craft coffee

Craft Coffee vs. Specialty: What’s the Difference?

Is craft coffee and specialty coffee the same thing? And what the heck is Third Wave Coffee? In this post, we look at the etymology of all these fancy names. 
Asser Christensen
Asser Christensen
Licensed Q Arabica Grader, M.A. Journalism

In gentrified neighborhoods all over the world, more or less, everything turned into a “craft” during the last decade.

It started with beer and quickly became craft-everything. Suddenly you had pizza, chocolate, popsicles, and whatnot that was either craft or artisan.

Frankly, it got a little bit ridiculous.

But where was coffee in all this?

When you look up “craft” in the dictionary, it relates to something skillful that’s done with the hands. That seems to be the perfect description of a barista with a gooseneck kettle slowly pouring into a V60.

However, in spite of how widespread the term is, craft coffee is not embraced as a term by people who work within coffee.

Instead, other descriptors such as specialty coffee, and more recently third wave coffee, are more popular.

Let’s take a closer look at the etymology and find out why the term ‘craft coffee’ is not the optimal description for the kind of coffee this blog deals with.

In recent years the term craft coffee has become just as popular as specialty

What is craft coffee?

On the surface craft beer and coffee seem to be related. After all, they are both flavorful, and legal mind-altering substances that come in many different styles.

However, when you move a little closer, there are significant differences.

Craft beer is made in a microbrewery. Here the brewmaster has four basic ingredients such as barley, hops, yeast, and water. The craft consists of creating a delicious beer out of these rather cheap products.

The brewmaster is a bit like an alchemist. By harnessing chemical principles, he can create an intoxicating product, both literary and figuratively speaking.

Coffee production is fundamentally different from beer brewing. Even though there is ‘craft’ involved, it’s spread out all over the value chain. There is not a single great alchemist involved in coffee.

The blossom and the bee

Coffee starts as a fruit growing on a tree in the tropical part of the world. What happens at this early stage is the most crucial part of the journey towards quality and flavor.

If the natural conditions are just right, and the farmer can pick the coffee cherry at peak ripeness, the coffee will have great potential.

From there the cherries enter the wet mill, also known as a washing station. Again, it’s crucial that all steps involved in depulping, fermenting, washing, and drying are carried out correctly.

A female farmer giling basah processing
Coffee is an agricultural product but it’s different from wheat and barley.

Eventually, the coffee will be sold to an exporter or coffee brand in a different part of the world.

Next step is roasting the green beans. This is the part that is most like alchemy in coffee; the green beans go from small hard seeds that smell grassy and vegetal to the brown, aromatic beans you know.

However, the roaster cannot magically transform subpar green coffee into specialty coffee; he must have an excellent product, to begin with, the same way a chef cannot turn an old, bad T-bone steak into something delicious.

The final step is the preparation in the coffee shop by a trained barista. Again, something that’s not simple.

Enter specialty coffee

When I think about a craft, I think about a highly skilled artisan who can transform the mundane into art. Like a potter who can turn clay into beautiful ceramic. Or the woodturner who makes art of oak.

When you understand how coffee is produced, you need another mental model than that of craft. It merely conveys the wrong thing.

Sure, there is a ton of skill and effort involved in all the steps of coffee production, but with coffee, there is not a single ‘alchemist’ or craftsman involved; instead, there are many. And perhaps Mother Nature is the greatest.

Norwegian/American Erna Knutsen first coined specialty coffee as a coffee that grows “in specific microclimates.” Since then, the Specialty Coffee Association has narrowed it down to a green coffee scoring at least 80 out of 100 points.

In both these definitions, the emphasis in more on the agricultural product, and less on refining and transforming it.

The difference between craft and third wave coffee

In 2002 the coffee professional Trish Rothgeb launched an idea that has since become hugely influential and part of the coffee narrative. She claimed that coffee had three distinct ‘waves.’

  • The first wave: For many years, coffee was a commoditized product (just like beer). It was not consumed for its flavors but rather for the caffeine.
  • The second wave was the Italian inspired coffee that started to spread in the US with Starbucks. In this period, coffee becomes slightly elevated, and an element of ‘craft’ crept into the conversation. The barista should be capable of making a frothy cappuccino, while the roaster should go dark and be capable of making a ‘smooth and strong’ blend.
    Note, that all of these things are about somehow making the coffee better through adding milk, or by manipulating it.
  • The third wave of coffee has been described as going back to the coffee as it is. Today, one of the most popular ways of serving coffee is as a light roast single origin brewed in a pour over cone. That is the most pared-down kind of coffee you can imagine, but for coffee people, that’s the goal: you want to experience the pure flavors that come from the farm level and the terroir.

That last word, terroir, is stolen from wine. If you want to compare coffee to a beverage, that is a way better option than beer, in my opinion.

By the way, one of the biggest trends today is natural wine, which has many similarities to third wave coffee. However, that is a completely different (and confusing) discussion for another day.

Top Featured Image: N. Lundgaard – Flickr CC | Source
about the author

about the author

Hey, I'm Asser Christensen from Denmark – the founder & editor of this site.

I have been crazy about caffeine for almost as long as I can remember. Today, I'm a licensed Q Arabica Grader and full time coffee writer.

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