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The SCAA and Coffee Certifications

We recently lamented the fact that certifications for coffee had become so numerous -- and so lax -- to be practically meaningless. In theory, practically anyone can slap a badge on their product that certifies it as hand-crafted, lemur-friendly, chock full of extra antioxidants, or bursting with smugness and just watch the dollars roll in (okay, we're exaggerating, but not that much).

Specialty coffee has always been a fraction of the overall coffee market. Bigger brands like Eight O'Clock, Folgers, Maxwell House, and Green Mountain command the lion's share of coffee drinkers' dollars, and that's expected to be the case for the foreseeable future. However, if we look at the bigger picture, the market share for specialty coffees is growing steadily -- 20% per year, by one estimate -- and is closing in on 10% of total market share. The number of specialty coffee brands and independent coffee shops is expected to grow in tandem with that market growth. To top it off, those specialty direct trade, shade grown, ethically sourced, (fill in claim of choice) beans are touted as premium product, and often command premium prices to match.

So who decides what's "premium" or "specialty" product? Trade and advertising laws being what they are, we've already seen how easy it is for individual companies, or opaque industry consortiums, to invent their own loose criteria, or to hand out "certifications" for the right dollar amount. Fortunately, there are still a handful of standards that still mean something. One of these comes courtesy of the Specialty Coffee Association of America.

Founded in 1982, the SCAA existed before the Second Wave (the likes of Peets and Starbucks) were global businesses, and before the Third Wave was even a gleam in a barista's eye. What makes their certifications different and gives them worth is that they're earned, rather than purchased or invented. The SCAA offers certifications for baristas, roasters, coffee buyers, and coffee tasters; certificates for stewardship (instructors, labs and lab inspectors); and resources for learning and professional development, offered both online and locally. That's on top of events and symposia, competitions, and scads of other resources.

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The SCAA has expanded to more than 40 countries, and has earned the respect of the industry. One big reason for this is that the SCAA's standards and protocols are rigorous. They are also transparent, which is more unusual than it should be. Thankfully, not all certifications and organizations are useless. There are a handful of stalwarts out there doing the right thing. The Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center's Bird Friendly certification, for instance, is scientifically and ecologically sound. Claims of "specialty" or "craft" are applied just as haphazardly to coffee, especially as coffee that is, or is perceived to be, of higher quality commands ever-higher price tags. That's why when it comes to taste, and what constitutes specialty coffee, the SCAA's decades-long efforts to police and ensure quality are something for which we should all be thankful.

Learn More: Visit the SCAA here. Their site offers more information than we can possibly cover in a single blog post. The YouTube channel SCAA Symposium is also worth following for information on the cutting edge of the coffee industry. One example, Lindsey Bolger's presentation "A Sensory Lexicon: The Science of Flavor" is below.