The Best Answer:
The difference between the three terms lies in the quality of the coffee beans. There is an international standardized procedure for measuring coffee bean quality that classifies them in specific grade categories. Specialty grade is the highest grade of quality.
So there you are, standing in front of a shelf full of coffee bags, trying to decide which one is going to help you survive those early mornings. However, how are you supposed to know which is the highest quality coffee?
Words such as “gourmet,” “premium,” and “specialty” are probably making things worse instead of helping you choose.
Well, here’s where I come in! Today, I will explain the differences between gourmet, premium, and specialty coffee and how these terms relate to coffee bean quality.
That way, next time you shop for coffee, you’ll know instantly what to avoid and what to look for. Let’s dive in!
How Coffee Quality is Measured
You will be pleased to know that there is a standardized way of measuring coffee quality. There are industry professionals out there that have your best interest in mind when they sort and evaluate coffee beans, so worry not!
But what exactly is the process they follow? Well, you might be surprised to know that the evaluation process starts with the green coffee beans. Then, after the farmer has picked and processed the coffee beans, the so-called Quality Grades (Q-Graders) evaluate it before it’s roasted.
Certified Q-Graders are modern-day coffee heroes as they are trained to recognize coffee bean defects based on how they look, taste, and smell. They are certified by the Speciality Coffee Association (SCA) and use its classification system to grade the coffee beans.
Green Coffee Bean Evaluation
Green coffee beans are still raw and have not been roasted yet to obtain that deep beautiful brown color we all know and love.
The SCA classification system uses a scale from 1-10 to grade green coffee. Therefore, the top-quality green coffee beans always receive Grade 1.
The Q-Graders look for potential defects based on the coffee bean’s appearance, size, and smell. Such defects include damage to the beans caused by pests, fermentation odors, and moisture content levels.
The SCA Classification System
Here’s how the SCA classifies the green coffee beans after their evaluation:
➢ Grade 1: Specialty Grade Coffee Beans
➢ Grade 2: Premium Grade Coffee Beans
➢ Grade 3: Exchange Grade Coffee Beans
➢ Grade 4: Standard Grade Coffee Beans
➢ Grade 5: Off Grade Coffee Beans
These grades reflect specific attributes of the coffee beans: moisture content, size, number of defects, and overall health.
Roasted Coffee Bean Evaluation
Q- Graders evaluate roasted coffee beans during a process called “cupping.” They grind, brew, smell, and taste the coffee during this process, following the SCA specified cupping procedure.
Here are the coffee bean attributes that Q-Graders evaluate during cupping:
During a cupping session, coffee can get a score of up to 100 points. Here is an overview of the point system:
<80 points: Coffee as a commodity. The coffee quality is ordinary. The coffee tastes less complex, not very lively, and sometimes inconsistent due to existing defects. This product is mainly used as supermarket coffee in blends or as instant coffee.
80+ points: Anything above 80+ can be characterized as specialty coffee.
80 – 84.99 points: Excellent. The coffee has unique taste characteristics. The aromas are more refined, more balanced, and the coffee has no severe defects.
85 – 89.99 points: Excellent. These coffees taste even more elegant and have an extraordinary complexity and sweetness.
90-100 points: Outstanding. Not even 1% of all coffees harvested worldwide are rated that good. Coffees in this league are absolute rarities; their aromas are even more nuanced and extraordinary than those of other coffees.
It just goes to show that evaluating coffee beans is not a quick and easy process; it requires a lot of work from professionals that have trained their senses to recognize top-quality coffee beans.
Now that you know a bit more about how coffee’s quality is measured, you can probably already guess some of the differences between specialty, premium, and gourmet coffee. So, let’s break it down!
Specialty Coffee – Top Quality Coffee
Specialty Coffee describes the highest quality green coffee and the concept that particular geographical growing areas and microclimates produce coffees with subtle and elegant taste profiles.
The soil composition, the temperatures, and the sunlight, which are typical for a region, directly influence the development of the coffee cherries and thus on the final taste of the coffee. The cultivation, processing, roasting, and brewing of the beans determine which coffees can be labeled as specialty coffee.
Based on the classification system above, specialty coffee always gets a cupping score of 80+ points and a green coffee grading score of Grade 1. Countries such as Colombia, Ethiopia, Kenya, and Panama are known for producing coffee of exceptionally high quality.
It is not just the formal guidelines that are decisive – coffee is a product that needs passion, talent, and dedication to be cultivated and processed. The cycle begins with the farmers and continues by purchasing green beans, through the hands of the coffee roaster, to the customers and the barista.
