Edible Drink

Commodity VS. Specialty Coffee

By Edie Baker / Photography By Andrew Baker | September 01, 2014
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Honey processed coffee turned under solar dryer
The turning of honey processed coffee under a solar dryer.

I’d wager that many people don't realize how much coffees differ. Besides being produced in different countries and regions there are different levels and ultimately different tastes in the cup.

Coffee is grown in the Equatorial range between the Tropics of Cancer and Tropic of Capricorn. It needs elevation, rainfall and sunlight, shade trees and breezes, a nutritious soil and careful pruning to be produced well.

Given all these needs to grow coffee it becomes obvious that all coffee is not equal. Lower grown, higher yield, bitter tasting Robusta beans will undoubtedly not be as tasty as the higher grown, lower yield more complex and aromatic Arabica beans. One is considered a commodity while the other is a specialty coffee.

How do you know the difference — and are you paying specialty prices for a commodity coffee?

Receiving coffee for processing in Guatemala
Drying coffee cherries
Photo 1: Receiving coffees for processing Finca La Merced, Guatemala
Photo 2: Natural processed coffee cherries drying on raised beds.

Commodity coffee is your everyday diner style coffee, also used as freeze dried, and traded on the commodities market just like cotton or lumber. Mainly consisting of Robusta coffee beans, although lower grade Arabica coffee can be classed as commodity too. Robusta coffee is all about the caffeine content, not the taste and has at least twice the amount of caffeine as Arabica Coffee plants. For many years and still today unfortunately, some roasters add it to espresso blends to create great crema, nice to look at (but not to taste) and less expensive. Roasting styles aren’t influential on overall taste. When you start with bitter-tasting coffee you can’t make it less bitter. Always remember “You can make good coffee taste bad but you can’t make bad coffee taste good.”

Specialty coffee is all about the quality and taste. Arabica coffee is a bean that’s more dense and has more chemical compounds to produce an amazing array of flavors when roasted. The coffee is grown at higher elevations to allow more time for those complex flavors and sugars to develop. It’s grown and picked by people who care about the quality and taste of their crops, multiple pickings at harvest will ensure only the ripest coffee cherry is picked each time. The microclimate is instrumental in the development of the coffee cherry with the right amount of sunlight, rain and wind, which varies yearly and can affect the crops and ultimately the cup, making it akin to wine.

Specialty coffee has so many complex flavor profiles that neighboring farms may taste vastly different. Similar to wine, you wouldn’t say all California wines are the same or all Napa Valley wines are the same. It comes down to the location, variety and producer, just like coffee.

Preparing coffee seeds for germination in Guatemala
Preparing coffee seeds for germination at El Retiro Del Quisaya, Guatemala

Besides the differences in the microclimate (elevation, weather and soil), there are the varietals (types of coffee plants). There are hundreds of different Arabica coffee varietals. We are still learning what they each contribute to the cup. The Bourbon varietal gives the cup complexity, where the Pache gives it body and the Typica history.

Next, the processing method plays a huge part in the flavor profile, body and aromatics. Wet (washed) produces sharper fruit acidity, full natural (dry) adds big body and honey (pulped natural) has a bit of both. Each farmer has their own theory and technique on how their coffee should be dried. Some use cement patios, others use raised screen drying trays, open sun, under shade, solar dryer or mechanical dryers. Each part of the growing and processing has an influence on the flavor.

As you can see, with so many factors that influence the taste of coffee, it takes farmers who live and breathe quality to produce specialty coffee. It also takes Roasters who are passionate about their farmers and customers to bring out the amazing intrinsic flavors when they roast. This coffee starts with the aromatics, has sweetness, fruit acidity, body and a delightful aftertaste. That’s how you’ll know your tasting Specialty Coffee not the other.

We’re so lucky to live in the Sacramento Region with many specialty coffee roasters. You’ll find some of the best coffees in the world here and roasters and baristas who have dedicated their lives to understanding this complex amazing bean. Many of us travel yearly to our farms to spend time learning and working together to produce better tasting coffee with each harvest. Coffee professionals are some of the most passionate, hardworking people I know. Coffee isn’t just a drink, it’s a way of life.


EDIE + Andrew BAKER are owners of Chocolate Fish Coffee Roasters. They passionate about all things coffee! They treat every day as a new adventure in learning and love to share their knowledge to help others appreciate specialty coffee. You can find them at chocolatefishcoffee.com

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