What is Specialty Coffee?

By Ffion Davies

Coffee is one of the most widely traded commodities in the world. It is cultivated in over 70 countries, around 90% of these being developing countries. It therefore has the power to transform and boost entire economies, and genuinely has life-changing effects in poor, rural communities. This is widely known and is fostered and encouraged by consumers, who are becoming increasingly concerned with the provenance and sustainability of the produce they purchase. It's reassuring to know that farmers and producers are receiving their fair share when we pay a little more for our coffee.

The language that surrounds this industry however, can sometimes be confusing. We are all aware of words like 'organic', 'commodity', 'commercial'; phrases like 'FairTrade', 'Rain Forest Alliance' and 'Specialty Coffee', but what do they all really mean? How do we know that we really are making a difference?

Some of these things are straight-forward, but others are a lot more complex and contentious. For example, while being Organic may be great, few people realise that farms have to pay for this certification. Many producers from poorer parts of the world are simply unable to find the money to be certified, while still being organic in their methods and practice. Equally, FairTrade both promotes better trading conditions and sustainability, and faces challenges from producers and importers who profit from evading the required standards. Many argue that this provides a false assurance of quality. This is where the specialty industry comes into the equation.

As roasters of specialty coffee begin to source in a more traceable fashion, they aim to remove middlemen from the supply chain, resulting in something called 'relationship coffee'. This is when there is a clear line between consumers, coffee roasters, and the producers at origin who grow and process the coffee we love. Understanding every participant's role in this supply chain, along with the costs involved and how the wealth is distributed are each absolutely fundamental in ensuring and legitimising the process. Promoting transparency in this way means that speciality coffee is an industry of integrity, trust, and is ethical in practice and sentiment.

One of the greatest differences between speciality and commercial coffee is the wealth of information that's given to the consumer when they purchase a bag. Information about the farm, producers, varietal and altitude are just a few of the details that are provided in order to educate and promote good, ethical practices. By providing these details, the industry aims to support everyone in the supply chain who are invested in coffee of the finest quality – from farmer and exporter, to roaster and barista. It behaves as a form of due diligence and effectively maintains the quality of the bean throughout its journey to cup.

Although there is no certification to validate the ethics of this process, it is widely known that those involved in the production line are genuinely trying to do good with their trading. The industry always pays premiums that are well above the cost of production, regardless of the world price of coffee. This practice ensures that the industry has a positive economical impact wherever the coffee is traded, and that revenue is channelled back into the coffee producing regions that need it most. The increased prices that come with the specialty coffee industry are also put in place in order to incentivise the production of higher quality coffee. Fundamentally, the emphasis is on co-operative, mutually-beneficial relationships rather than the competitive and exploitative.

Coaltown's coffees are all directly sourced and fairly traded from their origins and are fully traceable. We only roast 100% specialty grade Arabica coffee and we are very proud of being part of an industry that is all about sourcing green coffee from small farms and estates, leaving a traceable line of production, and paying poorer communities generously for all of their hard work. In addition to this, the industry is mobilising communities; creating access to credit, providing agronomy training, supporting gender initiatives, and raising funds for education. It's an industry that hinges on collaboration, communities, and healthy relationships with coffee growers.

By supporting this niche albeit growing market, you can rest assured that everyone involved is fairly rewarded for their commitment to developing a stronger supply chain and brewing long-term sustainability.


Illustrations by Bronwen Bender. Visit her website here.

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Trust Pilot Reviews

These guys are absolutely amazing! They have such a wide array of delicious seasonal coffee and their house blends are great as well. They pay their farmers fairly and are a registered B-corp so they provide back to the community. I could not recommend them enough!

Russell JD