What is Specialty Coffee?

On the intersection of inherent versus created markers of quality.

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There is no such thing as “specialty” without context—and we must consider who is left out of our narrow definition.

In 1974, Erna Knutsen, owner of the importing company Knutsen Coffee, used the term “specialty coffee” to describe the beans she sourced, which were often from small farms and could be traced back to one region or one collective of growers. During a time when “Americans were drinking almost as much instant coffee as they were brewed coffee because they tasted the same,” sourcing coffees that were grown well and tasted great was a novel idea.

In 1982, the Specialty Coffee Association of America formed. To describe its mission and intent, it borrowed Erna’s characterization of coffees that were a cut above what was being traded and sold on the commodity market: “The SCA1 acts as a unifying force within the specialty coffee industry and works to make coffee better by raising standards worldwide through a collaborative and progressive approach.”

On the latest episode of Boss Barista, we revisit a conversation with Sahra Nguyen, founder of Nguyen Coffee Supply (NCS) in New York. Sahra sources coffee from Vietnam—a region that’s long been ignored in the context of specialty coffee in the United States.

Vietnam is the second-largest producer of coffee in the world, after Brazil. And it is the leading producer of robusta, a variety of coffee bean that is heartier and more resistant to drought and disease, but which is often marked by rough flavor notes if not grown carefully (Brazil is actually the second-largest grower of robusta beans). Sahra, who was a documentary filmmaker, journalist, and restaurateur in New York before founding NCS, was surprised to learn these numbers:

When I learned that fact, it was like, my mind was blown. I was like, “Oh my God, Vietnam is the second-largest producer of coffee in the world, yet I didn’t even know that. And I’m Vietnamese!” A lot of people don’t know that. All of these learnings just started to fuel my motivation more, to increase the transparency here. And the more I dug, I also discovered that the United States is the second-largest importer of Vietnamese coffee beans.

So here we have this economic relationship that already exists between Vietnam and the U.S., but there’s no transparency around it. Generally, Americans don’t associate coffee production with Vietnam.

If you’ve had instant coffee, if you’ve had diner coffee, if you’ve had any coffee from a can, you’ve had Vietnamese coffee. And yet, most people associate Vietnamese coffee with a sweetened drink made with condensed milk and coffee—even if, in many cases, the coffee used to make that drink is not from Vietnam.

Most coffee shops today work within the paradigm of “specialty coffee” by attempting to honor where a coffee comes from. On a bag of coffee, you’ll often see the country, the region, and perhaps even the name of the farmer or the cooperative who grew it. But this now-common recognition, used for coffees around the world, has almost completely bypassed Vietnamese coffees, which are still imported to the United States in high numbers, but often don’t get recognized individually.

The lack of recognition and prestige Vietnamese coffees are afforded has real economic consequences. Many coffees that are deemed “specialty” are diverted out of the commodity market, where their price is determined on an exchange floor far removed from the farmers who grew them (this is a very simplified version of how “specialty” coffee is bought). Generally, that means farmers will earn a higher price for their coffees rather than settling for what the market has determined is the price for all coffees.

Right now—on April 22, 2021—the C-market price for coffee is $1.36 per pound. Specialty coffees, on the other hand, can net anywhere between $2.50 and $10 per pound, with winners of notable competitions like the Cup of Excellence getting hundreds of dollars per pound. If you want to see a range of coffee prices, check out Onyx Coffee Lab’s offering list, where the price paid for each coffee they sell is listed and explained.

There’s no regulation for what is deemed specialty and what isn’t. The SCA has a scoring system for coffees—specialty is sometimes defined as anything scoring above an 80 out of 100—but coffees are not required to be scored and the SCA itself provides a definition of “specialty” that is more about the process and care a coffee is given than inherent characteristics. Essentially, specialty coffee is an approach and dedication to growing delicious coffee rather than a strict variety or category.

