Your guide to buying, brewing and enjoying specialty coffee — even if you've yet to enjoy your first sip

From how to (simply) brew better beans at home, to demystifying the misto and more.

From how to (simply) brew better beans at home, to demystifying the misto and more

(Credit: iStock/Getty Images)

Welcome to the world of specialty coffee! As layered and nuanced as wine, and with the tasting notes to match, specialty coffee offers a veritable 'vintages' cellar of options to be explored. However, when buying a bag of specialty coffee or ordering a beverage at a coffee shop, the lingo can seem out of reach, overly complicated, even off putting. But, no more. This is your guide to becoming a specialty coffee pro, whether you brew at home or leave it to your local barista. Consider your coffee IQ advanced. 

First, what is specialty coffee? 

Specialty coffee is a 'wave' of the industry that refers to the entire process from farming to brewing beans. Specialty coffee importers  buy higher-quality beans, which, lucky for us, means better tasting coffee. These beans cost more, as the price more properly supports the production process, the coffee farm co-ops, the farmers and their families, essential to the production of coffee.

Where to buy a cup in Canada

There are an abundance of Canadian coffee roasters making waves in the specialty coffee world, and most ship countrywide (some with subscriptions, so you'll never run out). The ability to ship great coffee also means that those in smaller centres can enjoy specialty coffee at home. Independent cafés are another great place to buy specialty beans, with each one carrying the beans they love.  

Across Canada, notable coffee roasters include British Columbia's 49th Parallel and Lüna; Alberta's Phil and Sebastian and Monogram; Ontario's Pilot Coffee Roasters, Reunion Island and Sam James; and Quebec's St-Henri. These companies, along with many others now, make delicious, specialty coffee accessible daily for their in-store customers and the at-home brewer. 

Flat white vs. cappuccino — what's the difference? 

Confused about how to order? To the novice, the menu board at a coffee shop can be overwhelming to be sure. Stuck on whether to order a flat white or cappuccino? Flat whites are composed of an espresso shot and smooth, velvety steamed milk with no discernable foam (the milk is 'flat'). Cappuccinos at most specialty cafés are the same as flat whites (really!), but can have firmer, more porous foam if poorly made. Both drinks have less milk than a latté, which will have a milder coffee flavour. What's the specialty substitution for the iconic 'double double'? Order a 'misto' at your local café, which is brewed coffee and steamed milk. 

How to get the most out of specialty coffee beans at home

There are so many tasty ways to brew specialty coffee at home, and there will be no pods in sight! Pour over, Aeropress and Chemex methods are industry favourites, allowing greater control from beginning to end, but coffee machines are not out of the question. Brands like Bonavita make coffee professional-approved machines, allowing you to make a big batch at once. These brewers raise the water to the correct temperature and distribute it evenly, automatically, unlike the more manual-intensive methods mentioned before it. 

Geoff Woodley of IKAWA Coffee says "a scale, French press and burr grinder are all you need to start out." Woodley stressed the importance of the grinder, adding, "you can spend $150 on a burr grinder and $20 on a brewer, and get a better cup of coffee than if you were to spend $150 on a brewer and $20 on a grinder." A scale will help you mete out the proper quantity, a burr grinder will pulverise whole beans to a uniform size and can be adjusted to accommodate different brewing methods, whether French press or other. 

Now, how to select a bag of beans…?

First, let's dissect the lingo on those bags. Origin: This is the country the coffee was grown in. Farm name and/or producer: The farm where the beans have grown and the farm owner who runs production. Varietal: Like apples or wine grapes, coffee beans have varietals. Popular varietals you may see include Bourbon, Caturra and Catuai. Roasting date: The date when the coffee was roasted. Freshness is key, so drink coffee within 30 days of its roasting date. Roast profile: Most specialty coffee is roasted medium or light, except for espresso. Roast profile is less commonly seen on bags. 

Process, explained: Washed process is what most people think of when they think of coffee; it produces 'normal' coffee flavours. Washing means you are taking off the fruit and then using water to wash the seed  — which is the coffee bean! — before drying. Natural process is more 'wild' in flavour, often tasting like strawberry jam or sweet wine. Natural coffee is dried with the fruit still on the seed. Honey process is a combination of washed and natural methods, removing some but not all of the fruit, before washing and drying. Honey processed coffee therefore tastes like a mix between washed and natural methods.

And of course, bags of coffee beans will offer tasting notes, the flavours you can expect from the coffee once brewed, like chocolate, fruit, citrus, caramel, and nut. Tasting notes are created when the coffee is cupped (tasted) in a coffee lab by roasters, which is very different than how you would enjoy a cup, but similar to the slurp-and-spit method used by sommeliers when they taste wine.

Laura Perry from Lüna Coffee says, "the idea behind tasting notes is for a roaster to communicate what flavour to expect when you bring home a coffee to brew. Will it be more chocolatey or round with flavours that remind you of pastry? Or will it be more like having a cup of fruit juice in the morning (coffee is a fruit, after all)."  

The Specialty Coffee Association of America and World Coffee Research developed the Coffee Taster's Flavor Wheel to help coffee professionals discern tasting notes in a more accurate way. The listed tasting notes on a bag of coffee are a way for the consumer to choose a variety that appeals to them, without the encyclopedic knowledge specialty coffee roasters have. 

You'll see some typical coffee tasting notes again and again on bags of specialty coffee, like chocolate, nut, caramel, fruit, tropical fruit, jam, citrus, and berries. Sometimes flavours and sensations meet, with notes like tart, juicy, sweet and smooth. Thirsty yet?

If tasting notes feel a bit too out there, and you're looking for a coffee you can confidently and consistently turn to, try choosing your coffee based on its region — again, just like wine — for a flavour you can depend on.

Colombian coffee tasting notes: chocolate, nut, caramel, citrus, fruit, smooth

Brazilian coffee tasting notes: chocolate, cocoa

Costa Rican coffee tasting notes: smooth, orange, caramel, honey

Kenyan coffees tasting notes: berries, 'juicy,' winey, tart, sweet

Ethiopian coffee tasting notes: floral, fruit, black tea, berries, stone fruit

Sumatran coffee tasting notes: earthy, spicy, tobacco 

Of course, there are always exceptions to the above 'rules'. But whichever beans and brewing method you choose, with specialty coffee, a very good cup awaits you.  

Allison Day is the cookbook author of Modern Lunch. Find her online at and on Instagram @allisondaycooks


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