Rare vs. specialty coffee: Has the World Barista Championship blurred the lines?
Jenna Gottlieb draws on the experience of two coffee experts to understand the difference between rare and specialty coffee – and how the barista competitions may be muddying the waters.
What makes something rare? By definition, something that’s rare is either seldom encountered or it’s a superlative of its kind. For instance, in the world of coffee, Coffea eugenioides is a rare species, as it’s relatively hard to find.
Specialty coffee, on the other hand, is coffee that meets a very specific target: all coffee bought and sold is graded on a hundred-point scale using standards created by the Specialty Coffee Association.
However, recent World Barista Championships (WBC) have witnessed an emerging trend of more and more competitors seeking out coffee that’s both rare and specialty. As such, some in the industry feel that the line between the two labels is getting blurred.
The WBC is one of the most prestigious coffee competitions of the year. It requires national barista champions from across the globe to present their coffee skills and carefully choreographed routines to a panel of four judges.
Since launching in 2000, the WBC has greatly influenced trends in specialty coffee by showcasing some of the finest coffees ever produced. In 2004, Geisha coffee made its first appearance at the Best of Panama auction, going on to become a staple at coffee competitions.
But more recent developments have focused on far rarer coffees. Last year, for instance, World Barista Champion Diego Campos competed with a rare anaerobic fermented Coffea eugenioides from Finca Las Nubes.
Now, it seems there’s a clear crossover between rare and specialty. For instance, varieties like Jamaica Blue Mountain and Kona are considered rare, and they often score 90 points or more, automatically making them specialty coffees, as well.
Furthermore, by nature, the higher the quality of a coffee, the less of it exists. As a result, many coffees graded 87 points and above are considered rare, and if a coffee is graded 91 points or more, it may be considered especially rare.
Some industry professionals question whether competitors are increasingly under pressure to bring something unique – like Diego’s eugenioides or other 90+ coffees – to the WBC. If that’s the case, it may be time to redraw the line between specialty and rare.
The industry standard for coffee scoring is that all coffee with a score less than 80 is commodity coffee, and coffee rated above 80 is specialty coffee. Furthermore, it’s generally accepted that specialty coffee must have been selectively hand picked and can’t display more than five defects per 350g (12oz).
Often, the difference between rare coffee and specialty coffees comes down to the person talking about it.
In his keynote address at PRF Colombia, Ryan Garrick, the Q grader at WatchHouse Coffee, walked the audience through his own definitions of rare and specialty coffee.
“Rare coffees are tiny lots where a buyer can arrange a pre-sale on their shop for a premium and sell out,” he told attendees. “Exclusive coffees are lots which will be unique to the buyer but could essentially be of any quality.”
However, it isn’t cut and dry. According to Joanna Alm, CEO and part-owner at Stockholm’s Drop Coffee, no single person “owns the definition” of rare coffee. At the same time, she believes that this concept of rarity is directly linked to high-end specialty coffees that are reasonably scarce.
“They are often, but not always louder and more characteristic in its flavour,” she adds.
She also acknowledges that the language used in specialty coffee can be confusing to some people.
“As specialty-grade is to be expected in about 10% of the world’s coffee, one could argue that it is already quite rare,” she elaborates, explaining that specialty coffee is rare by default.
“I am almost exclusively buying 87+ coffees for Drop Coffee, and often have felt an urge to describe how different they are from an 80-83 coffees, but really I think that comes from my own pride rather than the market asking for it,” she adds.
Ultimately, she says, she’ll continue to label Drop Coffee’s products as specialty rather than rare.
Is the WBC creating too much hype around rare coffees?
In his keynote address, Ryan explains that competition coffees are lots that possess the dynamic qualities that a competitor needs for their respective competition.
“Perhaps for WBC, they have amazing tactile qualities with a few clear taste notes,” he added. “Or for the Brewers Cup, they have something that has a wide array of flavours that evolves from hot to cold.”
Ultimately, he concluded, there’s no one definition of a “competition coffee”, “as the competition climate changes so rapidly and people believe in different things”.
Coffee competitions are often about pushing specialty coffee to the highest level and introducing new coffees and innovative techniques.
“This is a way of evolving, learning, and making our 94 point coffees of today become 92s [of the future] as we continuously plant, produce, process, and export better coffee, alongside roasting and brewing improvements,” Joanna explains.
Unfortunately, many competitors – on both a national and international level – may find it difficult to get their hands on these special coffees. The end result is that most competitors use excellent specialty coffees that aren’t rare at all.
In Joanna’s opinion, the WBC should be a space for experimentation – not just for showcasing the most exotic coffees on the planet. Unique coffees need not be rare, she says. For example, a competitor could use a coffee that’s from the first harvest after leaf rust, or one that has a low carbon footprint.
However, she does admit that there’s value in using rare coffees, particularly in barista competitions that somewhat restrict what the competitor can do.
“In brewers cups, you have a bit more space [to experiment],” she concludes. “However, I wish the level was not as high on a national level, as I think that can be a hindrance for baristas to compete – competing in barista competitions can often get expensive.”
At the end of the day, it seems that the WBC isn’t necessarily driving the use of rare coffees so much as it’s promoting diversity in specialty coffees. Baristas are certainly looking to innovate, but ultimately, they don’t win simply because their coffee is considered rare.