As in all of life’s most important questions, there is no single answer to this. If you want me to go back to my school days and start with “The Oxford Dictionary defines…” then the purely technical answer is that speciality coffee is an Arabica coffee which has been scored at more than 80 out of a possible 100 by a certified Q grader.
It’s not really a satisfying answer is it?
This is because it isn’t really the whole story, nowadays when people talk about “speciality coffee”, “speciality coffee shops” and the “speciality coffee scene” they are talking more about an attitude towards producing and enjoying the best possible coffee. There is a whole story which arcs from bean to cup.
This story starts with the bean, of course: a single origin coffee sourced with respect for the farming community it comes from and for the planet as a whole. It is about knowing not just which country a coffee comes from, but the region and quite probably the name of the farmer and whether he has a cute dog called “Arthur”.
This coffee is then taken by an expert roaster and roasted with care to bring out the best of its flavours. Rather than vast quantities of coffee beans produced for international commercial use, these roasters are artisans who develop individually created roast profiles and constantly monitor and check the quality of what they are producing: repeatedly roasting and cupping to achieve excellence.
Speciality coffee is also about how you make the final drink. A coffee which has travelled so far and been shown so much care and attention deserves respect and nowadays there is a much wider and better educated market who give it just that. There are coffee shops who carefully decided whether a coffee should be used as an espresso or in a filter, how that specific coffee should be ground and how to extract just the right amount of the right flavours to fully realise its potential.
And in homes across the world there are people with equipment to do the same. Enthusiasts and people who simply enjoy being able to be a part of world of speciality coffee.
So, we come back to the question, what is speciality coffee? Well, more than just a coffee which has been recognised as one of the best in the world, it is a community of people who have recognised the beauty to be found in a cup of coffee, the privilege of being able to enjoy something of world class quality every day and in turn, the responsibility which they owe to the coffee and to the farmer and the environment which has provided it.