Specialty coffee vs commercial coffee. The biggest differences

specialty coffee

Photo credit: The Coffee Quest

You've probably heard of specialty coffee and commercial or commodity coffee. But what are the differences between these two types of coffee?

Let's start with commercial or commodity coffee. This is the coffee you often see in the supermarket, in large bags and for a low price. This coffee is often made from robusta beans and is widely produced and traded. It's a great choice if you just want to brew a quick cup of coffee, but if you're looking for a special coffee experience, commodity coffee may not be the best choice.

And then we have specialty coffee . This is coffee of the highest quality, made from arabica beans that have been grown, harvested and roasted with the utmost care. The beans are often grown in small quantities in specific locations, making each coffee bean unique. Specialty coffee is often made and sold by independent roasters and is considered pure craftsmanship.

Did you know that every coffee roaster has its own style of roasting and can therefore create its own unique flavor profile?

The difference between commodity and specialty coffee mainly lies in the quality of the coffee and therefore the price. In addition, the ethics of the traded coffee plays a major role.

Below I explain how the price of commercial coffee is determined, vs how the price of specialty coffee is determined. The rise of specialty coffee and how the different coffees are traded. And are certifications still a thing? Or an outdated concept for a long time? Let's figure it out.

Commercial coffee and the c price

Commercial coffee, also known as commodity coffee, is traded on the exchange using the c-price, the global benchmark for coffee prices. The c-price is determined by supply and demand and has a major influence on the income of coffee farmers.

Unfortunately, the c-price is often too low to provide coffee farmers with a decent income, forcing them to work under poor conditions and resulting in a low-quality coffee.

This has negative consequences not only for farmers, but also for the environment and biodiversity. As a result, the focus is often on quantity rather than quality, which can lead to monocultures and the use of pesticides and fertilizers.

In addition, the fact that the c-price is based on supply and demand means that the price is volatile and can fluctuate widely. This leads to uncertainty for coffee farmers and can strongly affect their income.

It is therefore important that alternatives are found. I have already explained to you in another article what Fairtrade and direct trade entail and why this is crucial for the coffee trade. By switching to these alternatives, we can contribute to a more sustainable future for the coffee industry and the people involved.

But luckily we have specialty coffee, which is on the rise.

The emergence of specialty coffee

Specialty coffee is a term used to describe exceptional quality coffee that is grown and produced with attention to every detail of the process, from harvesting to roasting and serving. The concept of specialty coffee has grown in popularity over the past few decades, spawning a culture of coffee geeks looking for the best cup of coffee available.

One of the main reasons for the rise of specialty coffee is the increasing demand for a high-quality, personalized coffee experience. Many people are no longer satisfied with the standard coffee available in the supermarket and are willing to pay more for a higher quality coffee.

Read also: What is the difference between coffee from the supermarket and specialty coffee?

With the growing popularity of specialty coffee shops and cafes, consumers now have access to a wide variety of coffee varieties from different regions, roasted by passionate coffee roasters.

Specialty coffee also has a strong focus on sustainability and transparency in the supply chain. Consumers want to know where their coffee comes from and whether it has been produced in an ethical and environmentally friendly way. This has led to a growing number of coffee producers focusing on sustainable agricultural practices and creating fair trade relationships with farmers.

Overall, specialty coffee has revolutionized coffee culture, empowering consumers to enjoy exceptional quality coffee while contributing to a sustainable and transparent coffee industry.

specialty coffee

specialty coffee vs. Commercial coffee the differences

So we now know how the price of commercial coffee is determined and that this actually means an uncertain and unsustainable situation for coffee farmers. But luckily we have specialty coffee that is still gaining popularity every day, but what is the difference in quality? And how is the price calculated? And can this price be justified? Read on quick.


The main difference between specialty coffee and commodity coffee is the quality. Commodity coffee usually comes from large plantations and is often grown using aggressive farming practices to produce as much coffee as possible at a low cost.

The coffee beans are often massively roasted and packaged to be sold to supermarkets and wholesalers. This coffee is usually of medium quality and often has few taste and aroma properties.

On the other hand, specialty coffee is often grown on smaller farms with more focus on growing and harvesting the beans. The farmers focus on producing coffee of the highest quality, paying close attention to the quality of the soil, the height of the coffee plants, the way the coffee is harvested and processed.

Specialty coffee has a complex and rich taste and aromas, with notes of fruit, chocolate and nuts, depending on the region and type of coffee. The coffee is usually roasted to order and packaged fresh to preserve its flavour.

In short, commodity coffee is often produced with profit as the main goal, while specialty coffee is all about creating an exceptional coffee experience. You can clearly taste the difference in quality between the two, and it's no surprise that more and more consumers are turning to buying and enjoying specialty coffee.

Compensation and price

Another important difference between specialty coffee and commodity coffee is the price. Because specialty coffee is higher quality and often produced using more sustainable and labour-intensive methods, it is generally more expensive than commodity coffee.

Consumers looking for the best quality coffee are willing to pay more for specialty coffee, while others prefer the lower price of commodity coffee. Because specialty coffee production requires more attention and care, the price of this coffee tends to be higher, but for many coffee aficionados, the higher price is well worth it.


Another important difference between specialty coffee and commodity coffee is the ethics of production. Specialty coffee often has a strong focus on sustainability and transparency in the supply chain, with producers focusing on sustainable agricultural practices and fair trade relationships with the coffee farmers.

This leads to a higher standard of living for farmers and workers and a more ecologically responsible production. On the other hand, commodity coffee often comes from large plantations where workers sometimes work under poor conditions and are paid little.

This mass production can also have negative effects on the environment, increasing the pressure to opt for sustainable and ethical production processes.

