The Answer To The Question “What Is Specialty Coffee?”


Specialty coffee has increasingly become the most interesting topic among coffee forums. There have been several discussions occurring to give out an exact answer for the question “What is specialty coffee?”. Let’s find out its actual concept in this essay.

What is specialty coffee?

For a long time ago, coffee was considered a regular drink by many people. When coffee becomes a culture, it requires a new perspective from coffee addicts. That is also when people ask themselves “What is specialty coffee?”. This question attracts a lot of interest from coffee forums around the world. According to the National Coffee Association of America (2015), coffee customers in the US believe that 48% of coffee they use is specialty coffee. So what is the actual concept for specialty coffee and by which regulations and standards do we grade specialty coffee? This article will answer the question “What is specialty coffee?”.

The answer to the question “What is specialty coffee?”

The definition of this term originated from Erna Knutsen, a member of Knutsen Coffee Ltd., in her speech at an international coffee conference in Montreuil, France, in 1978. She conceptualizes that coffee beans which are grown in special geographic microclimates with unique profiles are referred to as “specialty coffee”.


It took a long journey to define what is specialty coffee

  • Definition of SCAA about specialty coffee

Based on the fundamental premise, the idea of the coffee title was also defined by The Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA) in 2009. According to SCAA, the process in which craftspeople roast the highest quality green coffee beans to the greatest aroma and brewing them to SCAA standards will produce specialty coffee. Thereby, coffee scoring 80 or above on SCAA’s 100-point scale will be graded “specialty”.

See more: Get to know about Specialty coffee association

  • General definition about specialty coffee

Coffee from a growing area with suitable natural conditions along with special farming, harvesting, and processing process, which has distinct taste and aroma and grades 80 or above out of 100 points on the scale of standards according to the World Specialty Coffee Association (SCA) and the World Coffee Quality Institute (CQI), is called specialty coffee.

Other things to know about specialty coffee

The most curious thing everybody wants to know is how to produce specialty coffee and how specialty coffee can be graded.

What creates a specialty coffee?

All stages in the coffee production process affect the quality and uniqueness of specialty coffee beans.

  • Growing

At ground level, the appropriate intersection of microclimate, soil chemistry, and cultivation is obviously crucial because these elements decide the quality of specialty coffee beans. If it is grown at the wrong altitude, soil, or the wrong climate, specialty products could not be produced and the potential for quality is destroyed. 

Currently, in Vietnam, Arabica coffee trees in Lam Dong and Quang Tri are most appreciated.


Growing specialty coffee

  • Harvesting

Coffee cherries on a healthy plant must be picked in a 100% ripe state by hand. Selective hand picking takes more time but gives better results because the pickers will feel the ripeness of the cherries to ensure the standard of specialty coffee beans for the following stages.


Harvesting specialty coffee

  • Processing

Specialty coffee is graded by taste and aroma. They do not come from the seed, but from the pulp. So, how to get them into the bean is why processing is such a crucial and demanding task. Besides traditional methods such as natural, honey, or washed coffee process, there have been several modern methods of coffee processing in recent years. 

Anaerobic fermentation

  • After harvesting, the cherries are put into the depulper. 
  • When the pulp is removed, the seeds are sorted into different sizes. 
  • Then they are placed in sealed airtight fermentation tanks which allow oxygen to be sucked out in 12 hours. Carbon dioxide and heat are generated due to the pressure increase in the tanks. The level of CO2, sugar, temperature, and pH are measured for accurate results. 
  • This reaction must be stopped before alcohol is produced. 

The essence of this method is to get substances from the pulp into the beans by using the high pressure in the tank. Experiments showed that original flavors of the same coffee can be enhanced (creamy, silky texture) or different flavor profiles can be created (complex, wild acidity) through Anaerobic fermentation.


Anaerobic fermentation results in the alternation of organoleptic profile

Carbonic maceration

Carbonic maceration occurs in an anaerobic environment. 

  • The ripe cherries are placed into an airtight tank and then carbon dioxide is injected into it, which makes oxygen be pushed out. 
  • The maceration process can lengthen from a few hours to several days, which totally depends on the desirable products of farmers.

During this process, the two substances called tannins and anthocyanins are migrated into the bean, bringing an unusual taste of coffee.


Carbonic maceration forces CO2 into and expelling O2 from the tank

  • Drying

For later use, the specialty coffee beans must be dried from about 46-47% to 11-12% to prevent mold which can damage the quality of coffee. This process is often done in natural sunlight for 8-10 days (depending on temperature and sunlight). For using natural sunlight, there are three main locations to dry coffee beans, including patios, tablets, and parabola houses. 


Drying coffee

  • Roasting

About 230 to 260oC is the most appropriate temperature for roasting coffee beans. During the roasting process, coffee is kept moving to make sure all beans are well-roasted. The oil inside the specialty coffee beans begins to emerge when their inner temperature reaches 230oC. Then, the color of the beans changes from green to brown and the coffee gets the aroma. Roasting is a very important step because if the bean is not well-roasted, the coffee cannot reach the perfect aroma and taste or if it is over-roasted, the flavor of coffee can be destroyed. Because the aromas will gradually fade after roasting, it is suggested to enjoy coffee from 2 to 30 days after roasting.


