Introduction : A Distinction Blurred

Admittedly, the once-clear distinction between specialty and commercial grade coffee has become a bit fuzzy. Because more and more consumers are buying specialty coffees and fewer and fewer are buying commercial coffees, commercial coffee companies have been attempting to co-opt the specialty market with a variety of compromise products, ranging from listless canned "French roasts" to decent whole bean coffees sold under the private label of the supermarket chain.

Meanwhile, some large specialty roasters have invaded the commercial market with cans and two-ounce, single-serving bags of pre-ground coffee. These products are usually superior to the corresponding commercial products because of the specialty roasters’ tradition of quality and smaller scale of operation, but they still are a compromise product, and do not represent the absolute best in specialty coffee roasting. The same can be said for Starbucks’ foray onto the supermarket shelves: Better than cans, but inferior even to the whole bean coffees sold in Starbucks’ own retail outlets.

In the larger picture, however, the essential distinction between commercial and specialty coffees remains. The best commercial blended coffees are decent. The worst are atrocious. The best specialty coffees, bought fresh and brewed correctly, are more than good; they are superb, and superb in a variety of ways.