Is there a difference between ‘gourmet’ and specialty coffee?

Yker Valerio
June 26, 2023
An image of a coffee roaster inspecting specialty coffee, roasted coffee beans, gourmet coffee, in an article on the difference between ‘gourmet’ and specialty coffee

Understanding the differences between gourmet and specialty coffee can be daunting for many consumers. While some authors claim gourmet is a mere buzzword, this may not be the case. Notably, some countries may have specific standards to identify gourmet coffee, while others are less stringent.

From a global perspective, it is easier to understand the attributes that differentiate specialty coffee. Gourmet coffee, on the other hand, is more challenging to englobe under a single classification.

To better understand this challenging topic, I spoke with Kleidys Ramírez, the CEO of Café Melosa.

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Is there such a thing as ‘gourmet’ coffee?

Many say ‘gourmet’ coffee is a marketing tactic used to sell overpriced regular coffee. However, it would be more accurate to say that labelling coffee in this way often confuses consumers and deters specialty coffee drinkers from buying.

The term ‘gourmet’ is frequently used to market flavoured coffees and those of a higher quality. That said, these are entirely different products with unique and well-segmented consumer niches. In other words, while the word has an elegant aroma, it could be more explicit. Furthermore, there is a lack of international industry standards or guidelines to discern gourmet coffee from the average.

Some coffee brands tend to use the terms gourmet, premium, and specialty interchangeably, while others refer to gourmet coffee as an inferior product with little added value. Additionally, some coffee-producing countries use the gourmet category as a quality standard. In Venezuela, for example, ‘gourmet’ coffee follows the Covenin and the Venezuelan Coffee Corporation’s norms to comply with specific quality standards. Therefore, it is quite common to find commercial coffees with a gourmet label.

Looking for conventions, 100% arabica beans are more commonly categorised as gourmet. Arguably, this is to differentiate from blends using robusta beans, which are more affordable and have higher caffeine content, albeit with a more bitter taste. Beyond that, these coffee brands tend to put flavour over caffeine content. That said, many gourmet coffees are also roasted in an environmentally conscious manner, often using organic or fair-trade certified beans.

An image of Kleidys Ramírez, the CEO of Café Melosa, roasting coffee beans as a coffee roaster, in an article on the difference between ‘gourmet’ and specialty coffee

How does it differ from specialty coffee?

The well-known differentiators between gourmet and specialty coffee are quality standards and the institutions that support and advance them. Specialty coffee beans pass strict quality standards developed by the Specialty Coffee Association (SCA) and Coffee Quality Institute (CQI). Both organisations have developed protocols, procedures, and criteria to assess coffee beans’ quality before and after roasting.

For years, a group of well-known defects helped define specialty coffee’s main differentiators. Specialty coffee beans have superior taste and aroma, which a trained sensory analyst, or Q grader, can score. On its sensory qualities, specialty coffee is required to achieve a minimum of 80 over 100 points and must be free of primary and four secondary defects without quakers. Finally, specialty coffee has a moisture content ranging from 9% to 13%.

“The trend of experimental post-harvest processing can provide specific conditions to increase two to four points on a cupping score,” explains Kleidys Ramírez, who is a specialty coffee roaster and barista trained in Q Processing. “For this reason, low-altitude coffee beans could have qualities found only on coffee beans grown at over 2000 miles above sea level.” 

Moreover, as innovation has created more opportunities for changes in the industry, Kleidys says it is still crucial to understand that many factors lead to a specialty coffee bean.

“I can receive a specialty coffee as a roaster, but if I don’t treat it adequately, it will stop being specialty. So, coffee is special because of many factors: the quality of fertilisers used, the pruning of the plants, crop solar radiation exposure, and how the coffee is harvested, processed, and stored, all play a role in obtaining a specialty coffee score.”

The green coffee examination detects primary and secondary defects. A few more, such as quakers, can be found after roasting.

Recently, the SCA has worked to take the specialty coffee significance beyond the traditional score. The organisation acknowledges the importance of coordinated expert work across the coffee value chain, from the farmer to the green coffee buyer, onto the roaster, the barista, and finishing with the consumer.

A common phrase to categorise high-quality beans is ‘premium’ coffee, which is certified by the same conventions to assess specialty coffee quality. It can have a maximum of 8 full defects and up to three quakers.

In short, specialty coffee counts on institutions that specifically and explicitly establish a shared body of knowledge, including protocols, criteria, and quality standards. On the other hand, ‘gourmet’ is an ambiguous definition that can encompass high-quality, flavoured, and even mediocre coffee beans.

In conclusion, while the phrases gourmet and specialty are often used interchangeably, they can easily be different types of coffee.

An image of custom-printed coffee bags that tell a coffee producers story, customised coffee packaging for specialty coffee beans in an article on the difference between ‘gourmet’ and specialty coffee

The importance of educating consumers about specialty coffee

The knowledge gap between technological product abilities and customer knowledge is clear. Users frequently face increasingly complex features, leading to highly under-used devices. Similarly, high-quality coffee poses a challenge for coffee businesses. It’s difficult to communicate coffee quality, and a standardised approach has traditionally left producers’ stories out of the picture.

The sensory attributes of exceptional coffee, such as aroma and taste, can be challenging to describe in words or colours. Unlike technological devices, coffee can’t be explained using short clips, and efforts to increase consumer convenience, such as single-serving systems, have been traditionally linked to lower-quality coffee.

To deal with these challenges, roasters have been using QR codes on coffee bags to help consumers gain detailed information about their coffee. Some businesses also use tasting cards to communicate specific aromatic profiles and tasting notes.

Some high-quality coffee roasters offer free tasting sessions to help consumers learn more about specialty coffee’s sensory attributes. Furthermore, many specialty coffee roasters use their social media presence to promote a deeper understanding of the coffee value chain and share engaging narratives about coffee origins.

Fortunately, there are several ways for businesses to bridge the knowledge gap between producers and consumers regarding high-quality coffee. Roasters can make additions to coffee packaging, such as QR codes, or provide virtual tastings and sessions on sensory attributes. These methods enable customers to learn more about their coffees to make informed decisions when purchasing them.

At MTPak Coffee, we can help tap into your creativity and design packaging that informs, educates, and entertains consumers – leaving them wanting more. Our eco-friendly customisation techniques include spot UV with a glossy, satin, or matte finish, embossing and debossing, as well as hot foil stamping in a variety of colours. Plus, they can be used on our sustainable coffee bags, which are made using kraft paper, rice paper, or multilayer LDPE packaging with an environmentally friendly PLA lining, while our coffee boxes are made using recycled cardboard.

For more information on custom-printed coffee packaging, contact our team.

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