• The meaning of specialty


    The term 'specialty coffee' originated in the United States. It was initially used to describe the range of coffee products sold in dedicated coffee shops, in order to differentiate these coffees from coffee generally available through supermarkets and other retail outlets. The term 'gourmet' is also used but is now applied to so many products that it has lost all relevance. 

    Specialty today refers both to whole bean sales and to coffee beverages sold in coffee bars and cafés (as opposed to restaurants and other catering establishments). The range includes higher quality coffees, both single origin and blends, unconventional coffees such as flavoured coffees and coffees with an unusual background or story behind them. However, with the rapid growth in the number of specialty coffee retail outlets and more particularly the expansion of the specialty coffee product range into more mainstream outlets such as supermarkets, the term has become much looser. It is fair to say that 'specialty coffee' has become a generic label covering a range of different coffees, which either command a premium price over other coffees or are perceived by consumers as being different from the widely available mainstream brands of coffee. The term 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 market in a global way. The best approach appears to be to look at the specialty market from different country or regional viewpoints. However, the very notion 'gourmet' or 'specialty' suggests some degree of exclusivity. It is unlikely that one could market thousands of tons of a particular coffee and still call it 'exclusive'.

    The first lesson is that one should not 'overdo it'. It is, and always has been, a mistake to consider specialty coffee a different industry from the rest of the coffee business. Supply and demand will not only determine the general level of coffee prices, but will also determine the premium paid for 'quality'.

    The second lesson is that producers need to target any special coffee very carefully because the term 'specialty' covers a large and growing number of different products, each of which has its own niche.

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