Understanding Specialty Coffee: A Comprehensive Guide

Understanding Specialty Coffee: A Comprehensive Guide

Coffee is one of the most beloved beverages in the world, with over 400 billion cups consumed each year. But not all coffee is created equal. Specialty coffee refers to the highest quality coffee beans and beverages, distinguished by their unique flavors, sustainability practices, and attention to detail at every stage of the production process.

What is Specialty Coffee?

The Specialty Coffee Association defines specialty coffee as “coffee that is graded 80 points or above on a 100-point scale” by professional coffee tasters. Only about 10-15% of coffee produced worldwide meets this standard.

Specialty coffee beans exhibit a distinct flavor profile and complexity, often described with tasting notes like bright, floral, fruity, chocolaty, etc. These flavors result from careful cultivation, harvesting, and roasting of the beans.

Additionally, specialty coffee prioritizes sustainable and ethical farming practices. Specialty coffee producers pay close attention to:

  • Origin: The country, region, and even specific farm where the beans were grown. Different origins produce unique flavor profiles.
  • Variety: There are two main commercial coffee species - Arabica and Robusta. But within Arabica, there are many varieties that each have distinctive characteristics.
  • Processing: How the freshly picked coffee cherry is transformed into green coffee beans, such as natural/dry, washed, honey, etc.
  • Roast: The degree to which the green beans are roasted, from light to dark. Light roasts emphasize origin flavors, while darker roasts bring out roasted/burnt notes.
  • Freshness: How recently the beans were roasted. Flavor deteriorates quickly after roasting.
  • Brewing: The method used to brew the coffee, like pour-over, French press, espresso, etc. Brewing properly unlocks maximum flavor.

1: Unraveling the Wonders of Specialty Coffee

Have you ever savored a cup of coffee that felt like a delightful embrace for your taste buds? That's the enchantment of specialty coffee! What sets it apart? Let's uncover the mystery behind this exceptional brew.

Specialty coffee is like the cream of the crop in the coffee world. These beans are handpicked and meticulously brewed to deliver an extraordinary experience. Think of it as the VIP lounge of the coffee universe, where each sip takes you on a first-class journey of flavors and scents.

2: From Seed to Cup: The Fascinating Journey of Specialty Coffee Beans**

The journey of a coffee bean is nothing short of an incredible adventure. Specialty coffee beans have a tale to narrate, commencing from the moment they're just a tiny seed. It's akin to a coffee-themed coming-of-age story, but with abundant caffeine.

The voyage from seed to cup entails a perfect combination of climate, soil, cultivation, and harvesting. These beans are treated with the utmost care, thriving in ideal conditions, absorbing the earth's essence, until they're all set to shine in your coffee mug.

3: The Craft of Roasting: Transforming Green Beans into Liquid Gold

Now, let's delve into roasting, the shining star in coffee. Envision this: green, unassuming coffee beans entering a roasting chamber and emerging as fragrant, flavorful treasures. It's like a Cinderella story but for beans!

Specialty coffee roasting is an art form. Roasters are akin to magicians, crafting flavors with meticulous control over temperature and timing. The outcome? Beans with distinct personalities—some fruity, some nutty, some chocolatey—each one eager to add its unique hue to your coffee palette.

By optimizing each production stage, specialty coffee producers create an end product bursting with complex flavors and aromas. Drinking specialty coffee can be a truly elevated, nuanced taste experience.

4: Benefits of Specialty Coffee

So why should you drink specialty coffee? Here are some of the key benefits:

  • Better taste - Specialty coffee simply tastes better! The flavors are more vibrant, nuanced, and lively. Once your palate is accustomed to specialty coffee, there's no going back.
  • Support farmers - Most specialty coffee is sourced directly from small farms through direct trade relationships. Your purchase helps support small-scale, sustainable farmers.
  • Transparency - Specialty coffee offers unmatched transparency about where coffee comes from and how it's produced. Consumers know exactly what they're drinking.
  • Environmentally friendly - Specialty coffee producers adhere to ecologically and socially responsible practices to protect nature and support their communities.
  • Connection to origin - Knowing details like the variety, farm, region, and how the coffee was processed provides a tangible connection with coffee's origins.
  • Exploration - The incredible diversity in specialty coffee origins and varieties means a lifetime of exploration of different brewing methods, cultivars, and flavor experiences.

