What is speciality coffee?

The term speciality coffee was first used in 1974 by Erna Knutsen, writing in an issue of the Tea & Coffee Trade Journal. Known as the godmother of speciality coffee, Erna championed the value of identity, distinction and quality in coffee. A speciality coffee is the highest possible grade of coffee. Generally, it relates to the whole of the supply chain, more often a single estate coffee. Single estate or origin coffee is coffee grown within a specific geographic origin. It encompasses a group of farms that usually have one owner. It has a unique character and taste in comparison to coffee blended from a mixture of origins.

What makes speciality coffee so special?

Speciality coffee roasters roast the best coffee beans lighter than has been done before. They unlock the unique flavours of the coffee and bring out the special taste that reflects the coffee’s origins. There are many factors that determine the flavour of the coffee and make it special. The health of the plants, type of soil and humidity levels where they are grown can affect the final coffee product.

How does speciality coffee differ from commercial coffee?

Speciality coffee will offer you much more choice in type and flavour than commercial coffee. The difference is in how they are delivered. Stored as the best whole bean coffee, speciality coffee is delivered in smaller packaging or as bulk coffee beans. This then needs to be ground before it is brewed. Commercial coffee, however, is usually roasted before being packed in large plants. It is then sold under nationally recognized brand names.

Speciality coffees

A popular choice of speciality coffee is Italian roast coffee. Indeed, the Italian love of coffee has inspired the many varieties of coffee available for us to choose from today. Here are a few of the different selections of coffee that you can find in your local speciality coffee shop.

Americano or espresso americano

This is essentially an espresso with 100 – 150 ml of hot water added.

Caffe latte

A caffe latte is a mild coffee, made with around 150 – 300 ml of milk. The basic drink is an espresso and steamed milk is then added. Pour a little milk foam over the top to finish.

Caffe mocha

A variation on the caffe latte, with chocolate and whipped cream added to your drink. Pour chocolate sauce into your glass, with a shot of espresso and steamed milk.

Cafe au lait

This is the traditional morning coffee popular with the French. Made by a mix of dark roasted filter coffee and warmed milk.


A very popular drink, this is made with a mixture of espresso and milk foam.


The classic espresso is a strong and short drink generally about 30 ml.

Flat white

This is a drink made with a double espresso together with about 150 – 240 ml of lightly frosted milk.

Irish coffee

An Irish coffee is a classic coffee cocktail. Made with filter coffee mixed with sugar and Irish whiskey. Gently whipped cream on the top completes this classic drink.

How do I choose the best speciality coffee beans

Read the label

If you want to become a coffee master, make sure that you read the labels – they will tell you everything you need to know. You will be able to find out the coffee’s origins and how it was processed. The label should also show you the altitude where the beans were grown and tasting notes. Just pick up your bag of coffee and start to read.

Know your own palate

If you enjoy coffee, you may want your cup to have a predefined, tasty character. A few bits of knowledge are all that is required to understand what you want.

Coffee without too much acidity

If you prefer coffee that has a nice body without the acidity, you may want to try a coffee processed by the natural method. In general, the natural process will give you less acidity and a notable fruitiness.

Coffee higher in acidity

Coffee processed using the washed method will give you greater acidity with a delicate, floral taste.

Roasting profile

Knowing the roasting profile is another way to choose your speciality coffee beans. A medium to light profile brings a more acidic flavour and is the profile chosen by speciality coffee shops. A dark roast profile is generally used by commercial coffee shops.

Country of origin

You may want to consider the country of origin when choosing the best coffee beans for your speciality coffee. As a general guide, try:

  • Kenyan coffee for acidity;
  • Ethiopian coffee for fruity notes;
  • Colombian or Brazilian coffees blend well together and often have notes of chocolate;
  • Coffee from El Salvador or Honduras mix together well as a blend or work just as well as on their own.

Types of coffee plant

There are two main types of coffee plant that are currently cultivated: Robusta and Arabica.


Robusta coffee is made from the beans of the Coffea canaphora plant, which is a sturdy plant, low in acidity and high in bitterness. These coffee beans are generally used for instant coffee and espresso or found as a filler in ground coffee. The plants grow in lowland areas and are best known for their high resistance to disease rather than quality of flavour.


Arabica coffee is made from the beans of the Coffea arabica plant and originates from the highlands of Ethiopia. These plants produce coffee of a high quality but have less resistance to climate change and disease. Most discerning coffee drinkers choose coffee made from Arabica beans.

Brewing your coffee

If you are considering buying bulk coffee beans, you will want to make sure that you choose the best whole bean coffee. Avoid any brands labelled only as 100% Arabica, as these may be mixed with different varieties or blended with Robusta coffee. To get the best flavour from your speciality coffee beans, grind your coffee fresh just before brewing. Coffee is best when consumed within 3 months of the roast date. Whether you choose Italian roast coffee or another speciality coffee, it is best consumed within the first month of roasting. This will give you the fullest flavour and freshness.