Roasting at proper temperature gives coffee the perfect color and aromas

  • Grinding and Brewing

The next key step is to grind the beans. Getting the right grind can make a huge difference in taste for each coffee. For example, espresso is well-served with finer, whereas filter coffee requires coarser. Additionally, coffee should be used as soon as possible because after grinding, ground coffee can lose up to 60% of its aromas within 15 minutes. Brewing coffee requires the exacting application of brewing standards.

Finally, the coffee must be brewed. There are many ways to brew coffee such as French press (pressing hot water through ground coffee), cold brew (cooling overnight the mixture of water and ground coffee), Espresso (passing pressurized water through finely-ground coffee), etc. For any type of brewing, the standards of brewing temperature, water quality, coffee to water ratio, and extraction may be different but exactly applied to create a specialty coffee beverage.


Grinding and Brewing

See more: Vietnamese specialty coffee – a perfect drink for coffee addicts over the world

Specialty coffee beans grading

The methodology created by the Specialty Coffee Association (SCA) is the most trustworthy tool to categorize specialty coffee beans.

  • The SCA Green Arabica Coffee Classification System (GACCS) version from Spring 2000 and the SCA Defect Handbook from April 2004 are used in the Green Coffee Grading process. A 350g bag of green coffee beans is collected for visual examination and counting of defective beans. 

Green Coffee Grading

  • The Cupping protocol is a qualifiable evaluation method for determining the quality, characteristics, and flavor of a coffee sample. Individual component ratings, such as fragrance, aftertaste, and sweetness are used to determine the total score. The ultimate score for specialty coffee beans will be 80 or above out of 100.

Cupping protocol

Development of specialty coffee in Vietnam

Although specialty coffee accounts for about 2% of total global coffee volume, it produces a 5-10 times higher added value than regular coffee. Vietnam is trying to improve the quality of specialty coffee beans and expand the market in both Vietnam and around the world.

Currently, there are 50 specialty coffee producers in Vietnam with a total output of 200 tons each year. Despite entering the market of specialty coffee quite late, Vietnam has an opportunity of learning other countries’ experiences to grow and produce high-quality coffee at international standards. 

When referring to specialty coffee, people often only call Arabica out. The reason is that Robusta has a resistance to the natural environment and is highly adaptive. Arabica beans have to be grown at appropriate altitudes so they require more careful husbandry. Thus they have a reputation for high quality but this is not always the case.

Robusta beans would have as many market opportunities as Arabica if they are carefully selected at harvest and thoroughly processed at the mill.


High potential of specialty coffee

For more sustainable and comprehensive development of specialty coffee in our country, a chain of specialty coffee production, investment, and connection between supply and demand should be enthusiastically encouraged.

Top 10 world’s best specialty coffee

1 Kopi Luwak

Growing location: mainly on the Indonesian islands of Sumatra, Java, Bali, Sulawesi, and East Timor

Taste and flavor: “earthy, musty, syrupy, smooth and rich with jungle and chocolate undertones (Marcone, 2003).”

2 Blue Mountain Coffee

Growing location: Jamaican Blue Mountain

Taste and flavor: Sweet herbs and floral, with overtones of nuts

3 Bourbon Coffee

Growing location: Madagascar

Taste and flavor: deep, buttery chocolate flavors, and sweetness, and very light fruit overtones.

4 Ethiopia

Growing location: Ethiopia

Taste and flavor: light body, with complex fruit and floral notes

5 Villasarchi

Growing location: the western valley, Sarchi in Costa Rica

Taste and flavor: elegant acidity, intense fruit notes, and prominent sweetness.

6 Typica

Growing location: Ethiopia

Taste and flavor: sweet flavor and silky mouthfeel

7 Geisha

Growing location: Costa Rica

Taste and flavor: Natural tea-like body, sparkling flavors like citrus, mango, peach, and jasmine.

8 Trung Nguyen Legend Coffee

Growing location: Dak Lak, Vietnam

Taste and flavor: rich, mellow, and chocolaty with a similar flavor to actual kopi luwak

9 Arabica Cau Dat

Growing location: Cau Dat, Vietnam

Taste and flavor: elegant and really aromatic smell which is the harmony of syrup smell, fresh fruits smell, honey smell, roast bread smell and the smell of sunny days.

10 Da Lat Bourbon Arabica

Growing location: Da Lat, Vietnam

Taste and flavor: round and mellow flavor, coupled with balanced acidity and smooth mouthfeel.

Top Vietnamese specialty coffee suppliers

Trung Nguyen Legend specialty coffee suppliers

Trung Nguyen is a business group producing, processing, and distributing coffee in Vietnam. Founded in 1996, this firm has had a lot of high-quality products and has been presented in more than 60 countries around the world.

Contact information:

Phone: +84 1900 6011

Wscafé specialty coffee suppliers

Wscafé is a Vietnamese wholesale coffee business that supplies wholesale products and provides best-in-class services.

Contact information:

Whatsapp: +84902219192

K-Agriculture specialty coffee suppliers


K-Agriculture specialty coffee suppliers

K-Agriculture is a national project powered by the Vietnam Ministry of Industry and Trade. During 25 years of development, we have been a leading factory for agriculture products, especially specialty coffee from Vietnam. With the achievements and certificates that we got over the past 25 years, we are confident to bring the actual specialty coffee to all coffee drinkers in the world generally and in Vietnam particularly.

Contact information:

Phone: +84 855555837

(Whatsapp Available)



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