While specialty coffee demands a higher price than commercial coffee, devotees find the experience worth the extra cost.

5: Elements of the Specialty Coffee Supply Chain

Producing a truly specialty cup of coffee requires care and expertise at each stage:


  • Many specialty farms are small, family-run operations using traditional, artisanal methods.
  • Farmers grow Arabica varieties known for better flavor/aroma over high yield—popular varieties: Bourbon, Caturra, Typica, Gesha.
  • Shade growing, crop diversification, soil analysis and conservation practiced.
  • Hand-picking cherries when perfectly ripe. Floating to separate underripe beans.
  • Paying careful attention to the processing method.


  • Dry/Natural - whole cherries dried with fruit still on the beans. Creates fruity, wild flavors.
  • Washed - fruit stripped, beans fermented, washed and dried. Cleaner flavor profile.
  • Honey - Pulped natural - some skin dries on bean. Balance of clean and fruitiness.
  • Ensuring no over-fermentation or contamination during processing.


  • Specialty coffee is kept separate by variety, processing method, farm, etc.
  • Extensive sampling by cupping experts to assess quality and set price.
  • Only approved specialty lots shipped to importing countries.


  • Small-batch artisan roasting focused on highlighting origin character.
  • Lighter roasts typical to emphasize citric acidity and floral notes.
  • Roast profile explicitly tailored to the coffee variety and origin.
  • Constant tasting and adjusting during roast process.


  • Specialized brewing equipment like pour over, Aeropress used for specialty coffee.
  • Following exacting recipes and procedures for best extraction.
  • Dialing in grind size, coffee/water ratio, brew time, etc.
  • Adjusting method to optimize different coffee's flavor.

This supply chain ensures that the intrinsic qualities of specialty coffee beans are preserved from farm to cup.

6: Regions Producing Notable Specialty Coffee

While almost every coffee-growing country has specialty offerings, some regions stand out for their exemplary coffees.


  • Birthplace of coffee and incredible diversity. Over 6,000 strains grown.
  • Floral, spicy, and fruity flavors like jasmine and citrus.
  • Famous regions: Yirgacheffe, Sidamo, Harrar.


  • Renowned for flavor complexity, vibrancy, and silky body.
  • Central Highlands main growing region. Important varieties: SL28 and SL34.
  • Juicy, sweet fruit notes like blackcurrant, tomato, grapefruit.

Costa Rica

  • Ideal climate and volcanic soil for high quality coffee.
  • Strict quality standards and processing infrastructure.
  • Bright, clean, and balanced cup profiles.
  • Tarrazu, West Valley, and Central Valley main regions.


  • Known for mild, well-balanced coffee with good acidity.
  • Unique microclimates produce diverse flavor profiles.
  • Specialty regions: Cauca, Nariño, Huila, Tolima.


  • Grown in the highlands, with rich terroir.
  • Strict standards - 90% of coffee graded Strictly Hard Bean.
  • Distinctive floral, citrusy, chocolate notes in the cup.
  • Regions: Acatenango, Atitlan, Fraijanes Plateau, Huehuetenango.

This list scratches the surface of the dizzying variety of specialty coffees worldwide. Part of the appeal is exploring different origins and discovering new flavors.

7: Types of Specialty Coffee Beverages

While black coffee remains a favorite due to its purity, specialty coffee is also commonly consumed in espresso drinks and milk-based beverages.


