What is meant by specialty coffees? Generally speaking, let's work with the term meaning any coffee that isn't mass manufactured by a retail conglomerate offering more than one product line. In other words, the coffee you find in cans in the grocery store aisle isn't specialty coffee. Nor is 99.9 percent of the instant coffee usually found on the other side of the same aisle, sometimes the same side.
What Defines Specialty Coffees?
There is one exception to this generalization (rules being made to be broken, after all). The chicory and coffee blend that New Orleans, Louisiana is renowned for qualifies as a specialty coffee. Anyone who has ever visited New Orleans, and sat outside in the sun–whether near Mardi Grass time or otherwise–with a cafe au lait and a beignet at the old French Market, knows exactly what I mean here. But Cafe du Monde is the exception.
Specialty coffee for the connoisseur is generally pure coffee, whether whole bean or blend. It is not adulterated during the roasting process with any flavoring. Flavoring, if you insist, can be added after brewing, to your cup and only your cup. This is the purist speaking.
A broader interpretation embraces both flavored and unflavored beans. The distinguishing qualification is the individual approach–the single varietal crop, the careful attention paid it, the roasting process, the grinding, the nuanced approach to blending coffees. The art of specialty coffees–that is, the growing and tasting and enjoying–is remarkably similar to that of wine. Even the vocabulary–which refers to body, aroma, balance, mouthfeel, and acidity–is shared