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Well into its “third phase,” the coffee industry and the far off lands producing the magical cherries that make up our morning cup, is finally getting the attention it deserves. Specialty coffee, and the journey it has taken to be part of our daily rituals is just as important, if not more, than the taste for many of us coffee aficionados. If you’re anything like me, undoubtedly you’ve found yourself wondering, what makes specialty coffee so special?

We live in a buzzword culture and the coffee world is no different. Words like organic, fair trade, shade grown, single origin, responsibly sourced, etc. are slapped on packages and menus at will to make us feel like we’re doing our part to support the labor of love behind our specialty coffee.

So whether you’re sipping on beans from the high Himalayas of Nepal, the Kona coffee belt of Hawaii, or the Blue Mountain Range in Jamaica, lets step away from the buzzwords for five minutes and remember three essential parts of what makes our specialty coffees so special.

Location, Location, Location

Any coffee that is truly specialty is sure to come from a remote destination where real estate is in high demand and growing conditions are uniquely suited to cultivate coffee where coffee does not usually grow.

Himalayan coffee from Nepal is a prime example. While most of us conjure up images of  Everest when we hear Himalayas, Nepal is actually home to a small and unique set of conditions perfect for growing coffee. Just north of Kathmandu in Nepal, the climate is cool yet dry, sitting  at roughly  2000 - 2500 feet above sea level, coffee trees fed fresh snowmelt runoff line the Nepalese hillsides. With such distinct geographical features and limited acerage to produce only a small percentage of a special Arabica bean, Himalayan coffee paints the ideal image of how location plays into the specialty coffee movement.

The Labor of Love

It is no secret that coffee cultivation and production, from planting of the trees to roasting of the beans, is one of the more labor intensive processes around. Coffee trees take roughly five years to mature before they begin to produce the cherries that are ultimately hand picked for processing. This means that both farmers and laborers on remote plantations invest not just a great deal of resources, but time and effort to ensure perfection behind the final product.

Many of us have heard the terms “hand picked” and “hand sorted.” Going back to our Himalayan coffee example, imagine scaling those steep hillsides daily to pick one by one only the ripest coffee cherries for processing. Once those cherries have been processed and dried, imagine again sorting by hand each and every bean to guarantee a consistent and high quality taste.

Though larger coffee farms and co-ops have begun using machinery to make the picking and sorting process more efficient, there is an inherent loss of quality when automating the selection process. Removing the individuals who are intimately involved in planting and caring for the trees, picking the perfect cherries, and sorting the best beans is a quintessntial distinction between drinking a specialty coffee as opposed to other buzzword brews.

Whats Good Doesn’t Always Last

On the global scale roughly 12 billions pounds of coffee are consumed annually, however most small-scale speciality coffee farms produce minimal amounts of their beans for consumption.

The Plantec Coffee Estate in Nepal can only produce around 330,000 pounds annually and all of Nepal only produced around 990,000 pounds in 2019. Kona coffee, another speciality bean grown in Hawaii, accounts for only a marginally larger portion global coffee at approximately 3.8 million pounds. Jamaican Blue Mountain, while also highly sought after for many of the factors mentioned above, only makes up about 4 million pounds of global production.

The forces of supply and demand are omnipresent, and unfortunately coffee as a commodity is particularly susceptible to such forces. As coffee fanatics place more emphasis on the social, environmental, and economic background of their favorite brew, specialty coffee has become increasingly sought out for so much more than its taste. Couple the increased demand with the fact that specialty coffees are only a fraction of a percentage of the global coffee supply, and one can begin to understand what makes them so special.

The Takeaway

Hopefully by now you’ve gained a little better understanding of what factors are behind the buzzwords and the essentials of specialty coffee. So whether your morning cup comes from the heights of the Himalayas or dense forests of the Kona coffee belt, remember that the journey behind your brew is truly something special.