  • Brewing method that uses pressure to extract concentrated coffee.
  • Typical specialty espresso has dense, syrupy texture and bold flavor.
  • Can be enjoyed as shots, in cortados, flat whites, etc.
  • Requires high quality beans and precise brewing.

Pour Over

  • Manual drip brewing using a cone and filter.
  • Allows precise control over brewing factors.
  • Bright, nuanced flavor when done properly.
  • Common devices: V60, Chemex, Kalita Wave.

French Press

  • Steeping grounds in hot water, then pressing plunger to separate.
  • Immersion brewing brings out coffee's full body.
  • Important to use right grind size and brew time.

Cold Brew

  • Steeping coffee grounds in cold or room temp water for hours.
  • Sweet, smooth flavor since less acidic oils are extracted.
  • Lower acidity desirable in cold drinks in summer.

Espresso Drinks

  • Pulling shots of espresso and combining with steamed milk.
  • Cappuccino and latte most popular.
  • Artisan latte art a hallmark of specialty cafes.

The breadth of options allows customers to enjoy a specialty coffee tailored to their preferences. Cafes aim to optimize the preparation of each drink.

8: Buying and Storing Specialty Coffee

As coffee stales quickly, buying freshly roasted whole bean coffee directly from a specialty roaster is ideal.

Here are some tips for purchasing and storing to enjoy the freshest tasting coffee:

  • Look for a roast date on the bag - buy coffee roasted in the past 1-2 weeks.
  • Buy only what you'll use within a month to prevent staling.
  • Choose whole beans over pre-ground - grind just before brewing.
  • Store coffee in an airtight container away from light, heat, and moisture.
  • Let coffee degas for 1-3 days after roasting before brewing for best flavor.
  • Invest in a quality burr grinder to grind beans evenly right before brewing.
  • Freeze excess beans in an airtight container to halt staling.

With proper handling, you can experience specialty coffee at the peak of its flavor potential.

Specialty Coffee Roasters to Try

While incredible specialty coffee exists around the world, these roasters are a great starting point to experience some of the best:

  • Blue Bottle - Known for direct trade sourcing and scientific approach to brewing. Great single-origin coffees.
  • Intelligentsia - Pioneering roaster with excellent single origin and blended offerings.
  • Counter Culture - Values sustainable sourcing and farmer welfare. Try their single origin coffees.
  • Onyx Coffee Lab - Focus on transparency from crop to cup. Known for flavorful, sweet coffees.
  • Tim Wendelboe - Acclaimed Nordic roaster with light, fruity roast style. Try the espresso.
  • Heart Coffee Roasters - Portland, OR roaster with skilled coffee sourcing. Tasty single origin beans.
  • Coava Coffee - Specializes in high quality single origin and blended coffees.
  • Madcap Coffee - Michigan-based roaster using science-based techniques. Complex flavor profiles.
  • Verve Coffee Roasters - Direct trade organic beans. Try their cold brew!

Asking baristas for recommendations of exceptional coffees is another great way to find new roasters and beans to try. Any coffee from these roasters is sure to be a memorable experience.

Mastering the Art of Specialty Coffee Brewing

To truly access the complex flavor potential of specialty coffee requires skillful brewing. Follow these best practices:

  • Always use high-quality freshly roasted whole beans.
  • Grind beans just before brewing using a consistent grind size.
  • Use the suggested coffee/water ratio for the brew method.
  • Ensure water heated to optimal temperature (195-205F).
  • Bloom (pre-wet) the grounds when appropriate to enhance flavor.
  • Pay attention to timing - avoid under or over-extraction.
  • Rinse filters beforehand to eliminate paper taste.
  • Clean equipment thoroughly to avoid the buildup of old grounds.
  • Adjust any variables (grind, dose, time, temp) incrementally to perfect extraction.
  • Develop consistent rituals/routines for each brew method.


  • Use a scale to measure coffee and water precisely.
  • Time your pours or brew cycles.
  • Describe flavors using tasting notes to increase awareness.
  • Experiment with different origins, varieties, and processing methods.

