Why we won't call ourselves "Specialty"

In London, we awake each day to find ourselves wandering a labyrinth of homogenously humdrum cafés seeking to serve coffee to the public in an ever duller manner.

It's not just that London's café owners are addicted to deploying the tired tropes of pendant lighting and reclaimed wood, but they insist on proclaiming themselves to be exemplars of the finest Specialty coffee the city can offer.

But when we have the poorest of experiences and undrinkable coffee even from "award-winning" establishments, we can't help but wonder what is driving the baristas and owners of these sad shops. 

Surely, it can't be a "passion for Specialty" touted on an overwhelming number of job ads for London baristas?

Whatever their motivation, it's clear that "Specialty" isn't very special. 

Or is it?

What does Speciality mean?

It's widely accepted that the first use of the term "Specialty" coffee was by Erna Knutsen in an issue of Tea & Coffee Trade Journal in 1974, referring to high-quality beans displaying flavours specific to their micro-climates. 

In 2017, Ric Rhinehart, then Executive Director of the Specialty Coffee Association (SCA), said "[...] speciality coffee will be defined by the quality of the product, whether green bean, roasted bean or prepared beverage and by the quality of life that coffee can deliver to all of those involved in its cultivation, preparation and degustation. A coffee that delivers satisfaction on all counts and adds value to the lives and livelihoods of all involved is truly a Specialty coffee."

It seems that this is an approach that we can get behind, as quality-focussed coffee professionals. Indeed, even the technical definition by the SCA - that Specialty coffee must be arabica coffee graded above 80 points on a 100 point scale, seems reasonably sensible, (though these may not all fit our perception of quality). 

So what's the issue?

Why does Specialty fall short?

Back in London, we find that Specialty is all too easy a marketing term to roll out when one happens to be buying coffee that is at 80 points or above.

While shop owners and managers are seeking to lure their ideal customers in through the door, each person walking down the street has already done the hard work of (consciously or otherwise) aligning themselves to almost tribal views. 

As interest in better coffee has grown over the years, so has the "Specialty" tribe. And so, any reasonably clean shop, with a team of moustachioed males behind the counter, and the word "Specialty" somewhere on their signage draws in the weary wanderer through their doors.

So we find hundreds, perhaps even thousands of cafés across London promising to fulfil the needs of the Specialty tribe. I don't know whether it's ease, laziness, or fear of failure that drives so many stores to roll out the same old slogans. 

But I believe that it's damaging for some of our cities best and worst coffee shops to brand themselves with the same coat of arms. It's great if a customer can walk into a "Specialty" coffee shop in the morning, and have a sweet, well-brewed cup of coffee. 

If that same customer had chosen to visit another "Specialty" café instead and had a bitter, astringent, gritty cup, served by unpleasant staff in an untimely manner, then that customer may choose never to frequent a so-called "Specialty" coffee shop ever again, not unreasonable deeming the whole tribe pretentious, arrogant, and rude.

So what will we say?

Here at Formative, we believe in quality-focussed coffee. Yes, we will be buying Specialty grade coffee, but we don't accept that this is enough to provide an exceptional experience or even just a tasty cup. Nor do think that we'd gain anything from describing ourselves as "Specialty".

Instead, we will focus on every element of Formative to provide the best possible experience for each customer, without resorting to tribal marketing.

We'd love to hear your thoughts on this - just drop into the comments below.



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