What is the difference between mainstream and specialty coffee?

Specialty coffee has definitely been gaining more attention in the last few years, and for good reason. Similar to wine, we are now being educated in where the coffee is grown and the processes behind the beans. With this education we are able to produce amazing coffee. So just what is the difference between normal and specialty coffee?


You may be familiar with the this term floating around the coffee scene. In specialty coffee, we can trace the coffee beans not only back to their country of origin, but region, farm, and even the micro-lot within the farm where they were grown. From this we can determine a number of factors that will affect the taste of the coffee. The varietal, altitude, terrain, weather, time of harvest, processing method and more can all influence the end product. If green buyers know the quality of how and where the coffee is grown, they can be sure they are getting a quality product.

With mainstream coffee, however, it will mostly only list the country it comes from, so the quality remains questionable.


There are two main types of coffee: Robusta and Arabica. Robusta coffee is less flavoursome and high-yielding with a high pest tolerance. It is often used for cheaper, low-quality instant, mainstream coffees. Arabica makes up the majority of coffees grown in the world, containing over 160 varieties, and consists of exciting flavours and aromas. Again like wine, with Arabica coffee comes unique tasting notes such as peach, caramel, honey and hazelnut. Mainstream coffee will provide generalisations to describe their coffees, for example ‘dark espresso’ or ‘smooth’.


The freshness of coffee can have huge impacts on the final result. The same as any other natural product, the quality of coffee beans will decrease over time. Coffee roasters will try and roast coffee beans as close to harvest as possible. Generally, coffee tends to be at its best around the 7 – 10 day mark, but of course this can vary with each coffee. Specialty coffee roasters will know the importance of this time frame with coffee, and the lack of this knowledge in mainstream coffee may be the reason behind poor tasting coffee.


You may have come across the term Q Grading before in specialty coffee. The Q coffee system was developed by the Coffee Quality Institute in 2004. It can be thought of as a scale by which to judge coffees. To be deemed as specialty, the coffee must obtain at least a score of at least 80 by specially trained Q graders. The coffee is judged based on a holistic array of factors,  including physical defects, flavour, acidity, body and balance. This international system means that specialty coffees are recognised around the globe, and you know the quality of what you are buying.

Try specialty coffee and taste the difference for yourself! We rotate Single Origins every season – check them out here.



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