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January | February 2021

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By Spencer Turer

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ASK A FEW SPECIALTY COFFEE PROFESSIONALS about the definition of specialty coffee and you will get more opinions than people surveyed. The coffee industry continues to expand in scope and complexity, and the common term used to unify a specific segment of the industry is both more nuanced and broader than it was when the term first came into popular usage.

“Specialty” is defined in the dictionary as a distinctive mark or quality. In the context of coffee, it can reference the flavor quality of a coffee and an absence of defects, but it also carries connotations around specific aspects of the supply chain, process controls and merchandising.

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Green coffee scoop. Photo by Juan José Sánchez Macías

The term’s usage as it relates to coffee service in a retail setting did not begin to present itself for another two decades after industry luminary Erna Knutsen first coined the term in an article published in Tea & Coffee Trade Journal in 1974, referring to the high-quality coffee that was beginning to be noticed at the cupping table at the time.

As the industry evolved, so did the commonly understood meaning of specialty coffee. From a technical perspective, specialty coffee has come to denote a specific grade of coffee that meets certain criteria as outlined in the Specialty Coffee Association (SCA) green coffee standards. In the retail or roasting context, the term has taken on another meaning. These criteria are open to interpretation and lacking a widely accepted definition, and thus can be unclear to consumers and industry professionals alike. We must also consider where there is overlap or commonalities between commercial (large-scale/mass market) and specialty (artisan/craft) operations, which can blur the lines.

While there may be expectations or even pre-determined parameters within our industry, the concept of specialty has continued to evolve. Other similar terms in the realm of food and beverage include gourmet, premium, boutique, artisanal, craft and luxury. Often the term “micro” is added to this expanding list, commonly used to denote a small, high-quality lot of coffee or a roasting business of a certain size.

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Cupping in Portland, Oregon. Photo by Juan José Sánchez Macías

We will explore these points of discussion in greater detail in part two of this article in the next issue of Roast. For the purposes of this article, we will focus on the green coffee quality aspect of specialty coffee and take a look at the history of how specialty coffee has been evaluated and identified by various countries and organizations.

Green coffee quality has a dynamic and complicated history. Prior to the late 1990s, each producing country set its own standards and created its own terminology. By the early 2000s, the Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA)—which was largely made up of U.S.-based craft coffee roasters at the time—had developed technical standards for the measurement and identification of specialty quality coffee.

While still related to the physical attributes (grade) and sensory profile (cup) for the purchase and sale of green coffee, this was an important cultural shift in the concept of specialty coffee as a common language within the industry. Specialty was realigning itself from being defined by producing countries to consuming countries via a trade association and not a trading company.

The SCAA—now the SCA—and the Coffee Quality Institute (CQI) addressed a growing need for standards and protocols in an expanding coffee industry. By establishing a common set of terms and definitions, cuppers at both the producing and consuming side of the industry were able to refer to prescribed methods of evaluating green coffee for the purpose of identifying its quality rating. Specialized educational classes and a multi-level professional certification program were conceptualized and established during this time, addressing training for coffee evaluation and quality identification.


The SCA, as well as producing countries and commodity exchanges, all have methods of testing and protocols to be followed to measure the green coffee per their own individual requirements. These were prescribed methods to ensure consistency in the evaluation and quality determination, however each was (and remains) different.

Coffee buyers need to understand many different scales and origin-specific terms. To avoid confusion, the quality requirement should be part of the purchase negotiation and included on the green coffee contract. Including the scales to be used for quality determination provides clarity to the producer for the buyer’s expectations and how the coffee will be judged (see Figure 1, below).

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Figure 1. Quality Determinations—General Measurements

Amanda Eastwood, director of supply chain partnerships at Arkansas-based Westrock Coffee Company, has concerns about the inconsistencies in the defect chart, specifically the differences that each group determined for allowable defects (see Figure 2, below). “Does this not potentially somehow favor or shortchange origins?” she asks.

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Figure 2. Defect Chart

Specialty Coffee Association Standard

According to the SCA standard, specialty-grade coffee can be defined as having zero Category 1 defects and five or fewer Category 2 defects in a 350-gram sample. Cupping score requires the coffee to be free from taints and faults; present as uniform, clean and sweet; with a total score of 80 or higher using the SCA Arabica Cupping Form. The SCA published its own defect guide and chart to identify and score full defects (see Figure 3, below).

