• The scope for specialty coffee

    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 contain very little coffee indeed. Also, there is no universal agreement on what constitutes ‘specialty coffee’, and it frequently means different things to different people. But without a clear understanding of what is really specialty coffee, an accurate market assessment becomes extremely difficult.

    In the United States 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 for more on the SCAA’s definition of what constitutes specialty grade coffee, defect counts etc.

    On the above basis we would estimate that no more than 5% of green 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 all of the green coffee business in the US, 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, 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 premium types that are produced by mainstream roasters. This is perhaps why the SCAE or Specialty Coffee Association of Europe ( 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. It also suggests that the term ‘specialty coffee’ is really 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 conjures up images of flavoured coffees.

    Therefore, until such time as there is general agreement on 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 but of course world consumption as a whole is rising as well which makes it likely that ten percent will remain the upper limit for some time to come.

    *The Coffee Paradox – ISBN 1 84277 456 5 hb – ISBN 1 84277 457 3 pb, published by
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