Is Speciality Coffee Too Expensive?

I saw a post in which they implied that Speciality Coffee is overpriced because of the latte art. As you can tell by the title of this site, I’m really passionate about coffee. Because I wasn’t always this informed, I’ve done some research about this issue and here is what I’ve learnt.

Most of the coffee that we (by we I mean US and Europe) consume is grown in South America, Africa, South East Asia…

On average, let’s say we are paying from 1,50€ to 3,00€ per coffee. This last one having extra vanilla syrup or (if you’re like me) a chosen filter coffee.

What’s the cost of coffee in the producing countries?

The Fairtrade minimum price is set at 1.40€ per half a kilo for washed Arabica coffee. That is IF it is fairtrade. If you sell just one coffee, you’re making a profit. Do you see the gap between what is paid to the farmers and the prices of coffee shops?

Now, sure, different countries, different salaries, different jobs…

But it seems unfair to me how the countries that grow coffee – the ones who do the actual physical labour – get paid a minimal amount in contrast with what the coffee shops are earning. 

Also, consider this: the bigger the franchise, the more coffee (in quantity) they will need.

Some of these franchises, they roast their coffee “dark”, so that the taste is all the same. If you roast it dark (i.e. a “hint” of burnt taste), you don’t really need coffee plants that take very specific conditions to grow. Instead, you go for the cheaper option (remember manual vs machine picking?) because you honestly just need the product to sell it.

It feels like these companies don’t care about the farmer and their method and their production, it’s about money. Which I get, it’s a business, but still…

What can I do, though?

What I personally do is to go to Speciality Coffee Shops. Main reason being that baristas working there are as nerdy about coffee as I am. I get to ask “where is the coffee from” and don’t seem like a posh customer.

But also, as a company specialised in coffee, they (normally) care about the quality and process of the coffee they are serving.

What is Speciality Coffee?

According to the SCAE (Speciality Coffee Association of Europe), who focuses on customers’ perception of the quality:

Speciality coffee is defined as a crafted quality 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.

The SCAA (Speciality Coffee Association of America), on the other hand, focuses on objective measurement of the quality in a relatively formal set-up known as cupping. The cupping form provides a means of recording important flavour attributes for coffee: fragrance/aroma, flavour, aftertaste, acidity, body, balance, uniformity, clean cup, sweetness, defects, and overall. Coffees that score <80 points out of a possible 100 will be classified as speciality. 

SCAA also kindly acknowledge the role of many professionals that participate in the process:

Speciality coffee can consistently exist through the dedication of the people who have made it their life’s work to continually make quality their highest priority. This is not the work of only one person in the lifecycle of a coffee bean; speciality can only occur when all of those involved in the coffee value chain work in harmony and maintain a keen focus on standards and excellence from start to finish.

Where can I find these Speciality Coffee shops?

Generally, they have all sorts of coffee brewing methods and your latte will have a latte art on top. They are not as economical as other shops and it’s not because of the latte art.

It’s because they’ve seen the process from the plant to your cup. They know about the farms and farmers and pay the right and fair price. Speciality coffee shops (generally) make sure baristas prepare the coffee with as much care as the farmer planted the coffee.

Also, I have written about my favourite coffee shops in London, Madrid and Taipei (more coming soon…).

Are You Sure You Want A Strong Coffee?

“I like my coffee strong”… I’m sorry to say this, but what you’re saying and what you mean, doesn’t match up. Let me explain…

After learning about the way coffee grows (catch up here and here) and how it’s processed (also, here), you now know that there is a lot of time, energy and effort behind a single coffee bean. I’ve also mentioned that each coffee tastes differently according to its country of origin, varietal, process method… 

However, there is yet another variant in the coffee equation. When the coffee bean is shipped to caffeine consuming countries, we obtain what is called “green coffee”. If you were to brew this green coffee, you would get a bitter and acidic beverage which you would not want to have. On that note, there are some countries and companies that have been experimenting with green coffee. It does not taste like the traditional coffee taste though.

In order to get that coffee taste, we need to roast the coffee. What roasting does to coffee is that it extracts the moisture out of the bean. This causes the bean to release the natural sugars, which are converted into CO2 gas and then caramelised (Maillard reaction). This happens with other foods, like meat or bread.