Brewing specialty coffee is rewarding and enjoyable, allowing you to savor the end result fully. Adopting the meticulous practices of professional baristas will help build expertise.

Developing Your Palate Through Cupping and Tasting

Specialty coffee offers such nuanced flavors that devoted enthusiasts often formally develop their palate by cupping (systematically tasting) and describing coffees.

Some ways to refine your tasting abilities:

  • Try cupping - tasting coffees side by side to compare aromas, flavors, aftertaste, etc.
  • Take notes during tasting - identify subtle flavors and aromas you experience.
  • Learn the flavor wheel - coffee tasting reference of common descriptors.
  • Pay attention to acidity, sweetness, mouthfeel, and finish.
  • Participate in cuppings at specialty cafes or formal classes.
  • Try isolating variables - compare same coffee brewed differently.
  • Sample and articulate your experience of coffees from different origins, varieties, processing methods, etc.

Building a specialized coffee vocabulary helps you discern the slightest differences between coffees. But don't get too caught up in technicalities - the sensory experience should remain enjoyable! Savoring specialty coffee is a lifelong journey.

Signs of a Quality Specialty Coffee Shop

While making great coffee is difficult, recognizing a great cafe is more straightforward. Here's what to look for:

  • Focus on highlight single origin coffees, not just blends.
  • Rotates roasted coffee selection frequently.
  • Offers pour over coffee in addition to espresso drinks.
  • Has brewing equipment like Hario V60, Chemex, AeroPress.
  • Shows roast date for beans or brews coffee to order.
  • Details origin, variety, elevation, and processing for beans.
  • Employees participate in formal coffee education.
  • Employees eager to share their coffee knowledge with customers.
  • Cafe has a pleasant, welcoming ambiance.
  • Menu provides flavor notes and descriptions for each coffee.

The mark of a truly exceptional cafe is when the baristas provide an immersive experience - eagerly guiding you through the unique properties and flavors of whichever coffee offering piques your interest. They focus on expanding customers' understanding of specialty coffee as well as serving an impeccable drink.

Specialty Coffee May be Worth the Investment

While it comes at a cost premium, specialty coffee offers a level of complexity and craftmanship that devotees find well worth the price. By understanding what sets it apart, you can better appreciate specialty coffee and become your own coffee connoisseur. From farmer-direct sourcing to artisan roasting and brewing, specialty coffee emphasizes quality over quantity - leading to an exceptional end product. Drinking an exquisite specialty coffee can be a sensory experience like no other.

In summary

  • Specialty coffee refers to the highest quality coffee beans graded 80+ on a 100 point scale.
  • It exhibits distinct flavors, sustainable farming practices, and care through every production step.
  • Benefits include better taste, support for farmers, transparency, environmental benefits, and exploring origins.
  • The supply chain emphasizes careful farming, processing, roasting, and brewing.
  • Notable growing regions include Ethiopia, Kenya, Costa Rica, Colombia, Guatemala.
  • Can be prepared through various methods like espresso, pour over, French press, and cold brew.
  • Store beans properly and use right brewing technique to maximize freshness and flavor.
  • Develop your palate by cupping, taking notes, using a flavor wheel, and trying different coffees.
  • Signs of a great specialty cafe include passionate employees, coffee descriptions, and quality brewing gear.
  • Specialty coffee's elevated cost reflects the effort put into its production and experience.

By learning to appreciate specialty coffee, you open yourself to a vast world of diverse flavors and experiences in every cup. Drink mindfully and enjoy the journey!

Viet Specialty Coffee
Contact Us

Viet Specialty Coffee

We grew up around coffee, for over two generations. You could say we’re steeped in it! Gia Lai province, our home, is one of the most important coffee growing regions in Vietnam and making Gia Lai a little more famous would be a great joy. The best way we can do that is to consistently produce the best specialty coffee in Vietnam. And maybe, who knows, the world!