• QA 110
    What is the difference between gourmet coffee and specialty coffee?
    Background: We operate a few delicatessen stores and are planning to add coffee to our range. We are somewhat amazed by the range of coffee products that are on offer and wonder what for example the difference is between Gourmet coffee and Specialty coffee? Which description should we use?
    Asked by:
    Retailer - Republic of Korea

    In the main coffee consuming countries of the world, i.e. the United States and Western Europe, there are different views on the exact meaning of either term, making if difficult to give a definitive answer. However…

    • The term 'gourmet' has in the past been associated with top of the range and truly exceptionally tasting coffees, but is today used to describe a huge and growing number of different products. This detracts from the word's previous uniqueness.
    • The term 'specialty' on the other hand basically covers all coffees that are different from the run of the mill mainstream or industrial product. Different because of quality and limited availability on the producer side; or because they carry a good 'story' as in 'relationship coffee'; or because of innovations such as flavouring for example on the selling side.

    The spectacular success of what is today known as the specialty industry has however led to an ever-increasing range of different coffee products. Such products range from lattes, in which little actual coffee is used, to flavoured coffees that are not necessarily made of quality beans. But also single origin coffees that must stand on their merits alone and usually, but not necessarily always, represent the best coffees available from a particular origin.

    It is not only the retailer/consumer who has difficulty identifying their preferences in today's vast array of coffee products. Producers and roasters face equal difficulties because the term specialty today covers a vast range of qualities whereas the word gourmet is found on almost anything, including tins of pet food.

    As a result of these concerns the industry came up with the term 'Exemplary' to describe top 'quality of life' coffees for connoisseurs, nearly always marketed as single origin and often under the producer's name. Only the best will do and price is of less or little importance. Truly exemplary coffees have a high intrinsic value with a fine or unique taste (cup quality) and, usually, are of quite limited availability. Sold by small to medium sized operators who practice individualised green coffee buying, mostly from specialised importers. Such coffees are almost never labelled 'gourmet' anymore but, yes, they are marketed under the 'specialty' umbrella.

    Today's specialty industry targets people who either want a great cup of coffee, or a different cup of coffee. Fortunately or unfortunately, there are many coffee products today that were unheard of fifteen or twenty years ago. Many of these are marketed as specialty because they are different from traditional coffee. However, it does not necessarily mean they offer better taste or cup quality… The retail cost of such coffee products varies enormously but many are, in fact, very expensive for what they really are…

    Which description you should use depends mostly on how you see your customer base: if most other products in your stores are really exclusive and of top quality, then for your (high quality!) single origin coffees we personally would opt for the term Exemplary, leaving medium priced products to be offered under the heading Specialty. 

    For more on this please read chapter 11 of the Guide, particularly sections 01 and 02. The remainder of this chapter provides an excellent overview of what 'coffee quality' really means. In chapter 03, section 01, you will find a good introduction to the specialty market generally. Bear in mind though that both the Coffee Guide and www.thecoffeeguide.org are primarily aimed at coffee growers and exporters and therefore do not highlight specific retail issues.

    Posted August 14, 2006

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