This full circle of transparency is what makes specialty coffee genuinely unique.
Premium Coffee – The Runner Up
If specialty coffee is the number one champion, one could argue that premium coffee is the runner-up. Premium coffee is a decent choice for consumers with a green coffee grading score of Grade 2 and a cupping score between 70-79.
What makes it different from specialty coffee is that it contains more defects, which negatively impact the aroma and flavor in your cup. These defects also influence the price tag, making it slightly cheaper than specialty coffee.
Gourmet Coffee – The Impostor
If you have read this far, you might have noticed that I have not used the term “gourmet” when referring to the evaluation of coffee beans. And that’s because there is no such thing as gourmet coffee!
Specialty and premium coffee must not be confused with terms such as “gourmet coffee,” “artisan coffee,” or “first-class coffee.” These are simply marketing terms without defined standards that say nothing about quality, origin, variety, and roast.
Granted, gourmet might be a word that relates to high-quality consumables such as food, but it’s essential to understand that it’s not one of the words used by the SCA Classification System.
If it were, I would have no issue telling you all about gourmet coffee, its attributes, and its score. But in this case, I have nothing to say because a gourmet label means coffee of completely unspecified quality to me. You’ve been warned!
Read Also: What Is Coffee “Bloom”?
At this point, I’d also like to talk to you about coffee certifications because I fear some of them are often confused when it comes to coffee quality.
Most of you have probably stumbled upon terms such as “fair trade” and “Rainforest Alliance” when buying coffee. But does that have anything to do with the quality of the coffee beans you are buying?
Coffee certifications are essential for the coffee industry because they promote sustainable farming practices.
Such certifications are offered to farm owners by official bodies such as the Rainforest Alliance to help them become more sustainable, provide fair wages to farmers and sell their harvest at a better price.
Sustainable coffee practices are indeed a way to improve coffee bean quality. However, a coffee certification is not an official measure of coffee quality.
It offers you the knowledge that the farm owners have raised the standards of their farming practices by obtaining the certification.
How To Recognise Top Quality Coffee
Okay, so you’re probably wondering how you will even recognize top-quality coffee when you see it on the shelf? Well, your best chance at identifying and purchasing top-quality coffee is the label on the packaging.
You can usually recognize good coffee beans because the descriptions on the bean packaging are exceptionally detailed and extensive. The more relevant information you can find on the coffee bean packaging, the greater the likelihood that it is a quality product.
In the case of top-quality coffee, you will very likely find information about the origin of the coffee, the method of cultivation, height, and processing, about the coffee farmer or the cooperative, about the coffee variety, and the degree of roasting.
Because only when A-Z’s total transparency in coffee production and complete traceability are guaranteed, the highest quality ensured during roasting and finally when it’s in your cup.
What The Information On The Label Means
The following information is usually on every packaging of high-quality coffee beans:
Where was the coffee grown? Is the coffee a blend (mixture of different beans) or a single-origin coffee? All this information about the origin should be found on the packaging of good coffee beans.
Large industrial roasting plants generally do not provide any information on the roast date and packaging date but rather only provide information on the best before date. In addition to the best before date, the roast date should also be stated on the packaging of good coffee beans.
The degree of roasting (e.g., medium, light, or dark roasting) must not be missing as indicated on the packaging.
If you can find the name of the coffee farm, producer group, or producer on the packaging, then there is a good chance that the coffee beans are good.
With the help of the flavor profile information, you can find out how your coffee should taste. In addition, the indication of the altitude at which the coffee was grown is also a characteristic of good quality beans.
A Question of Price
Another criterion for identifying good coffee beans is the price. Cheap coffee beans can be purchased for less than € 10 per kilo, and you can be sure they are not high quality.
If you doubt this, let me assure you that these beans were bought at a price that did not even cover the production costs.
You can assume that the coffee was neither carefully grown/harvested nor adequately roasted. My advice: don’t bother. The price sounds tempting, but the quality of the coffee beans is usually poor.
Well, here we are! So now you don’t just know how to differentiate between gourmet, premium, and specialty coffee beans, you’re also fully ready to make the best choices regarding which coffee to buy and hit the shops with the confidence of a coffee aficionado!
And don’t forget, coffee is primarily a matter of personal preference. Discovering top-quality coffee about your taste is a big part of the fun! So, go out there, find some fantastic quality coffee beans, experiment, and enjoy all that sweet, engulfing aroma and flavor the magical coffee beans have to offer.