A beginner's guide to Speciality Coffee


I’ve always loved coffee. Even when I was a child, my grandma Doreen would make me a “coffee” when I got in from school [essentially a tiny amount of coffee and a whole load of sugar and cream 😋], as a result, I always drank my coffee with two sugars and a substantial amount of milk. I would look at my mum’s black coffee and shudder at the thought of drinking it.


So how have I ended up absolutely addicted to the black stuff, now shuddering at the thought of adding milk or sugar?


Firstly, I have to hold my hands up and admit that I am a bit fussy when it comes to coffee. I straight up refuse to drink instant coffee, and the thought of a Starbucks or a Costa makes my toes curl. But that’s because I know how important it is when you consume a lot of something, whatever it is, that it should be of the highest quality possible. This couldn’t be more true with coffee.


I'm always on the hunt for speciality coffee places.

There’s a lot of stigma attached to drinking the good stuff, with many people believing it to have negative affects like making you dehydrated or unable to sleep - some people believe it can lead to more serious problems like heart failure and cancer. Unless you have specific health problems that are directly affected by caffeine, you shouldn’t have any problems consuming regular cups of coffee, especially if you’re drinking it without milk or sugar, which are the other reasons it would be considered unhealthy.


There are actually a lot of studies proving that black coffee has many health benefits; like protecting against Parkinson’s and liver disease, improving cognitive function and reducing depression, thanks to the high volume of antioxidants it contains. Drinking filtered speciality coffee will help you reap the most of these benefits, due to unfiltered coffee containing cafestol, which is a molecular compound that can increase cholesterol levels.


Speciality coffee refers to beans that are sourced responsibly, roasted perfectly, and sold through independent coffee shops, but the overarching theme and emphasis is on quality. The entire production chain from coffee farm right through to the barista serving you a fresh brew is focused solely on that one important factor. This is why I choose to traipse around cities in search of speciality coffee, passing by countless coffee chains in the process, because the whole ethos behind the movement is very in line with my own. Well, that and the fact it tastes freakin’ amazing.


Camping with caffeine last summer in the Lake District.

So let’s look a little deeper into the world of coffee in general, to get a better understanding of each part of the process, and how the speciality industry do things differently.


Coffee Beans & Processing

There are two main types of coffee bean: Arabica and Robusta. One tastes wonderfully soft and sweet, the other tastes harsh and bitter. One is considerably cheaper to produce than the other, and contains twice the amount of caffeine. Here’s how to remember which is which:


Arabica = Awesome

Robusta = Rubbish


Robusta is the cheap stuff you will find in the supermarkets and in most instant coffee. The ridiculously high caffeine content makes it both taste unpleasant and increases the chances of you getting the coffee “shakes” or jitters. Arabica, on the other hand, has less chlorogenic acids and higher lipid & sugar contents, allowing for a much smoother, more delicate tasting experience. That’s not to say that Robusta is always going to mean bad coffee - some speciality roasters do use this variety of bean, particularly when making Espresso blends, and it can taste lovely when done right - but the majority of instant and cheap coffee brands only use Robusta beans for their products as it’s cheaper to produce, hence the bad reputation.


Coffee "cherries" ripening on a coffee plant.

Coffee is grown in plant-form, and there are hundreds of varieties of both Arabica and Robusta plants grown worldwide at many different altitudes, depending on the plant. The beans themselves look like red berries when they grow from the plant, and are actually referred to as “cherries”, which are picked when ripe and processed in one of three ways:


Natural This process involves the cherries being laid out in the sun to dry for several weeks, being turned regularly to ensure they are dried through. Once dry, they are hulled in a mill to remove the outer layers. Because of the beans’ lengthy interaction with the natural sugars of the cherry casing throughout this process, Natural coffee beans have a slightly fruitier taste than those that have been processed in other ways.


