Revised: February 27, 2008
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About Coffee: Fundamentals

Specialty vs. Commercial Coffees

The coffees I advise you to buy are known in the trade as specialty coffees. The opposite of specialty is commercial coffee. From the consumer's viewpoint, the most immediately noticeable difference between commercial and specialty coffees is packaging: Commercial coffee comes in little bottles of instant or is already ground and packed in a tin or a collapsed, plastic-encased brick. Specialty coffee comes as whole beans, either in one-pound bags or in bulk, and usually needs to be ground before it's brewed.

Commercial coffee is typically roasted and packed in large plants, under nationally advertised brand names. Specialty coffee is usually roasted in small stores or factories, using traditional methods and technology, and is often sold where it's roasted.

Specialty coffees offer considerably more choice than commercial coffees. You can buy coffee by the place where the bean originated (Kenya, Colombia), by roast (French roast or Italian roast), or by blend designed for the time of day, price, or flavor. Commercial coffees offer only a very limited selection of blend and roast, and little possibility of buying straight, unblended coffees.

Specialty coffees offer more opportunity for consumers to participate in the creation of their pleasure; commercial coffees are fait accompli in tins or bags.

More and more consumers are buying specialty coffees and fewer and fewer are buying commercial coffees.

The final, most important difference between commercial and specialty coffees is the way they taste and smell. The best commercial blended coffees are quite good. The worst are atrocious. The best specialty coffees, brewed freshly and correctly, are more than good; they are superb.

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