How is the coffee traded

As indicated at the beginning of this article, commercial coffee is traded on the market under the so-called C-price. On the other hand, specialty coffee is traded outside this commodity market and the price is not considered, but the quality of the coffee, the flavor profile and the number of SCA points that this coffee scores.

All these factors ultimately influence the price that the coffee farmer receives for his coffee. In all cases, this is much more than the c-prise, which means that these coffee farmers are always better off to trade in this way.

This more ethical form of buying coffee can be divided into three types of 'trade'. Below I will therefore explain what direct trade is, Fairtrade is and trade based on relationship.

Direct trade coffee

Direct Trade coffee is a term used for coffee that is purchased directly from the farmer or cooperative. This is an alternative to Fair Trade, where the farmers are members of a cooperative and a minimum price is guaranteed.

With Direct Trade, the buyer has direct contact with the farmer, resulting in a better price for the coffee bean and a more personal relationship between the farmer and the buyer. This creates more transparency in the supply chain and encourages farmers to produce even better quality coffee.

Direct Trade is especially popular with specialty coffee roasters who focus on sustainability and transparency in the supply chain.

Fair trade coffee

Fairtrade coffee is a type of coffee certified by the Fairtrade organization, and stands for fair trade practices and social responsibility in the supply chain.

The Fairtrade organization works with coffee farmers and cooperatives in developing countries to help them get a fair price for their products and to support them in improving their production processes and the quality of their coffee.

Fairtrade coffee has a minimum price that provides farmers with a stable income and works to promote sustainable agricultural practices and the protection of labor rights and the environment.

Buying Fairtrade coffee is a way for consumers to contribute to a more equitable and sustainable coffee production.

Trade based on relationship

An even deeper form of direct trade is trade based on a relationship that you enter into with a coffee farmer. For example, you agree that you will receive the coffee from the farmer every year if it continues to meet the quality that you have agreed together.

In such relationships, the farmers are often given the opportunity to further experiment with processing processes and types of fermentation of the coffee beans. For example, more and more exciting and complex coffees are coming onto the market.

The more special the coffee, the better the price for the farmer. On the other hand, it is of course great for the roaster to have unique coffees in their range that only they can offer.


Certificates coffee

In coffee trade and production, certificates play an important role in promoting sustainability and ethical practices. There are several certification bodies that oversee coffee production and supply chain, such as Rainforest Alliance, UTZ Certified, Organic, Fairtrade, and Direct Trade.

These certifications guarantee that the coffee has been produced in a sustainable way, that environmental and labor conditions have been taken into account, and that fair trade practices have been applied.

The choice of a particular certificate depends on the values ​​and objectives of the coffee roasters and producers. Many specialty coffee roasters choose direct trade or specialty certifications to emphasize their commitment to transparency and quality in the supply chain.

The use of certificates can ensure more ethical, sustainable and transparent coffee production, and can contribute to a better standard of living for farmers and employees in the coffee industry.

But precisely when you have a direct trading relationship with your producers and you can demonstrate transparently how the coffee was grown and what price the farmer received for the coffee, these certificates become superfluous.

Organic, or UTZ, for example, says nothing about the quality of the coffee. Moreover, all links in the chain have to pay for these certificates, which in some cases is impossible for small producers.

So are certificates still relevant today? In my opinion you do not need this due to fair and transparent trade. In any case, I will explain below what the most common coffee certificates mean and what they stand for.

fair trade

The Fairtrade certificate is a guarantee of fair trade practices and social responsibility in the coffee industry. It ensures a minimum price for coffee beans and encourages sustainable agricultural practices and protection of labor rights and the environment. It helps coffee farmers and cooperatives in developing countries to earn a stable income and to improve their production processes. Buying Fairtrade coffee contributes to a more equitable and sustainable coffee production and supports farmers and employees in the coffee industry.


The Organic certificate is a guarantee for the organic cultivation of coffee beans without the use of harmful chemicals and pesticides. It ensures a sustainable agricultural practice that takes into account the environment, biodiversity and consumer health.

It takes into account the ecological footprint and promotes the conservation of natural resources. Buying Organic coffee contributes to a more sustainable and healthy coffee production and supports organic farming.

Rainforest alliance

The Rainforest Alliance certificate is a guarantee for sustainable coffee production that takes environmental and social aspects into account. It ensures minimal impact on the environment and protection of biodiversity.

It supports farmers and communities in developing countries to improve their production and improve their livelihoods. Purchasing Rainforest Alliance coffee contributes to more sustainable and ethical coffee production and supports farmers and workers in the coffee industry.

Advice for you as a consumer

As an end consumer, you are actually the most important link in the coffee chain. Your buying behavior influences all previous processes. The next time you stand with a pack of coffee in your hand, don't stare blindly at all the certificates listed on it. This does not always say anything about the living conditions of the coffee farmers and certainly not about the quality. Unfortunately, certificates are often also seen as a quality mark, which is not justified in practice.

If you really want to make an impact with your purchasing behavior, you should actually stop buying coffee in the supermarket at all. At least not yet. I expect that specialty coffees will also be sold in supermarkets within a considerable period of time.

Go for taste and quality. It is possible that you end up with specialty coffee. Because specialty coffee roasters emphasize quality and better living conditions for the coffee farmers, you always create a win-win situation.

You get the very best quality and therefore much more value for money. Even though specialty coffee is often a bit more expensive than commercial coffee. On the other hand, with your buying behavior you help improve the lives of the coffee producers and their families. It's not difficult at all. It's super easy

After reading this article, are you ready for freshly roasted coffee beans with unique stories? We got you!