Coffee roasters have identified several stages that coffee beans go through. The most important are: first crack and second crack. These “cracks” sounds like when doing popcorn in the microwave. After this second crack, the coffee starts to burn.

There is a common misconception that the “darker” the coffee, the “stronger” it is. This is actually not true. Depending on how you brew the coffee, it will be more or less “strong”. You can use more or less coffee, water and time to brew it, and you will get different levels of strength in the coffee.

Now, when people say they like their coffee “strong”, I think they generally refer to the taste. And yes, it is true that if a coffee is dark roasted, the bitterness will be more intense.

This is because the sugars and fruity notes within the coffee bean are the lighter compounds and easier to extract. The more you roast the coffee, the more bitterness you’re going to be able to extract.

In terms of the caffeine, there isn’t really that much of a difference between a dark roast or a light roast. But there is, in terms of flavour, between burnt coffee beans and a specialty coffee beans 😉

How Does A Coffee Bean Arrive To Your Cup?

Last two post were the origins of coffee and its family. Now I’m going to tell you how it actually became the full grown bean that you grind and make coffee with.

There are several processes and each coffee farm will do it their way. However, there are three main processes that make it easier for everyone in the coffee industry to understand what we’re talking about.

  • Natural (dry): 

This involves leaving the entire coffee cherry to dry in the sun, allowing it to draw in all the flavours of the fruit. In order for the coffee cherries not to spoil, they are raked and turned throughout the day and covered at night or if there is rain or storms. It takes from 3 to 6 weeks until the moisture level is from 10-12%. After that it is hulled and sent off. 

It is the most traditional method of processing coffee and it’s the most environmentally friendly since it does not use water. It originated in places where water was not easy to access and it works best in low humidity. There are also issues with this method like for instance: if the coffee cherries are not raked enough, they can spoil; and also the resulting beans are often inconsistent in flavour.

The flavours of this type of method turns out to be a full body, almost winey texture and also lasting and intense flavour.

  • Washed (wet):

In this method, the cherries are removed from the seeds before the drying process. Once this is done, the seeds are moved to a tank where the remaining mucilage is broken down by fermentation. Then, the seeds are washed again with water to remove the mucilage from the seeds. After this, the seeds are dried in the sun on patios, raised beds, or in machines. Once dry, they are ready to be sent off.

It is the most reliable in terms of consistency in flavour and the quickest. The issue is the amount of water that they use.

The body is lighter than the natural method and has a cleaner texture, with more acidity and more crisp flavours.

  • Honey (mix):

The name comes from how sticky the beans get during this process. First, the cherries are removed from the seeds and then directly left to dry in sun beds. Because the mucilage is still on, there is some fermentation that occurs and this is where the stickiness is coming from. 

This method is particularly popular in Costa Rica right now, but they are used by other countries like Brazil, for example. In recent years, subcategories of this method have developed and you can find yellow, red, black, white honey depending on several factors like the amount of mucilage left on the seed or the amount of sun received.

The coffees resulting of this method are halfway between a natural and a dry process coffee; it is fruity, has a rounded acidity and a complex body. 

What’s behind a coffee bean?

I was not into gardening until I came across a coffee bean. To be honest, I was the type that would buy grounded coffee and added a couple of spoons of sugar. I am not proud of it, but I didn’t know any better. Because I’ve worked with coffee for the past 2 years, and I’ve come to love it, I want to talk about it.

Some people who know (or not) about coffee often talk about the notes, and the flavour and the aroma… It all sounds super fancy and posh and almost feels like they are talking about wine. That’s because they are actually similar in that sense. Coffee cherries, depending on their variety, will give you different tastes, the same way a Merlot grape will give you a different wine to a Pinot Noir. 

This is the coffee’s family portrait. Gorgeous. Now, some of these are a natural occurrence, like Heirloom, which happens to grow wildly in Ethiopia; while others are experiments man-made. 

Are they different in flavour?

Yes. They grow at different heights, different countries, different farming methods… So they will have different taste.

Wow, so when you drink a cup of coffee, you know which country is it from?

