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

Specialty coffee and commodity or commercial coffee has opposite philosophies. One tends to sacrifice quality to achieve the desired quality. The other, meanwhile, is willing to absorb the losses to maintain the premium calibre of its products.

Even without knowing all the intricacies that go into the production, a pure taste test would tell you the disparity. For instance, order specialty coffee beans online and compare it with your average cup of instant coffee; even the uninitiated will taste the difference.

The coffee industry is expected to hit $102 billion by 2023, with a compound annual growth rate of 4.32% from 2018-2023. However, specialty coffee is also rapidly growing. In a study by Adroit Market Research, the market is expected to hit $83 billion by the year 2025, up from the $35.9 billion in 2018.

As you can see from the figures, it is easy to see why coffee has become a staple in nearly everyone’s homes. It is so pervasive that some people could not even function for the day without sipping their first cup.

Here are some differences between specialty coffee and commodity coffee:

1- Definition — When you say commercial-grade coffee, it means that you could hardly taste the difference. For instance, you can transfer the contents of Nescafe and put them into a bottle of Folgers. The drinker would not know one from the other. What most people are not aware of is that commercial coffee is traded on the New York Coffee Exchange. Prices are set not because of the quality of the product but by the movement of the market.

2- Harvest — In specialty coffee farms, the beans are picked by hand. It is quite a slow process compared to strip-harvesting. But growers are willing to sacrifice quantity over quality. So, they continue to walk the fields and select only the ripe beans to be processed and roasted. In the strip-harvesting method, some of the defective or bad beans are mixed along with the good ones. Producers, after all, are paid by the weight of the delivery and not the quality. And you can imagine how that will affect the taste.

3- Cup score — The method is an objective way to grade coffee. When you buy coffee beans online, look at the score to determine if you are buying from a specialty shop. Products that score from the 80 to 100 range are classified as specialty coffee. In comparison, for instance, Nescafe Gold has a cup score of 70. Coles organic coffee (freeze-dried) has a cup score of 74, which makes it one of the best commodity-grade brands around.

4- Flavour — As already mentioned, commodity coffee products typically taste the same. It is different from specialty coffee, which has different notes and characteristics in each packaging. For example, if you purchase a dark roast, you will get a dark crema with a dominant taste of chocolate in each cup. In some packages, you might taste a hint of floral and citrus notes with a whiff of berry sweetness.

How about Starbucks? It would be exact to say that the company is selling semi-commodity coffee. It hovers between specialty and commodity. However, the business model has proven to be successful for the brand as it currently has more than 30,000 branches in 76 countries worldwide.