The difference between artisanal and specialty coffee (they are not the same!)


Yes, they are not only the same, but in many cases specialty coffee and coffee roasted artisanally cannot even co-exist in the same space.

Although many people confuse these 2 ideas, and sometimes specialty coffee is called artisanally roasted, or artisanally brewed, etc, it is nothing less than a huge mistake, almost as close as drinking straight espresso in Starbucks (don’t do it… or do it, it is a pretty transcendental experience, openes your eyes very fast on what is good coffee, and brightens up your ideas).

So, let’s use the dictionary and look for an definition of what is “artisanal”. “Artisanal”, according to the Cambridge Dictionary, is “made in a traditional way by someone who is skilled with their hands”.

So, what don’t you like here, you can ask me. And I will readily answer. “Traditional Way”.

Specialty coffee involves a huge amount of more and more advanced technology. From cultivating to serving, at every stage, the necessities of specialty coffee challenge technological world, and people come up with more and devices that give producers, roasters, baristas more precision and control over how they treat coffee.

It is way far from the traditional way, when coffee was just collected, dried, roasted and consumed, with no further thought. Yes, by skilled hands of people who did that all their lives – but tradicional way implies the tradicion, no? Something that is done today they way it has been done for centuries and centuries.

Specialty coffee is not, and shouldn’t be artisanal. I just want to shout out loud about that. Specialty Coffee requires technology, skills, knowledge, progress – which has nothing to do with traditional way of things. Specialty Coffee now is about having more control over the process – and this is the most important thing I can point out. Artisanal means conserving the old ways, when specialty coffee is all about increasing the control and automatisation, stability, repeatability in general.

Old school lever espresso machines it is an artisanal way of making espresso, for example. It is beautiful, part of history, I have nothing but respect towards it – but to make a good espresso in it, and to make 100 more or less equally tasting espressos in row in it, let’s say from washed ethiopian beans – IMPOSSIBLE. Artisanal, yes. But doesn’t comply with where Specialty coffee is going anymore.

Same about roasting with wood. Traditional – yes, the techonology has been with us for centuries. Artisanal – yes, people who operate these machines have huge experience operating these machines. Specialty? Absolutely no. Why? Because you have almost no control over the roasting profile.

In the majority of the cases profile of roasting is even inexistent – you just have to trust the master and their craft, trust that when he says “it is ready, offload”, it is really ready. Which is humanly impossible, we are not the machines, to repeat the same profile with no valid data. Not even speaking about the fast that you have no valid manner to control the heat, and machines are super thermally unstable. Artisanal – hell yes, you can sell the coffee with the marketing “hand made”, “roasted on wood”. But if you are looking for specialty coffee, you’d better look in another place.

Same with the artisanal methods of processing the cherries, and many other things.

Specialty coffee goes along with the technology, requires more and more knowledge, it is more math and science multiplied by sensory skills, than a simple craft. It requires an open mind, constant learning, and an ability to quickly implement what you are finding out.  Specialty coffee is something that respects the artisanal dedication to the product, but treats it in dramatically different way.

Published by liza maksimova

Q Grader. Roast Master. SCAE certified.

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