It all starts with a coffee tree that bears fruit or “cherries” approximately twice a year. Coffee beans are the actual seeds inside the ripe (red) “cherries.”
Specialty-grade coffee differentiates itself from commercial grade in the following areas:
Species: There are two primary species of coffee, Arabica and Robusta. All specialty grade comes from the top 10% of Arabica, whereas, most commercial-grade coffee comes from Robusta and lower grade Arabica.
Location/Altitude: Specialty coffee is grown at high altitudes 2000-6000 feet, above sea level, and flourishes in an equatorial climate--abundant rainfall, sun and mild frost-free temperatures. Commercial-grade (Robusta) coffee is grown at low altitudes.
Labor/Handling: Specialty coffee is hand-picked on mountain terraces and laboriously sorted by size and appearance for grading. Commercial grades are mass produced and mechanically harvested with less stringent screening methods.
Flavor: Arabica trees produce a more delicate, flavorful coffee. Specialty coffees, like wine grapes, derive their flavor from the soil conditions, micro-climate and preparation methods of their region.
Each region has distinctive characteristics:
Central and South American coffees are generally light to medium bodied with lively, effervescent qualities (also known as palate acidity). The volcano regions of Guatemala, Costa Rica, and Panama produce coffee that has spicy, chocolatey, and complex flavors.
African coffees combine the sparkling acidity of the best Central Americans with aromatic, floral and winy (berry-like) notes.
Indonesian coffees are at the opposite end of the scale from Latin coffees. They are usually full-bodied (mouth-feel, weight of the coffee) and smooth with low acidity, possessing an appealing earthy and nutty quality.