Let’s Bury The Top 3 Specialty Coffee Myths You Used To Believe!

Can I be straight up with you?

90% of what you've heard about specialty coffee are wrong. The information you have heard about are overly simplified or just plain wrong.

Working as a barista trainer, I come across so many questions everyday in my classes. I will surely write more about them later. But in particular, 3 coffee myths really bother me, which, I want to clear them first.

So let’s jump in!

Top 3 Specialty Coffee Myths 

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Coffee Myth #1: Third Wave Coffee = Specialty Coffee.

This is a BIG coffee myth. And probably one of the most commonly asked one. Is the term Third Wave Coffee equals to Specialty Coffee?

You must have heard of barista saying this is the period of “third wave” or “this is a third wave coffee house”. You don’t really get it. And then you hear they are also taking about specialty coffee a lot.

So you start thinking maybe that is a synonyms of specialty coffee?

The answer is negative. Third wave coffee and specialty coffee are two different concepts but just they are very closely related.

What is Specialty Coffee?

The term “specialty coffee” was first coined by Erna Knutsen in a speech to the delegates of an international coffee conference in France in 1978. The concept was simple: special geographic microclimates produce beans with unique flavour profiles. Fundamentally, specialty coffee beans should always be well prepared, freshly roasted, and properly brewed.

The Specialty Coffee Association continually to define specialty coffee through out 20+ years time. They constructed a comprehensive scoring system (cupping) to define specialty coffee.

But the core idea of specialty coffee is talking about the quality of the coffee beans itself.

Related article: 4 Reasons Why You Should Love Specialty Coffee

So what’s third wave coffee?

Whilst the term “Third Wave” is US-centric, it was coined by an industry expert, Trish Rothgeb. The term is to describe a changing approach to coffee.

There are “first wave” and “second wave”. Those are history. The “third wave” refers to the higher culinary appreciation of coffee and all that this entails: a focus on subtleties of flavour, provenance, and process. The two key ideas of third wave are “appreciating” and “quality of service”. 

Third Wave Coffee vs Specialty Coffee

As you can understand now from the definitions of the two terms, "specialty coffee" means the quality of the beans while “third wave” coffee means the way of appreciating and how a barista serve good quality coffee.

The third wave is an experience and specialty coffee is what we serve in that experience.

As Sebastián Villamizar, Client Relationship Manager of La Palma y El Tucán farm and coffee shop in Colombia told Perfect Daily Grind in an interview,

You can have a 86+ coffee (specialty coffee) and brew it perfectly, but if the consumer doesn’t understand what’s behind it...We need to have the tools and information to transmit it to others...”

Promise me, from now on, don’t mix the two concepts again. 

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Coffee Myth #2: Arabica = Specialty Coffee.

Again, these terms are often used at the same stage.

I am sure you can see it on a lot of the coffee packets advertising it is “100% Arabica”. You believe arabica is a sign of quality. And good coffee equals to specialty coffee, isn’t it?

Sorry, this is NOT true.

Coffee arabica is the name of the most widely grown coffee species in the world. All of the world’s highly graded coffee and those we classify as “specialty coffee” are of Arabica species. But just because 99.9% specialty coffee are Arabica species doesn’t necessarily mean the quality is guaranteed. There are far more commercial-grade Arabica than there is specialty.

So, please, Arabica is just a type of coffee varietals. it doesn’t mean it is specialty coffee.

forbidden #26 coffee myths

Coffee Myth #3: Specialty coffee is sour?

I would say this is the second most asked myth. You cannot imagine how many of these sour faces I have seen when my customers had their first cup of specialty coffee. And look at me saying “this is freaking sour!”.

From then on, you seed it in your mind: I don’t like it. It’s sour. I even see people asking on Reddit why third wave coffee are sour. Lol, it seems a real frustration.

I know and fully understand you have had bitter coffee your whole life thinking that is how coffee should taste. It’s ok, dear. You are just the specialty coffee virgin.

Now, it is the time to change your mind.

Coffee is acidic!

The first and one important thing you need to implant is: coffee itself is acidic.

There are 9 common acids you can find in brewed coffee which make you tongue tastes the acidity of the coffee. It is more than normal you taste these acids. Acidity is typically a highly valued quality in coffee. The higher altitudes and richer mineral volcanic soils the coffee grows, the higher acidity significantly found naturally in the bean.

Sourness vs Acidity

Imagine you are eating a strawberry or an orange, they are acidic but also sweet. You might describe them as sour but you would more likely to say they are sweet and fruity. Because sour is different, sour means it is extremely acidic that your taste buds want to avoid.

It is same in coffee. Coffee was a fruit - coffee cherry, before we proceed and make them the black drink in front of you.

A lot of the highly-graded coffee taste very fruity like cherries, lychee, peach…And in specialty coffee industry, we are more likely to do light roast to keep all these naturally beautiful flavours in the beans for you.

So, this builds your perception: specialty coffee are sour.

Related article: Why Cant't I Put Sugar In My Coffee? 

It Is Your Preference In The End

I don’t mean to be judgemental and force you to fall in love with the acidity in coffee. There are different taste preferences even among the industry. What I want you to do is try to be open to the possibilities of coffee.

Promise me, give it one more chance. Really taste and enjoy it, it is not just sour you can taste. 

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Specialty Coffee is complicated!

Specialty coffee and all its related topics are complex but that’s why it’s fun!

If you are a beginner, I hope I am giving you a bit of new insights and tell me what you think. If you are a coffee professional, leave me a comment and tell me what else coffee myths you know your customers are having!

Happy caffeinated, cheers!

Vanessa Lee

Founder of Forbidden Project since 2016. A Law & Bus degree graduate who chose to go into the coffee world. Passionate, stubborn and rebellious to traditional concepts. Recently working as a barista trainer. Active competitor in various coffee events.

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