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Figure 3. Sca Arabica Defect Poster

Green Coffee Association Standard

The Green Coffee Association (GCA) establishes the schedule of defects used by the InterContinental Exchange (ICE) to evaluate and identify coffees to be certified for a Coffee “C” contract. Coffee certified for the Coffee “C” contract will typically not reach the cupping or grading standard for specialty coffee and is commonly called “exchange-grade coffee.” (For more details, see Figure 4 below.)

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Figure 4. GCA Arabica Defect Chart

This quality is often misunderstood—it requires a complicated process to evaluate and value coffee certified and tendered to the exchange or delivered from the exchange. It is important to understand how coffee quality is identified outside of the realm of specialty, in order to understand how specialty is distinguishable from commodity- or exchange-grade coffee.

Green coffee graded as “type” is considered standard quality for exchange grade at eight full imperfections in a 350-gram sample, or 13 full imperfections for Colombia. It is also referred to as the “basis” when counting imperfections.

Not all origins are accepted. The following are tenderable origins for the Coffee “C” contract with a basis of eight full imperfections, with a maximum allowable of 15 full imperfections below the basis for a total of 23 imperfections (full defects): Guatemala, El Salvador, Mexico, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Papua New Guinea, Peru, Venezuela, Dominican Republic, Burundi, Ecuador, India, Rwanda, Brazil and Panama. Colombia is a tenderable origin for the Coffee “C” contract with a basis of 13 full imperfections and a maximum allowable 10 full imperfections below the basis for a total of 23 imperfections (full defects).

The standards for green coffee for the Coffee “C” contract, as certified by Coffee “C” graders, state that the coffee will be sound and free of all unwashed and aged flavors in the cup. “Sound coffee” is defined as clean, sweet and free from taints and faults. The Coffee “C” contract evaluates all tenderable origins similarly for cupping and grading against that same standard.


Before the term “specialty” entered the industry vernacular, coffee-producing countries each developed their own terminology for quality ratings specific to altitude, bean size and cup characteristics. Generic terms for arabica coffee were developed to identify altitude of growth and were later expanded to include cup quality. While each country or exporter may have a slightly different interpretation, these are general measurements (see Figure 5 below).

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Figure 5. Quality Determinations By Altitude

Coffees could be upgraded to a higher category or downgraded to a lower category based on the cup character and sensory profile, specifically cleanliness, sweetness and acidity. (Farms are not always on a plateau, and growing areas span different altitudes. Coffee growing near the Hard Bean (HB)/Strictly Hard Bean (SHB) line would be classified by cup character, because even if it were grown at a slightly lower altitude, a premium was added if it tasted like the higher-altitude coffees.)

Based on the common understanding of the term “specialty” in the past century before SCA standards were adopted by the industry, only green coffee that was SHB or Strictly High Grown (SHG) had a chance to qualify for this informal specialty quality distinction due to its superior cup quality. To obtain the “strictly” designation, coffees needed increased cup quality associated with higher density and slower development at high altitudes. The actual altitude measurement to obtain the title, and what was understood as specialty coffee, was a moving target from country to country and exporter to exporter, and certainly from harvest to harvest based on the actual sensory profile of the coffee.

At the time, bean size was also up to interpretation. Generally, below HB was screen 14 up, HB was screen 15 up, and SHB was screen 16 up, with a premium paid for larger beans. (“Up” means 90 percent or more above.)

For further comparison, quality determinations for Brazil and Colombia are presented below. Other countries have different grading scales that are unique to them.


Like other producing countries, Brazil developed its own standards and terminology for the evaluation and identification of coffee quality. Traditionally, Brazilians seek out clean, sweet coffee, with the absence of flavor defects, and thus a very light cupping roast is used. The sensory evaluation cupping scores are not numerical as in the SCA scoring or other cupping scales. Brazilians use a descriptive scale for sweet to sour, beginning with Strictly Soft for a high level of sweetness, then designated as Soft, Swedish, Hard (comparable to medicinal/phenolic), Rioy, Rio (comparable to sour/ferment), and ending with Rank Rio for strong sour/ferment flavor. Descriptors for clean and complex cups begin with Fine Cup and proceed to Good, Fair and Poor, ending with Bad Cup for lacking complexity and dirty character.

Historically, green coffee in Brazil was graded as a 400-gram sample for the New York rating scale and a 300-gram sample for the Santos scale. Grading assigns a number to represent the total relative to the counted full defects. Low defect counts were similar, but high defect counts were not. For example, Santos 2 equals four full defects, while an New York 2 equals six full defects; both have the possibility of qualifying for specialty coffee. Santos 2/3 (pronounced “two-three”) equals eight full defects, and NY 2/3 is nine full defects. To further illustrate the necessity of understanding which grading scale is used for Brazilian green coffee moving into the standard qualities: Santos 4 equals 26 full defects, and a NY 4 equals 30. The defects disparity gets larger as the quality scoring increases.

