but these cuts have deeply affected the quality of the coffee and the salary of the farmers.
Looking at the coffee industry and the line crossed when aiming to produce cheaper coffee, Erna thought it was crucial to differentiate the labor intensive coffee from the cheaper yields. She named such coffee -specialty coffee.
Specialty coffee is not only about the extra time and manual labor, but about the dedication to the craft. The fact that its production depends so heavily on the farmers' care for their own land and beans through every step of production means that there is plenty of opportunity for mistakes and for the coffee to be ruined. It is the craftsmanship that sustains the quality of the product and makes it worth its financial value.
What happens when there is a bad harvest?
Once the coffee is packaged and ready to be shipped from the farms to the rest of the world, it is analyzed for grading. If the harvest does not meet the quality criteria, it is sold for cheaper and without a label. Some of the major coffee companies like Starbucks usually buy these beans for a low price and use it for heavily flavored drinks. They know the consumers won’t notice the difference in the quality of coffee and the lower quality beans allow a greater profit for the coffee giant.
Some countries invest heavy efforts into keeping the traditional craft alive. They protect farmers by setting various policies that ensure they’ll make a decent earning regardless of the stock price of coffee, their ability to sell the harvest, and the uncertainty caused by the weather. In Colombia, the National Coffee Growers Federation promotes the farmers' harvest abroad and monitors sales to ensure the coffee is sold at the best quality and price, benefiting both farmers and consumers equally. In the process, they take a cut, but most farmers are happy to pay it in exchange for the security and stability provided by the federation.
After the Nigerian Genocide and the conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo, both countries have aimed to organize a cooperative that oversees coffee production, but as political instability continues and coffee is often smuggled out of the country to avoid the high agricultural taxes, farmers are still struggling to find good grounding in the specialty market. The Economist reported earlier this year that Ethiopian coffee prices was about to double (if not higher) due to the threat of civil war in the nation, after presidential elections have been postponed for over a year and unexplainable murders have kept the nation burdened with grief and resentment.
In Brazil, coffee has turned into an industrial production that yields 40% of the world’s coffee. These beans are cheaper and lower quality, usually not sold under a Brazilian label.
The distinction between specialty and generic coffee is crucial, as it is the only way farmers can keep up production and dignified living standards while competing with industrial operations able to produce lower quality coffee for a lower price. Without the appreciation for the craft and titans of industry like Erna Knutsen noticing the value of coffee produced by farmers, specialty coffee would have already become an artifact at a museum; but fortunately, through great efforts coffee is still crafted to its highest potential. As Erna named it -a specialty.