If you want to get technical about it, any coffee that scores 80 points or above out of 100 by a Specialty Coffee Association-certified coffee taster or Q grader is defined as “speciality”. But the term has always meant much more than that. When I asked my colleagues for their best answers to the common customer query “What is speciality coffee?” not one of their answers was straightforward.
For Philipp Reichel, co-owner of Berlin’s Isla Coffee and roaster at Café Neun, it is to do with his duty towards the customer. “The idea behind speciality coffee is the ability as a café – and even more so as a roastery – to showcase what the coffee you are drinking is about,” he says.
Luke Kristofski, café manager and customer service pro at Berlin’s Commonground, has a rather more direct definition. “For starters,” he says, “you need to cut the bullshit. It’s not about numbers on a Q grader’s sheet. Speciality coffee is simply an idea – it’s about taking something small and already commercialised, and giving it the appreciation it deserves. Never turning a blind eye and always pushing ourselves to figure out how we can do better. But ultimately, speciality coffee is just coffee that tastes delicious.”
For those working in the coffee industry, the differences between speciality and commodity coffees are clear. They are based on sustainability, and flavour and aroma achieved through farming processes and conditions at origin, the potential of which is further explored by the roasters.
The term “speciality coffee” was first used in 1974 by Erna Knutsen in the Tea & Coffee Trade Journal. She used it to refer to “beans of the best flavour produced in special microclimates”. In the decades since, it has evolved to define not only the product but the culture surrounding it.
But while trends in coffee and definitions have shifted, one thing has stayed the same – the industry’s need for customers. Without paying coffee drinkers, the product we claim to care so much about doesn’t have a sustainable future. We’re not here to teach our customers about coffee, but rather to make them interested in learning about it. There is a difference.
A customer walking into a café is in need of a cup of coffee, hoping to leave in a better state of mind. Great customer service is the last step in the long journey of speciality coffee. With the rise of speciality cafés and barista becoming a legitimate profession, the communication that takes place over the counter has moved on from “What can I do for you?” to “What can you do for the producer?” Baristas expect customers to have a certain level of understanding and knowledge of speciality coffee, but their understanding of their customers has declined. It sometimes seems that we have forgotten our own beginnings in coffee – our confusion, and our disbelief over certain flavours and terminology.
Perhaps your customer picks up on the clues that your café is selling speciality coffee – the price of the drinks on offer, the specialised equipment on display, the menu of rotating coffee origins. But unless their queries are met with understanding and a smile, those clues will be left unpursued.
The best cafés serve coffee with a smile. That is, in my honest opinion, the best “coffee origin” we can offer our customers. Let’s use the smile to redefine what speciality coffee means to our customers, and we can then use the café as a stage to give the word the meaning we believe it deserves.
As a wise hospitality person once said, “Customers may forget what you said, but they’ll never forget how you made them feel.” Be ready for the question, “WTF is speciality coffee?” and answer it with a smile, and the future of the industry will be much brighter.