Specialty coffee and grocery store bought coffee are not mutually exclusive. You can at times find quality coffee down the coffee aisle of your local grocery store. But there does tend to be more differences than not in coffee produced at mass quantities for national grocery store chains versus specialty roasters all throughout the world, and today we'd like to discuss them.
Coffee companies that produce mass quantities of coffee out of necessity tend to compromise on quality of the beans they source. This happens in a multitude of areas, the most consistent being sourcing their coffee from growers that do not let coffee to mature before picking, not siphoning out beans with defects, and oftentimes blending specialty grade coffee with non-specialty coffee so they can fulfill their orders in for all the grocery stores their product is in.
Specialty roasters tend to be smaller in scale, which allows for partnering with coffee growing communities and farmers that produce specialty grade coffee with fewer to no defects, better quality, and fresher crops from season to season.
But at the same time, scale does not tell the entire story. Most roasters out there will tell you that a quality specialty cup of coffee can be produced in a roaster that does batch sizes from 11lbs to 600lbs and up. There’s definitely other factors that differentiate specialty coffee from grocery store coffee, too.
In order to meet production quotas for grocery chains, commercial roasters tend to blend coffee at higher frequency than specialty roasters. The main reason is because while you might enjoy coffee year round, coffee farmers and regions in general produce coffee seasonally. South American countries might harvest from April to November, and African countries harvest from October to April, and Indonesian countries might harvest from June to December. This leaves gaps in harvest production that would mean commercial roasters might need to swap part of their blend from Kenyan beans that have floral, bright notes with a Costa Rican coffee because the former country is not harvesting and they still need to supply their grocery stores from January to December.
Blending, when done right, should enhance each coffee included and provide a unique cup profile. But at times, non-specialty roasters that produce grocery store coffee utilize the practice to hide flaws in one particular bean over another. This could mean adding a fairly cheap specialty grade coffee with an incredibly cheap bean with a lot of defects. This is most commonly found in coffee roasters that tend not to list which countries they source their beans since it allows them to change the beans from one region to the next at any given time.
And of course blending is sometimes done because single origin coffees tend to be harder to roast consistently year round. As stated, coffee regions harvest their coffee seasonally, and one crop from the same farm one year might taste dramatically different the next year. Blending allows a roaster to mask origin and bean characteristics so that the end product produced can taste the same year round.
Labor and Environmental Impact
Recently, specialty grade coffee has begun to get redefined not just on the cup quality, but also includes various socio-economic and environmentally friendly qualities that span the entire coffee production-distribution line. It is no longer enough to simply produce great coffee, but the carbon imprint along with equitable wages is factored in as well.
The reason for this is twofold. The most pressing issue is to ensure that not only does the specialty coffee industry produce great coffee in this generation, but for generations to come. The only way that can be achieved is by ensuring workers are paid fairly to encourage future workers to continue producing great coffee and to have quality living conditions, since coffee farming, along with most farming nowadays as well, is intergenerational. Essentially, if the children of coffee farmers today see their parents struggle, then they'll be significantly less inclined to continue farming coffee when they come of age as well.
And of course, the next biggest reason is coffee production takes a toll on the environment when not produced in a sustainable manner. Whether it’s producing shade-grown coffee to ensure that wildlife and the local ecosystem can stay intact, or coffee grown organically so that pesticides don’t destroy the ecology surrounding the farms, specialty coffee has placed a greater responsibility on itself to assure that coffee does not destroy the environment it's grown in.
This is also why you’ll find a lot more certifications on specialty coffee bags rather than grocery store coffee bags, such as Fairtrade, Rainforest Alliance, Shade Grown, Bird Friendly, and such, because they denote an industry of transparency, fairness, and sustainability that is sometimes overlooked by more commercial productions.
Single origin coffees differ dramatically from specialty to grocery store coffee. The main reason for this is because of the size and scale of the roaster. If a roaster produces coffee for massive chains throughout a region or even the entire nation or, in some cases, internationally, then certain compromises will have to occur in order for the roaster to produce such a large quantity. Oftentimes that means not being able to consistently provide single origins because the coffee from a single farmer in the same country, or coffee from farms fairly close in proximity, can vary from year to year. Because of that inconsistency, many grocery store roasters tend not to produce high quality single origins, but rather blend certain varietals from one country with a different varietal in a different country.
Specialty coffee has an advantage to produce a lot more unique quality single origin coffees because the roasters develop relationships with the importers/exporters and even the farmers themselves, which allows for specialty coffee roasters to hone in on microlots that might not produce enough coffee for mass production, but certainly produce enough for a specialty coffee roaster to provide a limited seasonal offering.
Specialty coffee benefits from being able to pivot its single origins based on season due to the nature of coffee farming and production, whereas grocery store coffee roasters have to produce the same sort of roast consistently and year round.
When talking about the freshness of the coffee there's both the freshness of when the green coffee arrived at the roasting facility and the freshness of when the coffee has been roasted. The longer green coffee sits in a warehouse collecting dust, aging, and losing moisture, the more the roast profile will change the end product once roasted. And of course, the more roasted coffee sits on a shelf, the more gases it loses, which leads to a staler cup.
With this in mind, you'll probably have noticed specialty roasters having placed the roast date as well as the good by date somewhere on the packaging. Grocery store coffees typically only have the good by date, since it is not as big of a concern for them to place the date in which the coffee was roasted.
Oftentimes, coffee on the grocery store will not have been rotated, meaning at times what is on the shelves could be several months old, which becomes more common with larger grocery chains that have thousands, sometimes even hundreds of thousands of products to keep track of, in which coffee is usually not the main concern.
This differs from specialty coffee companies because coffee is usually the main, if not the only, product that specialty coffee roasters specialize in. This specialization lends itself to ensure that customers receive the highest quality, freshest cup of coffee possible.
These are just a handful of differences that you'll find between specialty coffee and grocery store coffee. At times it might not mean one is particularly bad or good. But altogether, the qualities and unique components that make up specialty coffee lend itself to creating consistently great cups of coffee that change periodically, but overall mean a much more flavorful experience for the customer.