Personally, no, not always, but after having tasted different coffees and compared them, I can tell there is a difference. For instance, Ethiopia and Honduras, particularly, for me, have a distinct smell. 

Now that we have an idea about the coffee plant, let’s look at the coffee cherry.

  • The skin or exocarp, which is green until it ripe and then turns to a deep red, yellow, orange or even pink, depending on the type or variety of coffee plant. 
  • Under the skin, there is the pulp and underneath it there is the mucilage. These layers are important during the later processes because they are full of sugars. 
  • We then reach the coffee seeds or beans. Usually, there are two beans in a coffee cherry, each of which is covered by the silverskin and parchment. All these fancy names are basically cells that support and protect the seed. Sometimes, there is one seed only inside a coffee cherry that is rounder and larger and it is known as peaberry. This can happen when there isn’t sufficient pollination and one ovule isn’t fertilised. It can also happen due to genetic or environmental conditions. 

After this, a whole other process starts to actually get to brew the coffee. But until then you can start trying different coffees and compare and contrast the flavours.

Did you know coffee is actually a fruit?

Many people start their day with a cup of coffee. I know I do. But few people stop and think what they are actually consuming. Granted that we just want our caffeine fix, so where the coffee is from won’t be the first thought that comes to mind. Maybe this article inspires you so that when your coffee machine is brewing that liquid goodness, you will give a thought to the producers that make your morning coffee possible.

Coffee comes from a plant from Ethiopia. The origin plant is known as Coffea. From this plant there are two important species for the commercial use: arabica and robusta. Arabica trees produce a fine, mild, aromatic coffee and represent approximately 70% of the world’s coffee production. The Robusta tree is more resistant to disease and parasites, which makes it easier and cheaper to cultivate. Robusta beans produce a coffee which has a distinctive taste and about 50-60% more caffeine.  

Okay, but I don’t care about some plant in Africa whether is strong or aromatic. Right. These trees have flowers and these flowers eventually turn into a a fruit: coffee cherries. Depending on the variety, it will take approximately 3 to 4 years for the newly planted coffee trees to produce a fruit. In most coffee tree varieties the coffee cherry turns a bright, deep red when it is ripe and ready to be harvested. There are a few methods to harvest coffee cherries, but the one with best results (and also more expensive) is to handpick the cherries. Other methods include strip harvest or machine harvest, however, you will get ripe and not ripe cherries and you might damage the coffee tree. 

Inside these cherries that coffee farmers have handpicked for us, there are coffee beans. Depending on their size they are classified and have specific characteristics. But that’s for another post… And these coffee beans are processed through wet, dry or mixed methods, which again, is for another post. 

The point is that these coffee beans are the ones the barista at your local coffee shop grinds to make your daily caffeine input. Or the ground version of them when you do your coffee in the morning.

Coffee of the Day: London

I discovered the huge world of coffee accidentally while working in London. I am aware of how many more coffee shops there are in London, but these are the ones I enjoyed in my time in London.

Bank, Monument, St. Paul’s, Chancery Lane, New Street, Shoreditch, Mayfair, Canary Wharf

I started working in specialty coffee in this Aussie coffee company, so they taught me almost everything I know about coffee. They have a very high level of knowledge and they train people really well. They have 4 different profiles of coffee that they roast, as well as a decaf coffee option and a house espresso which is usually a blend. The people there are really nice (few of them my friends too, so… 🙂 )

23-25 Leather Lane, London, EC1N 7TE (Chancery Lane/Farringdon)

They also have very good training programs and they do talks about interesting coffee topics as well as tea. They have coffee from Square Mile Coffee. I had a filter coffee and a croissant when I was there and it was glorious. The place itself is very spacious and seems very comfortable to bring a laptop and work.

11 Leonard St, London EC2A 4AQ (Old Street)

Company from New Zealand, with a very simple and minimalistic aesthetic (white, grey and green). It has a very chilled and calm vibe. The coffee I had was really good and the music soft, perfect for a catch up with a friend apart from the busy London streets.

Angel, Blackfriars, Oxford Circus…

I haven’t been, but all my coffee colleagues talked about it. I heard both good and bad regarding ways of coffee training, but the final product was a good cup of coffee. I saw it for a year when I was working near Angel and it looked really cozy and nice for a laptop-work time.

