The idea of specialty coffee has been made popular since the Third Wave of Coffee. In general, this refers to a modern demand for exceptional quality coffee both farmed and brewed significantly higher than the average standard.
Coffee can broadly be defined as specialty, premium or commercial grade.
Commercial grade beans are the lowest grading with a cupping score of below 70. These beans are usually roasted and packed in large plants and used in instant coffee or canned coffee.
Premium grade beans are one level higher, with a cupping score ranging between 70 - 79. These beans are usually used in Second Wave coffee shops such as large chains like Starbucks.
Specialty coffee is the highest rating of all the gradings. Each coffee must be tasted by at least three certified Q Graders who are qualified to evaluate coffee objectively against set criteria. The score is out of 100, and if any defects such as under-ripe beans, insect damage etc are identified they will mark the coffee down. Specialty coffee must achieve at least 80 points out of 100 in order to be classified. Most specialty coffee are between 80 - 90 points. 90+ scored coffee are considered rare and usually very expensive.
Specialty coffee are generally roasted in small batches to maintain control over temperature, gas flow, airflow and drop time in order to get the very best flavor from a particular bean, then packed after 24 hours of resting, which allow most of the carbon dioxide to escape. Since the internal cellular structure of the coffee bean is blown open during roasting (e.g.: first crack and second crack), it creates thousands of tiny chambers filled with carbon dioxide, these gas continue to escape days after roasting, and that is why our freshly roasted coffee is always packed in bags with a one-way-valve that lets carbon dioxide escape as otherwise the bags might swell up with gas and explode. The one-way valve also prevents oxygen from entering the bag and degrading the coffee. That is also why pre-ground coffee sold in fully sealed bags at the grocery stores is most likely stale and far past its degassing period, as the beans were likely roasted well before the coffee was ground, packaged, and shipped to the store.
Specialty coffee is usually bagged with specific origin information to provide transparency and traceability for brewers to appreciate the unique characteristics of the origin.