How "Specialty" may be misrepresented in the coffee market

Author: Roaster's Rant   Date Posted:20 January 2017 

It seems everyone is Specialty Coffee these days - we take a look at how Specialty became too important to ignore for selling coffee in Australia and why everyone jumped on the bandwagon


I guess we have been fortunate to live through and be part of the most historic era of change within the Australian coffee industry during the last decade.

In that time, we have seen our original strategy of providing quality single origin coffees result in the creation of a successful and influential segment within the Australian coffee market.

The industry has evolved rapidly with widespread adoption of the term "Specialty Coffee" as the new standard for quality coffee. A trend that had it's humble beginnings around 2007 with pioneering companies showcasing single origin coffees, roasted more carefully and in some instances promoting traceability and provenance.

In the eyes of the commited and dedicated Coffee Roaster, the objectives for Specialty were always about greater care and enhancing the distinct characteristics of the individual bean - it was never about mass volume sales.

Coffee as a craft makes a big comeback

Small, micro roasters began popping up everywhere - bringing their artisan style, handmade, customised and personal flavour stamp to their crafted product. The rise in "boutique" was flying in the face of traditional manufacturing where scale is king - there were just a few mega-plants in Australia referred to as commodity suppliers. 

The ideology of specialty was remarkably simple - if it's a fruity bean, then try your absolute best to present fruit elements in a way that also means the coffee is delicious to consume (ironically, that's not an easy task with fruity coffees).

Up until the rise in the specialty segment, most coffee was being roasted with heavy, dark profiles that turned everything into a bland, homogonous consistency. It was rather difficult to tell a Colombian from a Guatemalan as the heavy roast notes would dominate the cup.

Specialty is a style of coffee in contrast to the historical or traditional espresso genre of darker roasting coffees. The methods of roasting dark we due to most green or raw coffee having harsher, rougher and for want of a better descriptor "dirtier" cup profiles. The darker roasts tended to hide or mask these low grade ingredients.

Specialty came to mean all things nice and delicate such as "clean and sweet" and was easily distinguished from the old-style, dark roasted, oily beans often presenting bitter taints needing sweeteners added to the cup, e.g. sugar, syrups, textured milk, etc.

This new style of Specialty (using better beans and careful, precise roasting) really started changing perceptions from around early 2010 with the explosion of quality-focused cafes dedicated to serving up something better than their competition. 

All of a sudden, the old school ways of running cafes and serving cups of coffee were changing. Baristas took more time and care in targeting precision and consistency.

Cafe culture kills fine dining

High end restaurants were doing it tough and closing down everywhere. Silver service was contracting and customers dining tastes were changing.

Cafes continued to pop up anywhere, many serving Masterchef quality food in a more relaxed atmosphere. Soon you could get your coffee fix everywhere - in the bottom of buildings, on the sidelines at the kid's footy match or mobile vans beeping their horn at your workplace or event.

It appears that in Australia, coffee is as ubiquitous as water.

This unending competitive fight for a better tasting cup of coffee is what propelled Specialty Coffee forward and into the psyche of coffee lovers everywhere. Coffee drinkers started voting with their feet, trying the latest opening and critically judging their brew compared to the other offerings nearby. Loyalty it seemed was eroding and cafes had to try harder to win and hold onto their regulars.

Smart cafe owners also knew that whilst serving food was always marginal profit proposition, their business health was firmly linked to the success of their coffee offering. Selling coffee by the cup was putting $$ in the cafe owner's pockets.

Specialty becomes the benchmark at the expense of Imported Brands

Today, we see a complete transformation and acceptance amongst the coffee drinking community that Specialty coffee is the desired preference of coffee lovers in our domestic market - especially in capital cities and higher populated regional areas where access to quality, fresh roasted coffee beans is abundant.

Italy held the crown of espresso king for almost a century. They invented the espresso machine and largely influenced the majority of advances in the coffee industry during the 20th Century - whether it was packaging, roasting, blending, sourcing, etc. there are many innovations that came from the experienced Italian coffee roasters.

The problems faced by the Italian coffee companies were the constraints of their local and close neighbouring markets. Coffee in Italy is capped at a certain price, so the Italians have to source lower quality and cheaper alternatives in order to remain competitive. That's not to say that all Italian coffee consists of rubbish beans, it's just that they have to think differently to Australian roasters when sourcing their coffees and hence there has been mimited opportunity for the large Italian companies (except Illy) to target higher qualities or different styles as the investments and scale impacted their profits on the huge volumes.