Blackhorse Road Workshop, Sutherland Road Path, London, E17 6BX (Blackhorse Road/Walthamstow)

I discovered it while working by my neighbourhood. They have really good brunch options and it was really busy when I was there. However, they served me a very balanced cup of coffee every time. And it was close to my house. (:

Coffee Of The Day: Madrid

Ever since I started working in coffee, I have become that annoying friend who will only have a coffee in a specialty coffee shop. These are the ones I like the most in Madrid.

Calle de la Palma, 49, 28004 Madrid (Malasaña)

It was the first specialty coffee shop in Madrid. I had the opportunity and privilege of working with the owners and it was a dream. They take a lot of care of each coffee they roast, as well as of the customers and the decor in both places they own.

C/ de Embajadores 3, 28012, Madrid, España. (Lavapiés)

A small coffee shop with simple yet cute decoration. They roast their own coffee and have tasty things to eat. They also do coffee and roasting talks (which I haven’t been able to attend just yet).

Calle del Pez, 20, 28004 Madrid (Noviciado)

They use coffee from different companies. You can choose house espresso or a guest espresso. The food menu and the cakes are out of this world and the place it self… I feel like becoming a freelancer so that I can stay working there.

Calle Doctor Fourquet 33, 28012 Madrid (Lavapiés)

It is a small but cozy place. They change the coffee every so often and they have cakes and things to nibble on. I have only been once, but the atmosphere was really nice and I liked the coffee too.

Calle Ruiz, 11, 28004 Madrid (Bilbao)

Old coffee shop with a lot of history. It was recently renovated. I was working there for a few days when they opened and it has a great vibe. They use Toma Café’s coffee and at night it transforms into a very nice bar to grab a drink.

Coffee Of The Day: Taipei

Like the coffee snob that I am, here is the result of the coffee tourism I did in Taipei.

  • Coffee Sweet

No. 3, Alley 20, Lane 33, Section 1, Zhongshan North Road, Zhongshan District, Taipei City, 10491

I don’t know if it was my sleepy face, a jet lag effect, or the fact that Taiwanese people are just nice, but even though they did not have English menu, the waitress asked me “black” or “white”, I replied “flat white?” and she smiled and told me to sit.

To be honest, when they brought me the coffee I was a bit unimpressed because it did not have latte art on top. Generally, that’s a big sign that you are in a specialty coffee shop. However, it tasted really good. They took their time to bring it to me and they handed it to me very carefully. They told me the coffee was from Brazil and I noted the taste notes of nuts and milk chocolate.

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  • Kiosk

No. 40, Section 1, Xinsheng North Road, Zhongshan District, Taipei City, 10491

This one was recommended to me and it did not dissapoint. I had a bit of a hard time to find it but when I found it I asked for a piccolo and enjoyed a very chilled time charging my phone and chatting with the barista.

He explained to me that the trend in Taiwan right now is to roast darker because people thought they needed “stronger” coffee. Taiwanese people (and most people in the planet) don’t always realise that darker does not necessarily mean stronger.

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  • Fika Fika Café

No. 33, Yitong Street, Zhongshan District, Taipei City, 104

I was excited to try this particular coffee, it looked good, there was a little terrace and a good colleague had recommended to me. The place itself looked very European. There were lots of people taking pictures. I was really hyped up but unfortunately it was quite disappointing.

I asked for single espresso and it was extremely sour and bitter at the same time. When I entered to tell them that it was not good, I saw that they were cleaning the machine. They asked me if I wanted a new one, but I was on a hurry, so I say thanks, no, but be careful in serving (this sh*t) an espresso.

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  • Oklao

No. 124, Bo’ai Road, Zhongzheng District, Taipei City, 100

The morning I was leaving Taiwan, I found this little gem in the midst of a Taipei’s busy street. Behind the bar, there were people working, the place was not too crowded and the vibe was chilled.

In this place, they have a “normal” coffee menu and specialty coffee, as some others do, but I was pleasantly surprised to see that there was not that much of a difference in price. I asked for a cappucino and I honestly don’t remember the taste notes but I do remember it was a balanced and complex cup of coffee.

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