Whether it be referring to the coffee itself, the roaster, or the shop, we’ve all heard the term “specialty grade coffee”- it is one only gaining in popularity. But what does it mean exactly?

Specialty Grade Coffee Defined

When you hear coffee being referred to as “specialty” it means that it is the prime pick of the entire world coffee stock- it comprises precisely 3% of the global yield. Coffee described as such goes through a rigorous classification process, meeting strict standards before it earns the label: “speciality grade”.

The Coffee Trade: A Brief Overview

In order to understand the specialty coffee process fully, it might be helpful to know how coffee is identified and sorted in general.

In early stages of production, coffee is sorted into 3 groups: “Brazilian”, “Robusta”, and “high-grown mild”.


“Brazilian” grade coffee doesn’t necessarily mean coffee beans grown in Brazil. The term refers to lower quality coffee that has been grown in lower elevations on wide expanses of land and harvested en masse.


This group is again broad and doesn’t necessarily mean coffee made from Robusta coffee beans. “Robusta” in this context means any non-specialty grade coffee that represents the larger Coffea canephora family- it is the coffee used most commonly throughout the world by roasters and other purveyors.

“High-grown Mild”

The last kind, “high-grown mild”, is coffee of superior quality which claims the highest price on the market (aka: specialty coffee). These beans are typically grown in high elevations upwards of at least 2,000 feet (with most coffee grown in the 4,000-6000 ft. ranges). This coffee is only picked by hand, handled with extreme care, and paid special attention to throughout the production process.

Classifying Specialty Coffee

Not all specialty coffee is made equal. The Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA) has created a system of standards to help classify grades for different types of coffees. The following is how they classify specialty grade coffee:

Specialty grade

Coffee branded as “specialty” by the SCAA is allowed 0 Category 1 defects (called “primary defects”) and 0-5 Category 2 defects (called “full defects”) per 300-350 grams of water. It must possess at least one unique attribute in either the body, taste, aroma, and/or acidity. No unripened coffee beans (called “quakers”) can be present in the batch and the moisture content must be between 9-13%.

Other Facts about Specialty Coffee

  • As of 2015, specialty coffee comprises 55% of the $48 billion dollar American coffee trade.
  • The SCAA reports that 37% of the coffee in Americans’ coffee cups is specialty grade coffee.
  • A cup of coffee is tested by an employee of the SCAA called a “cupper”. These cuppers are trained to identify specific flaws in the coffee; one cup is tested at least 15 times by different cuppers.
  • Brazil is not only the top global producer of coffee, it is also the world’s largest producer of specialty coffee.
  • Kopi luwak is the most expensive specialty coffee in the world.


Now that you know all about specialty coffee, why not give it a try? The coffee that Atlas Coffee Club supplies is all single-origin specialty grade Arabica. Subscribe today for a coffee world tour!