A couple of weeks ago, I was catching up with a friend of mine whom I haven’t seen for quite some time. We were discussing the vision that I had for Otaku Coffee Lab and hours into our conversation, my friend asked me a question that was so simple and yet so complex at the same time. She asked…


“What is Specialty Coffee? I mean, I know what coffee is. I love coffee and I drink coffee every day, but what exactly puts the special in Specialty Coffee?”


This question stuck with me because having jumped into the deep end of the coffee pool, I didn’t realize the obvious, which is that most people don’t know what Specialty Coffee is! One of our goals at Otaku Coffee Lab is to make coffee knowledge accessible, easy to digest, and fun to learn, and so it only makes sense for us to start our learning and exploration at the very heart of the coffee conversation by addressing… 


“What is Specialty Coffee?”


To begin answering this question, we need to start by asking ourselves where the name “Specialty Coffee” even comes from and in order to do that, we need to meet…


Erna Knutsen - The Queen of Specialty Coffee

This is an image of Erna Knutsen The Queen of Specialty Coffee

The year is 1968

Erna Knutsen is working as a secretary at B.C. Ireland, a coffee brokerage in San Francisco. The term “secretary” was really just a label as her skills went far beyond the definition of secretary. One of Erna’s main responsibilities was to maintain a positioning book that tracked all the coffee movements that come and go at the coffee brokerage. Back then, coffee traders in B.C. Ireland sold their coffees by shipping containers, so they were not interested in selling coffees by individual bags. 

Erna saw that there was an opportunity to sell these smaller quantities of coffee to smaller roasters. Unfortunately given the times, men didn’t see women on the same level, and because Erna was a woman she wasn’t allowed into the cupping room (taste testing room) to try out coffees with her male co-workers. Literally she couldn’t sit at the same table.

An opportunity finally came when a container of Sumatra Mandheling coffee had arrived. Erna was curious to taste the coffee, so she asked the guys who roasted the coffee to brew her a cup as well. It was one of the best coffees that she had ever tasted in her life, so she decided that it was finally time to test out her theory on selling to smaller roasters. She asked her boss if she could be given the opportunity to sell a container on her own and to everyone’s surprise, the entire container sold out in one month.

This is a photo of Erna Knutsen when she became successful selling specialty coffee

A few years later, Erna finally got permission to sit in the cupping room and at this point her reputation among all the small roasters had grown exponentially. In 1974, the Tea & Coffee Trade Journal interviewed her and it was during this interview that she famously coined the term “specialty coffee” to refer to the high quality premium coffees that she sold.

The term “specialty coffee” stuck with the community and Erna became the leader of a new movement. She recognized that smaller coffee roasters were willing to pay more for premium quality coffees because their customers demanded something more than just the mediocre taste of instant coffee. To reciprocate her efforts and push forth with the “specialty coffee” movement, Erna supported the founding of a new coffee association among her small roasters and the one thing that everyone agreed on was that they would all use the word “specialty” as part of their name. 


Thus a new kind of coffee roaster was born. The “Specialty Coffee Roaster”.


Through her efforts and the efforts of Specialty Coffee Roasters, coffee around the world slowly inched forward towards a higher level of standards. This movement in turn also helped coffee drinkers develop a more sophisticated palate for the coffee they consume thus solidifying this new standard of coffee known as…


Specialty Coffee: A premium coffee that emphasizes high quality standards every step of the way from farm to cup.


So now you know what Specialty Coffee is! Next time, let’s explore how coffee is graded to actually be ranked as Specialty Coffee!