Nowadays the term special coffee (or specialty coffee) has become visibly more popular in the daily colloquiums of our society, from casual meetings with office colleagues to deep discussions in different social networking platforms. In order to pursuit our passion of spreading the coffee culture we want to refer to some concepts, processes and ideas around specialty coffee, which have the solely goal to encourage the enjoyment of this aromatic beverage and increase the stock of knowledge in our readers and, therefore, become good ambassadors of Costa Rica´s golden bean.
It is worth establishing a conceptual framework for the term in the first instance, since we often fall into ambiguities or misrepresentations that tend to be confusing and generate inaccurate understanding. Let’s start perhaps by reviewing a little the origins of the term.
“Specialty coffee” was coined for the first time by Erna Knutsen (who passed away in June 2018), expert roaster of Knutsen Coffee Ltd., in a speech offered to the delegates of an international coffee conference held in Montreuil, France in 1978. In essence the concept was simple: the existence of microclimates and particular geographical conditions are capable of generating beans with unique flavor profiles, which she referred to as special coffees. In light of this idea of giving special importance to the origins of coffee is the fundamental premise that special coffees shall always be processed correctly, roasting should always be fresh (recent) and the infusion method should be the most appropriate. We could say that this is the sketch of the specialty coffee industry, which has evolved in an obvious way after almost 30 years since the speech was made. In summary, the basic idea is that the combination of a good genetic material exposed to particular agro-ecological conditions will result in beans with exceptional sensory attributes, which, to be fully expressed, require a controlled process of transformation, roasting and preparation.
As the industry has evolved, objective criteria have been established for the definition of the term specialty coffee, in an attempt to complement what appeared to be only an art with science. The Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA, by its acronym in English) defines a special grade arabica coffee as all coffee free of defects (https://www.scaa.org/?page=resources&d=green-coffee- protocols) or non-clean conditions, which reaches a score higher than 80 when tested according to standards defined by SCAA (https://www.scaa.org/?page=resources&d=green-coffee-protocols). One of the most important things about this definition is that it allows you to include coffees from origins or reputations that are perhaps not so famous or of such a tradition, but that were carefully selected and processed to obtain a clean cup with exceptional attributes. In parallel, it excludes coffees that, counting on a terroir or traditional fame, do not express clean or pleasant attributes, since they were not prepared and processed in a controlled manner.
Once discussed background and terms around the special coffee, it is time to go into detail about the initial approach of our theme: what makes specialty coffee special? It is possible that because of reading the previous paragraphs we have already derived from them some ideas that give us the answer; however, we believe that the best way to approach this question involves disaggregating the coffee process flow and analyzing the particularities or issues required in each stage.
At the farm level it is essential to have a well characterized genetic material, to procure young and vigorous plant tissues; provide the plant with adequate agronomic conditions in terms of nutrition, phytosanitary control and shade management, and no less important, guarantee that the plantation is at an optimum altitude so that the existing climatic conditions allow exploiting the genetic potential of the cultivated variety.
Only the red ones! That is the fundamental slogan in the harvest. The first step of quality control of the fruit starts here. The existence of knowledge, commitment and culture of quality among the collaborators of the farm is essential. Because traditionally the payment system of the coffee collectors was based on the amount collected without necessarily discriminating between the immatures, over-matures or other stages of maturation; it is necessary in many cases a change of mentality between them, a condition that usually implies a significant investment in time and establishing incentive systems that reward quality over quantity in collection.
In the process of transformation of the fruit to the grain, which we commonly know as milling, there are many variables that determine whether a coffee will arrive free of defects or not. These variables demand a strict control, and we could say that, after the only-matures harvest, it is during the milling process where other critical points of quality control occur. Here, some of the basic principles involve the control of fermentation temperatures, control of humidity, avoid mechanical damage in pulping by good calibration of the equipment and of course maintenance of good sanitary conditions. Beyond controlling these basic processing conditions, in order to guarantee that the product has a consistent homogeneity and is free from physical defects, it is necessary to go a step further and perform a first manual grading process, in this case at the coffee parchment level. In this stage, beans with visible physical defects such as: deformities, insect damages or mechanical damage, among others are eliminated. After this first classification, a subsequent classification is made once the parchment has been removed, that is, at the level of green coffee. In this case you will see defects that were hidden under the parchment and that also contemplate physical damage, deformities and abnormal colorations, for instance. Although there are currently automated systems capable of making this selection of coffee beans, the truth of the matter is that it is still done many times manually to give it a sense of exclusivity and art, besides representing a source of labor in the communities. But… yes, we agree, it’s definitely not the most efficient way in terms of time to do it.
At this moment we are ready to roast. Having gone through all the previous quality control filters, we could think that by now the chances of finding defects in the cup are really low and that the quality of the drink will have improved noticeably. However, it is necessary and precise to do quality tests also with roasting to make sure that the coffee micro-lot could be considered really as specialty grade. In this way, samples of the micro-lot will be taken and roasted in laboratory roasting systems (small quantities, strict control of time and temperature) and then cupped and approved or not, by specialists in quality control of the beverage (Q graders).
While it is true that this is just a brushstroke of everything that involves the production of a special coffee bean and you will probably find that we have omitted some details, the idea is to be able to share with our readers a brief introspective of what is special inside a special coffee. So, the next time you drink a special coffee (which we hope is right now), know that it is not only the beans themselves that make that flavor so wonderful, but that there is a meticulous process and a large quantity of Quality Control work behind that aromatic and delicious cup. Pura Vida!.