Commodity Coffee and Specialty Coffee: A Comparison

Oct 6, 2016

To drink “commodity” coffee, or to drink specialty coffee, that is the question. The top-selling brand of commodity coffee sells double the amount of the second best-selling brand of commodity coffee: these two commodity coffees together sell a greater volume of coffee than all other brands combined. Despite whatever beverage aficionados and connoisseurs may say to the contrary, taste is a matter of, well, taste. While there is a growing sort of beverage renaissance, while there is increasing emphasis on local vineyards and on craft breweries and on specialty coffees, the fact remains that for a variety of reasons the bulk of wine and beer sales will continue to go ---perhaps forever--- to “big bottlers” and the bulk of coffee sales will continue to go to commodity or “grocery store” brands.

If you want to better understand what the differences are between specialty coffee and commercial/commodity coffee that do not involve the question of sensory taste ---but which, in truth, may have everything to do with how taste is affected--- the following provides some measure of an answer.

What are commodity coffees, exactly? To begin with, these are blends typically made from beans coming from several plantations, sometimes from multiple countries. This tends to produce a more neutral flavor, and decreases the chance for any one part of the blend to overwhelm the whole profile. These beans will be processed on a massive scale, and will likewise be roasted and ground on a massive scale.   The ground coffee will be packaged and shipped out to stores with a “Best If Used By” date stamp that is typically several months away. And these coffees can be obtained very economically, at prices that can amount to as little as a nickel a cup when brewed at home.

Specialty coffees made at home cost a little more, between twenty-five cents and sixty-five cents per cup, approximately. But what is specialty coffee, exactly? Specialty coffee is the product of quality processes that occur at several different stages. It is a product of the beans from a single plantation; the beans are grown in a locale known to be capable of producing the desired quality product, by farmers with the equipment and knowledge appropriate to these high standards. The beans chosen from the harvest of such a plantation are graded, with only the finest are deemed to be of ‘specialty’ quality. The next phase is process intensive and requires that the selected beans be quickly and efficiently delivered to the processing mill to undergo a procedure for removal of the skin and pulp, followed by a drying procedure that can take up to two weeks. Once dried, the beans are hulled and then sorted. The sort and separation of the beans by size and wholeness is another quality marker.

The next key stage involves the green coffee buyer, who, for specialty coffee selection, is one who has been certified for such a task, who takes small samplings of beans, roasts them, grinds them and “cups” them, rating them with scores for quality, while providing notes for the flavor profile descriptions. Only then does the specialty coffee proceed to a master roaster. The master roaster’s job is to help develop the natural flavors of the bean through the roasting process, accomplished only with well-maintained equipment, an attentiveness to detail and a thorough knowledge of the science and art of roasting.

Ultimately, specialty coffee, in every phase of its development, is held to a higher standard. This means that there is more cost at every stage: however, this does not confer a superiority of one method over the other. These differences are just alternate approaches to a product. Similar as to how some may view the taste difference between a single malt scotch and a blend to be minor, but the cost differential to be great, so too will there be those who will find that the taste difference between commodity coffee and specialty coffee to result in an insurmountable variance in price. Yet, there clearly are a growing number of people who believe that the worth of a beverage crafted for unique flavor is greater than the relative monetary cost. Regardless of the value one finds in commodity coffee versus that of specialty coffee, at the bottom of the cup the fact is that commodity coffee is a blend designed for a standardized flavor profile that appeals to a wide-ranging market, whereas specialty coffee strives to be proven by distinctive characteristics.


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