What is “specialty coffee,” anyway?
So we went from everyone buying gallon cans of instant coffee to talking about the terroir of coffee as if it were fine wine. What happened? Did all our taste buds magically expand overnight? Nope. Our coffee enlightenment is no accident.
America’s coffee craze, or coffee first wave if you will, started with instant coffee. These massive coffee companies used to buy up entire lots of green coffee and didn’t really care where it came from. They didn’t care if the coffee cherry was ripe before it was harvested. They just said “We want as much coffee as we can get, bottom dollar. We don't care where it comes from or how it was grown. We just want to put it all together, roast it super dark, grind it up, put it in a can and stick it on a shelf.”
Generally, this quantity-over quality coffee is harvested by huge machines. There are a bunch of people involved afterward that you have no idea if they're being paid anything, let alone a fair price. People didn’t expect a really stellar product out of that type of situation. Back in the first wave, or insta-coffee period, we didn’t know any better because we’d never been exposed to good coffee (like the rest of the world had) at that point.
Then the second wave happened. Everybody started to have auto drip coffee machines in their homes. That was this amazing new thing! Here was this automatic pot, you could put the grounds in and you could actually brew it instead of going the instant route! For the first time, people were looking at actual beans.
Then Peet’s and Starbucks happened. Before, you couldn’t go into a shop and order a cappuccino. It just wasn't a thing. but these companies brought in the third wave, or the era of specialty coffee. Now people have become more sophisticated in their tastes. The people buying the beans are paying attention to exactly where it's coming from. They know the region, a lot of the times they know the exact farm and the processing station. Nowadays the producers name will even show up on the bag!
With specialty coffee, the goal has become entirely different. Importers are not trying to acquire as much as they possibly can for as cheap as they possibly can. They set a standard and say “This is what I would like. How much is it worth to you? How much can I pay for this so that everyone in the chain is rewarded for their labor?” Note: it's not easy work climbing the side of a mountain and picking cherries one at a time when they're absolutely perfectly ripe. It's an incredible skill.
So now we’ve learned the distinction between coffee as a commodity and coffee as a specialty product. Just like wine, for instance, people care about where wine is grown. They care about the region, the soil, and the process it goes through after it's been harvested because that all affects the taste. We’re after a better experience, and like fine wine, we can now tell the difference.
This has been the history of specialty coffee, in a nutshell (pun intended).