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Specialty coffee is a term coined by Erna Knutsen in 1974, refers to any coffee that receives a quality grading score of 80 percent or higher. While “premium” or “gourmet” seem like they’re synonymous with “specialty,” they simply are marketing terms with no defined standards. Specialty coffees are grown in specific and ideal microclimates, and have distinctive and unique flavor profiles, with little to no defects.
We’re currently in the third wave of coffee. The first wave of American coffee culture was putting pre-ground, vacuum sealed cans in every kitchen. The second wave started in the late ‘60s with the advent of the “coffee break,” the introduction of Peet’s coffee by Alfred Peet, and carried through the invention of Starbucks. The third wave of coffee focuses on sourcing, transparency along the supply chain, nuanced flavors, and the skillset of the barista. The term “third wave” was coined by Timothy Castle in 1999. Now, third wave is synonymous with specialty coffee, and many professionals use the terms interchangeably.
Coffee undergoes many scoring processes by professionals who achieved their Q Grader certification. Coffee is first graded when it's green. If there are defects the coffee is determined to be “not-specialty grade”. For those coffees that pass green grading, they are sample roasted and cupped. (Cupping is the official term for critically tasting and scoring coffees. The official cupping form is standard worldwide, and where the 100-point scoring system comes from.) A coffee’s dry fragrance, wet aroma, flavor, aftertaste, body, acidity, balance, and overall impression are taken into consideration while uniformity issues, defects and taints, will lower the overall score.