So why has Vietnam been ignored? Sahra tried to find out:

What I was finding online, on all the blogs and all the sites, was this general common sentiment of, “Vietnamese coffee is inferior.” Literally, the adjective ‘inferior’ kept popping up. I was like—and again, I’m Vietnamese-American—I was like, “Well, that’s not nice!” …

As I was interacting with some folks in the coffee space I just felt like a lot of people were just regurgitating old ways of thinking or regurgitating what they’ve heard, what they’ve been told. But then if I asked them, “Oh, have you ever had a single origin Vietnamese coffee?” and they would all say no.

Vietnamese coffee has been essentially divorced from its origin. “When Vietnamese coffee arrives in the United States, it’s no longer Vietnamese coffee,” Sahra said in an interview for Vice’s Munchies. What many consumers and coffee professionals supposedly know about Vietnamese coffee comes from passed-down, unquestioned assumptions. Because consumers don’t get to interact with Vietnamese coffee in a way that honors its origins, archaic notions of what it is take over.

But where do those notions come from? Some are based on facts, as Sahra explains:

However, I do want to point out that there is some truth to these ideas—of Vietnamese coffee beans being a different level of quality … because Vietnam’s coffee industry for so long has been channeled into mass-market coffee. Or like large volumes of coffee products. I think when that’s happening—when the products are being sold at a lower rate—that system controls the pricing. That also controls the care that we have as producers or as buyers for the production of the coffee.

I think that is a systematic thing and that’s a control thing and that’s a construct of the value we place on a product, which affects what we’re willing to pay for it, which doesn’t create any incentives for producers to change or improve their production, right?

While there is certainly room for improvement, what Sahra highlights is how often ideas about what we like and don’t like are created and reinforced. Specialty coffee is a nebulous concept with real consequences, wrapped around the idea of “quality” as its main driver. But quality both depends on social constructs and malleable structures that can be improved on. So much of what we deem “specialty” is actively created—which is good as long as we recognize our role in constantly improving and building on existing structures. Where the danger lies in specialty is pretending like quality is a solely inherent characteristic of a product.

Think of it as a cycle. People don’t think much of Vietnamese coffees; they’re unwilling to pay more for them; farmers are not able to invest or improve on their coffee production; and the cycle starts over again. However, the right intervention can change the cycle completely. This is how quality is created.

If specialty coffee is an approach rather than a fixed idea, then where does Vietnamese coffee sit in this conversation? Climate change might force us to confront this issue soon—robusta coffee is much better equipped to handle climate variations and is resistant to common coffee diseases versus its much more delicate arabica sibling. And it’s not like these coffees aren’t popular—a quick look at Nguyen Coffee Supply’s Instagram and product reviews indicates that consumers love their products. Sahra found a way to realize and translate the potential of Vietnamese coffees through Nguyen Coffee Supply—what lessons can we learn from that? How will interventions that help realize the potential of a coffee or a region serve us in the future as climate change continues to threaten coffee?

Let’s go back to the mission statement of the SCA: The organization “works to make coffee better by raising standards worldwide through a collaborative and progressive approach.” Sahra’s work is directly addressing this mission, and paving a brighter path for Vietnamese coffee’s future.

Photo by Hudai Gayiran on Unsplash

Before you go…

Truthfully, I haven’t been reading much lately, but I did contribute a little blurb for Lunch Rush, a newsletter from the Lunch Group folks.

If you made it all the way to the end and want a suggestion on more things to explore, I urge you to learn more about Erna Knutsen. I did a podcast episode on her years ago, and I’m always surprised by just how much impact she’s had on the coffee industry. The fact that you can pick up a coffee bag and know where it’s from and who produced it largely comes from her influence—and it’s wild to think that just a few years before she coined the iconic term “specialty coffee,” she was a secretary who wasn’t allowed to taste coffee alongside men.

Erna was awarded the SCAA Lifetime Achievement Award in 1991, and was recognized for her role in specialty coffee in 2014. During her acceptance speech, she looked back on her career, jumping back to a time before her employer would allow her to evaluate coffees: “Even though I was kept out of the cupping room … because I was a woman, they thought I didn’t deserve the break. But I fooled them. I bought the company and fired them all.”

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The Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA) and the Speciality Coffee Association of Europe (SCAE) merged in 2017 to form the unified Specialty Coffee Association (SCA).