Specialty coffees are sometimes called gourmet or premium because they represent the very best, produced from beans grown in ideal conditions.
The coffee plant, like the vine, is influenced considerably by its microclimate, i.e., the type of soil and its nutrient content, and the ground and air temperatures locally throughout the growing season.
Specialty coffees develop characteristic, and often unique, flavors depending on where in the world they are produced, the bean variety, and the roasting method used.
Certain characteristics are evident from beans grown in certain parts of the world. For example, coffees from Africa and Arabia vary in intensity but often have fruity or floral elements.
American coffees are mainly light to medium bodied with a clean finish and are consistent in balance, and hence used in outlets like Starbucks to create popular blends. On the other hand, coffees from Asia and the Pacific tend to be full-bodied, rich, dark, and earthy.
Two highly priced specialty coffees are Jamaica Blue Mountain, grown at a very high altitude and has an intense aroma and full flavor, and Cuba Torquino, slightly spicy with a long aftertaste.
Other names to look out for are India Monsoon Malabar, Swiss Water Java, Papua Sigri Estate, Kopi Luwak, and Columbia la Manuela Supremo – exotic names with exotic flavors.
Coffee can also vary in taste quite considerably depending on how it is prepared. For example, how fine the beans are ground and how the essence is extracted can affect the result.
This leads to many different coffees with individual personalities served in various coffee houses and restaurants worldwide. Turkish coffee, for example, is derived from Arabica beans and ground very fine. It sometimes has added spice and cardamom, and is thick, sweet, and intense.
The Italians have a way with coffee – in fact, they have several forms.
The Italians are believed to have invented the first machines to extract the best from coffee beans by using steam under pressure. Modern espresso machines can deliver coffee of varying types with the addition of a foaming facility.
Coffee produced by live steam extraction is known as espresso and is solid and full of flavor. The brew is controlled by a machine to take the optimum time and deliver the best result. The espresso is superb after dinner coffee and serves as the basis for several variations.
A popular one is a cappuccino, which has a frothy milk topping flavored with cocoa powder and finished off with a sprinkle of cocoa powder or grated, dark chocolate.
A cafe latte is similar but is usually milkier and less foamy.
The cafe mocha has several variations but is usually served as a latte or cappuccino with chocolate syrup or hot cocoa.
An Americano is diluted with a bit of hot water after brewing.
The macchiato is an espresso with an added dollop of foam over it.
Espresso coffee can also be served cold as a cafe Fredo, iced cappuccino, or espresso granita.
The really adult version of the espresso is the correto (“corrected”), with an added shot of spirit, usually grappa or brandy.
Coffee is also sometimes served with added liqueur, usually in a special glass, and often with whipped cream and sugar. The added spirit might be Scotch or Irish whisky, brandy, Grand Marnier, Amaretto, schnapps, Tia Maria, rum, Cointreau, or almost any other you can think of, depending where you are in the world.
In Corfu, for example, you might be offered a Koum Quat coffee, which is Greek coffee with added orange liqueur. The Greeks are also fond of iced coffee but usually use only instant coffee in their caféfrappe, possibly because it is less trouble to make!
Another specialty coffee category is flavored coffee, presumably for people who have bored the range of natural coffee varieties. You can get coffee blended with fruit flavors such as raspberry, peach, orange, and apricot and other rare and exotic combinations like rose, vanilla, chocolate, praline, and banana nut.
The enjoyment of specialty coffee is like the appreciation of fine wine – not immediately apparent to everyone.
For those who take the trouble to seek out and try the varieties of specialty coffee, though, there is a world of extraordinary enjoyment to explore.