Washed Cherries are picked and then the beans are forced out of the berry exterior with water, before being put into fermentation tanks to remove the remaining pulp. The beans are then dried in the sun over 2-3 weeks, in which time they are turned gently to allow for even drying. This process produces a very clean, sweet tasting coffee.


Honey This process gets its name from the sticky pulp that encases the bean, which is left on while the beans dry in the sun. Water is used to remove the outer berry casing, and the beans are then left to dry for various lengths of time, usually between 1-4 weeks. The result is a slightly sweet, syrupy taste from the fermentation between the bean and the pulp, with a much fuller bodied flavour than perhaps the Washed process produces.



Roasting

Once the coffee is processed, it is then shipped out to a roaster - most speciality coffee shops roast their own beans - who will work tirelessly to find the perfect roasting combination to produce the best tasting coffee possible from the beans. This involves heating the beans through various methods [drum, packed bed, hot air etc] so that they turn from green to a certain shade of brown: light, medium or dark, depending on the flavour profiles that the Roaster is looking to unlock.


The roasting process can take a very long time before the Roaster is happy with the outcome - hosting regular cup tasting [“cupping”] sessions, not only for quality control purposes, but also to make tasting notes. The Speciality Coffee Association has specific standards that all roasters must meet in order for their beans to qualify as being speciality: this covers all parts of the process: from where the beans are originally sourced, right through to how they actually taste - any coffee that has noticeable taste defects will receive heavy penalties from their overall score, and it’s thanks to this rigorous procedure that if you are drinking a speciality brew, it’s going to taste amazing every time.


The "drum" coffee roasting method.

Cupping

Back to cupping then. This method of tasting involves a large spoon, similar to a soup spoon, that the roasters and baristas will slurp their freshly brewed coffee from. The coffee beans are ground coarsely into several cups and then hot water is poured over them. The coffees are left to sit for 3-4 minutes to allow for proper infusion, over which time a “crust” forms on top. The crust is broken with the back of a spoon and the roasters are able to smell the released aromas, which gives them an idea of what the coffee might taste like. The coffee is then stirred and any floating grinds removed so tasting can commence. The technique used by baristas is quite specific - similarly to wine sommeliers - in that the coffee must be slurped quickly and powerfully, allowing it to reach the roof of the mouth before being rolled around with the tongue, creating a vapour within the mouth and thus activating the sense of smell. Once the taster is satisfied and has made their notes, the coffee is spat out - often, cupping sessions will be determining the taste and quality profiles of several different beans, so it’s wise to not keep drinking the cups!


The tasting notes are what you will find written on the front of most bags of coffee beans, and they are simply to be used as a guide, not to be taken literally - your coffee isn’t going to taste like red cherries or lemons, but you might catch faint notes on your palette. Tasting notes will usually cover a variety of elements from specific flavours, to fragrance, aroma, acidity and body or mouthfeel - here are some typical profiling characteristics you might find:


  • Sweet

  • Smooth

  • Creamy

  • Sharp

  • Tart

  • Delicate

  • Full

  • Rich

  • Caramel

  • Chocolate

  • Honey

  • Citrus

  • Blackcurrant


I usually go for coffees that have tasting notes of chocolate, caramel or vanilla as I’m definitely drawn towards the sweeter notes as opposed to floral or fruity, but to be honest the taste is usually so subtle that any speciality beans will do for me - they all taste lovely.


A french press is one of the simplest methods of brewing up your fresh beans.

Once roasted & cupped, the beans are then bagged up and distributed to coffee shops to be consumed by the likes of you or I within days, to ensure every cup is as fresh as possible. It would then be your choice as to how you enjoy those beans. I personally prefer to have my coffee brewed via a drip method, which filters the coffee into a very pure form, creating a really smooth cup and allowing you to fully appreciate the flavour. I’ll be doing a separate post on the various brewing methods, as there are so many ways to do it, all of which have their own pros and cons.


I hope this guide has been insightful - a lot of people roll their eyes at speciality coffee, but once you understand what goes into every part of the process, you’ll hopefully see just how special it really is.

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