The Italians were supremely successful at growing outside of their local markets by distributing their coffees in all parts of the world and this worked well whilst the chanels were primarily locked up by supermarket and retail shelves. However, the Italians remained one-eyed about the realities of demand for fresh roasted product by insisting all their roasting was centralized in Italy. They sat on their hands, watched and waited until it was too late - the market exploded into a thousand distribution channels and there was no way to control the game.

Italians failed to adapt to the changing needs of the consumer side - wanting a fresher coffee. not something that was 4 months old, a sweeter and cleaner cup with adequate acids to mix with milk, etc. After years and years of watching their market share contract in Australia, we have recently seen a strategy of acquisition in other parts of the world to buy specialty roasters and localize their offering - I think that's a pretty smart move.

Suddenly, Specialty suffers from over-exposure

The real challenge moving forward is with excessive usage of the term Specialty coffee.

Whenever we think specialty, it's generally associated with "better", "unique", "superior" or "improved" over what may be considered standard. The problem is that there is no reference point for standard.....and when everyone is doing the same thing by proclaiming " Specialty coffee is served here", then we know for sure that the term has reach peak saturation and becoming meaningless or complacent.

Unfortunately, with the Specialty Coffee tag being thrown around by everybody, everywhere, how does the coffee drinker determine what is genuine or authentic ?

Retail and wholesale coffee in Australia (and the rest of the world for that matter) persists within an unregulated, uncontrolled continuum. That means anyone can call their coffee Specialty and there is no body, no association, no registrar and no enforcement authority that can validate whether in fact a product claiming to be Specialty is in true and correct. There's no certification or controlled flow of goods, hence the system is open to abuse and misrepresentation.

You see, it's all down to interpretation and any Brand can source the same low or inferior grades they have been buying for 20 years, long before Specialty became fashionable, the raw coffees that honest and dedicated Specialty Coffee Companies reject, and this low grade raw coffee can be roasted using any profile that the Brand sees fit, slap an attractive and enticing Specialty label on the pack and who would know any different ?

Obviously, the truth is in the cup, but marketing messages are deceptive.

You can taste many aspects of a specialty coffee - it's rich, clean, sweet, acidic (in a pleasant way), it may have a long persistent finish and it certainly won't need sweeteners added. The caveat with that statement of course is only when it's brewed, extracted or prepared correctly and that folks is the root of many problems in the world of quality coffee - taking great beans and making a fist of it.

Coffee will always change

Specialty coffee is still grappling with a clear, concise identity and will continue on this rollercoaster for some time yet.

The biggest obstacles to achieving a consistent, easy to understand definition are that quality evaluations are performed using different protocols to ther target brewing methods used by coffee drinkers - the important people who actually end up buying the stuff we stress over 24/7.

Coffee is scored and graded using roast profiles that are not suited to consumption - the coffee is lightly roasted to test for defects. When it scores 83 or greater SCAA points (some argue that 80 is the benchmark, but I disagree), only then is it deemed worthy to be called Specialty grade.

We contend that certain defects may not appear at such light roast depths, such as that used by scoring and cupping and we know full well from our experiences that some high scoring coffees do not actually translate into well performing coffees for the average coffee drinker. You roast them for the consumer to drink and they don't taste like coffee !

Another obstacle to reaching a state of maturity in Specialty coffee is the huge number of variables involved with coffee - stuff that changes daily like seasonality, processing, transit, storage, volatility, etc. All these factors mean we as coffee roasters are continually adjusting and compensating for differences each day, week, month and season.

We also think there are no signs to a slowdown for innovation in the realm of alternate brewing. People are inventing all different ways to brew or extract coffee which in turn also drives changes to the profiles required to roast coffees.

All this "pushing of the boundaries" will keep Specialty coffee in a fluid state of change and no doubt consumers will be hoping that things start to stabilize so they can enjoy a degree of predictable consistency with their daily beverage.

I will finish with my own definition of Specialty Coffee.........

If you liked a particular coffee I prepared and you asked me reproduce it again in 6 months time ?'s Specialty Coffee in all honesty, not possible !