Quick Guide: A Few Essential Coffee Terms

If your eyes gloss over when you read terms like “specialty-grade,” “single-origin,” and “Fair Trade Certified,” don’t worry. Coffee terminology is a language all its own, and we don’t want you to feel intimidated. Coffee snobbery is not our gig.

At the same time, we want you to understand the coffee you’re buying (and the people and processes behind it). I’m fascinated by coffee—its growth and processing, the complex chemistry involved in roasting, all of it—but I understand that some folks only want to know so much. So, here’s a Quick Coffee Guide with a few essential terms (without getting too deep in the weeds).

Let us know if you’ve got a term you’d like us to add to the list.

Single-origin Coffee

Single-origin coffee is what it sounds like: it’s coffee that derives from one location—even from a single plot of land—rather than being blended with other coffees. Unlike most blends, single-origin coffees preserve the distinct flavors of their respective countries, regions, altitudes, and processing methods. Generally, single-origin beans are roasted to capture some of the terroir (a French term generally referring to origin flavor). Finally, single-origin coffees tend to be grown on smaller, family-owned or co-opted farms.

“specialty” or “high-grade” coffee

In the coffee world, the “grade” reflects the quality of the coffee beans and the number of defects found in the coffee sample. Coffees that rate Grade 1 or better have no primary defects and have optimum moisture content for roasting. Sometimes, batches of harvested beans are sorted several times to uphold these standards.

Here’s a quick excerpt from the Specialty Coffee Associations scoring/grading system:

Total Score Quality Classification

  • 90-100 – Outstanding – Specialty
  • 85-99.99 – Excellent – Specialty
  • 80-84.99 – Very Good – Specialty
  • < 80.0 – Below Specialty Quality – Not Specialty

“Small batch” roasting

It’s difficult to find a strict definition of “small batch” in terms of weight (though I typically craft roast one bag at a time). You’ll often see the term “small batch” associated with coffee freshness. When roasted coffee beans sit around—even if they’re stored in an air-tight container—they slowly lose freshness. Beans typically stay very fresh for a few weeks, so roasting small batches ensures that you’re not getting roasted beans that have been sitting around for a month.

We label each bag with its roast date, so you know just how fresh your coffee is! Take a look: we usually roast within a few days of the sale date.

“Fair Trade Certified” coffee

Fair Trade Certified coffee can be traced back to its specific origins, including every farmer, exporter, importer, distributor, and roaster who has possessed the bean. This is what we mean by “traceability” (tracing coffee from the farm to your cup), which helps create a transparent and equitable coffee ecosystem. Fair Trade Certified entities must register with Fair Trade USA, who provides Fair Trade farmers a guaranteed price and premium on the their beans.

In this way, Fair Trade helps sustain coffee farmers by ensuring that they’re paid fair wages sufficient to live healthily and to sustain their business.

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