Brazilian coffees that may reach specialty quality by SCA/CQI standards are Santos 2 Strictly Soft, Fine Cup. Simply stated, these are low-defect, clean and sweet coffees that may present the body, acidity and flavor complexity to score 80 or higher and present clean coffee without Category 1 defects.


Colombia recently transitioned from a designated specialty grade and commercial grade to simply a minimum quality level for the Excelso rating required for export. Colombia uses a 500-gram sample to grade defects. The old grades were 8/35 for specialty and 12/60 for commercial, meaning in a 500-gram sample, specialty grade was no more than eight Category 1 defects and 35 full defects, and commercial quality was no more than 12 Category 1 defects and 60 full defects. Commercial quality was the minimum allowable quality to receive the Excelso designation, which means export-quality coffee. In the past, the only coffees allowed for export that did not meet the minimum quality standards were to be processed for decaffeinated or soluble coffee or used as an industrial ingredient.

Colombian standards were recently revised. According to the National Federation of Coffee Growers of Colombia (FNC), Excelso standard is no more than 24 full defects in a 500-gram sample and 95 percent above screen 14. The term Excelso still denotes export quality, and this minimum quality is required for coffee to be designated as “100 percent Colombian” and use the Juan Valdez logo. Coffee that does not meet the new standard for Excelso may be exported by agreement between buyer and seller on a green coffee contract and can only be identified as “product of Colombia.”

“The Juan Valdez logo has promoted Colombia and played a meaningful role in boosting consumer perception of Colombian coffee,” Eastwood says.

Sensory evaluation for Colombian coffee is not part of the grade or product description. Traditional designation refers to bean size only. Using the formal terminology, Colombia Excelso Usual Good Quality (UGQ) is redundant because both Excelso and UGQ are defined the same way: no more than 24 full defects and 95 percent above screen 14. Colombia Excelso European Preparation (EP) is export quality for defects and 95 percent above screen 15. Colombia Excelso Supremo is export quality and 95 percent above screen 17. The actual bean percentages above the designed screens for EP and Supremo can be negotiated for the purchase contract.

Colombian coffees may certainly reach the specialty quality designation by SCA/CQI standards when the grade requirements for maximum allowable defects for SCA Category 1 and Category 2 are negotiated between the buyer and seller and are specified on the green coffee contract. Typical cup profiles from Colombia will present the clean cup, sweetness, acidity and body required to score 80 or higher, however specific flavor attributes and the absence of faults are controlled by reducing the full defects from 24 per 500 grams.

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The proliferation of professional certifications, along with individual and company desires to establish a point of differentiation, has resulted in marketing and advertising extolling the virtues of their expertise and coffee quality. However, there must be a difference and a reason for the high premiums in the supply chain and for the beverages served in retail locations.

When we are comparing the number of acceptable defects in various quality grades, it is important to note the relationship between grade and flavor. Many who evaluate coffee’s flavor will evaluate the aroma and taste without testing the physical sample for defects. Numerous coffees that score an 80 or above using the SCA cupping form will exceed the maximum allowable defects to qualify for specialty grade.

This has led many to believe that the specialty designation is established on flavor alone. Judging by flavor alone, the amount of coffee that has the potential to score 80 or higher is exponentially larger than the quantity of coffee that presents with zero Category 1 and no more than five Category 2 defects, making specialty coffee more common than ever before. As a result, some coffee professionals have questioned the minimum cupping score required to achieve specialty status and have proposed increasing the minimum standards to a higher cupping score as a point of differentiation, or due to misunderstanding.

Clarifying terminology helps to remove misunderstandings and misinformation, providing an opportunity to increase product value throughout the farm-to-cup supply chain. In part two of this article, we will explore the evolution of specialty coffee in regard to roasted coffee products and cafe operations. A proposal to consider a possibility for how the coffee industry may clarify the concept of specialty coffee will be presented. Defining quality standards, as an industry, to reach a new level of understanding of specialty and other designations will benefit everyone—coffee producers, roasters and cafe operators alike.


SPENCER TURER is vice president of Coffee Enterprises in Hinesburg, Vermont. He is a founding member of the Roasters Guild, a licensed Q-Grader, and received the SCAA Outstanding Contribution to the Association Award. Turer is an active volunteer for the Specialty Coffee Association (SCA) and the National Coffee Association USA, and is an Ambassador for the International Women’s Coffee Alliance.

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