• QA 085
    How much specialty coffee does the world consume?
    What is the size of the market for specialty coffee?
    Asked by:
    Exporter - Panama

    To be able to answer this question one needs to define what is meant by specialty or gourmet coffee… 

    The very notion of specialty or gourmet suggests some degree of exclusivity but both words are today used to describe a huge and growing number of products, something that detracts from the words' past uniqueness. On the other hand many people like to think of gourmet coffee as something special, a coffee that has been grown and processed in a unique special way. A coffee that is or tastes different. And, the more special, the lower the availability.  

    Because of today's liberal use of the term 'gourmet' many people prefer 'exemplary' to describe truly outstanding coffees, leaving the term 'specialty' to basically cover all coffees that are different from the "run of the mill" mainstream product.

    Different on the production side because of quality (taste), production system (i.e. organic or Fairtrade), or purely because of smaller availability. 

    Or, different on the selling side because of innovations such as flavouring for example.

    On the consumption side the potential for specialty coffee appears to be almost limitless, mostly because of constant product innovation. But not all of today's specialty products necessarily use very good coffee, and some use very little coffee indeed.

    It is fair to say therefore that the term 'specialty' has become a generic label covering a range of different coffees, which either command a premium price over other coffees or that are perceived by consumers as being 'different'. In Europe the term often tends to be associated with coffee in America, and the name also brings up images of flavoured coffees.

    In other words, the term 'specialty' has become so broad that there is no universally accepted definition of what constitutes 'specialty coffee', and it frequently means different things to different people. Given this lack of precision in definition it is extremely difficult to describe the specialty market in a global way. The best approach appears to be to look at the specialty market from different country or regional viewpoints because supply or availability of specialty coffee depends on what one's definition of specialty (special) coffee really is.

    It is generally accepted that the USA is the current market leader in terms of product development and consumption of specialty coffee. The SCAA or Specialty Coffee Association of America describes true specialty grade coffee as having maximum 5 defects in a standard sample with all cups free of all taints and showing distinctive positive characteristics. Go to www.scaa.org for more on the SCAA's definition of what constitutes specialty grade coffee, defect counts etc. But perhaps go first to topic 01.01.03 for more on what defects and defect counts actually are.

    On the above basis we would estimate that no more than 5% of coffees could make specialty grade. If we were to include what the SCAA calls high-end premium coffee (8 defects, clean cup) then maybe the specialty market is 10% of US coffee business, a percentage that many trade sources consider realistic. On the other hand Daviron and Ponte* already estimated the total size of the US specialty market at 17% for the calendar year 2000. But as we have said, the problem with specialty coffee is to properly define it.  For example, is average Starbucks quality specialty coffee or is it high quality mainstream coffee?

    In Western Europe many countries have traditionally consumed high quality coffees, at least equal to the good 'specialty' types that are produced by mainstream roasters. This is perhaps why the SCAE or Specialty Coffee Association of Europe (www.scae.com) describes specialty (or speciality…) coffee as an end product, rather than as a green bean product by saying that

     "Speciality Coffee is defined as a crafted coffee-based beverage, which is judged by the consumer (in a limited marketplace at a given time) to have a unique quality, a distinct taste and personality different from, and superior to, the common coffee beverages offered. The beverage is based on beans that have been grown in an accurately defined area, and which meet the highest standards for green coffee, and for its roasting, storage and brewing."

    This interpretation then places the emphasis more on the fact that specialty coffee is not only expected to be different, but also a more luxurious and superior product with a certain element of exclusivity.

    Therefore, until such time as there is a universally accepted definition of what constitutes 'specialty coffee' it is not possible to accurately quantify how much is produced, or how much is consumed. Except to say that the general consensus appears to be that specialty coffee in all its different forms may be approaching 10% of world consumption. It certainly is gaining market share fairly rapidly.

    Posted 29 March 2006

    * The Coffee Paradox - ISBN 1 84277 456 5 hb - ISBN 1 84277 457 3 pb

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