Coffee Grades: How Are Coffee Beans Graded?

Coffee Grades

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Think you know your coffee? Well, it turns out there’s a whole complex grading system that separates the good stuff from the life-changing brews. From tiny defects to altitude accuracy, professional coffee graders have ways to distinguish beans bound for greatness.

In this article, we’ll go into detail on terms like ‘coffee grades’ and ‘sorting systems.’ So whether you’re a coffee enthusiast or just curious, get ready to discover how cherry-picking the best beans leads to premium flavor.

So, if you want to know more about the coffee grading system, I suggest you stick around. You’re going to learn a lot!

Let’s crack on!

The Basics of Coffee Bean Grading

Grading coffee beans is a system that classifies beans based on quality and size, ensuring that only the best make it into your cup.

Coffee grades explained – Below is a simple table that highlights specialty grade coffee:

1Specialty GradeHighest quality; minimal defects
2Premium GradeHigh quality; few defects
3Exchange GradeStandard quality; acceptable defects
4Standard GradeLower quality; noticeable defects
5Off GradeMost inferior quality; many defects

Specialty Coffee Grades: The Pinnacle of Quality

Let’s start at the top with Grade 1: Specialty Coffee. 

These beans are the crème de la crème, boasting flawless quality with little to no defects. Factors like acidity, aroma, and even the altitude where the beans are grown play a huge part here. 

Premium and Exchange Grade Coffee Beans: Grades 2 and 3

Moving down a notch, we have Grade 2 (Premium) and Grade 3 (Exchange Grade)

Grade 2 is still top-notch, but it’s a bit more lenient on defects. Grade 3 is your everyday, reliable coffee bean, often found in supermarkets. 

The trick here is in the screen size – think of it as a bean’s ticket to its grade. Bigger, more uniform beans usually get a higher ranking.

Standard and Off-Grade Coffee Beans: Grades 4 and 5

Lastly, Grades 4 and 5 are where we find our underdogs. 

These beans might not have the star quality of their higher-grade siblings, but they still have a role to play. Grade 4 beans have noticeable defects but can still make a decent cup. 

Grade 5, on the other hand, is the wildcard with many defects, often used in instant coffee. Even in these lower grades, there’s a fascinating story to tell about the journey from bean to cup.

size of the bean grading

What Are Coffee Defects? Defects Explained

Have you ever wondered what we mean by ‘defects’ in coffee beans? It’s not about being overly picky; these defects really matter. 

They are imperfections found in coffee beans, ranging from minor visual blemishes to more severe issues affecting taste. Defects like broken beans, insect damage, or mold can change the game in coffee flavor. 

They’re like little intruders that can sneak into a batch and potentially downgrade its quality.

  • Broken Beans: Just like a cracked egg, they can ruin the batch.
  • Insect Damage: Tiny critters can cause significant flavor issues.
  • Mold: A no-go for coffee, affecting both taste and safety.
  • Uneven Roasting: Results in a mix of over and undercooked beans.
  • Foreign Objects: Sometimes, non-coffee materials sneak in.

Understanding these defects helps us appreciate the meticulous care that goes into ensuring that only the best beans make it into our morning cup. It’s a bit of sorting, but it makes all the difference in your coffee experience.

Screen Size and Defects in Coffee Grading

Coffee grading is like a beauty pageant for beans. It’s not just about good looks; size and imperfections matter, too. 

Screen size is the sieve through which beans pass – the larger the bean, the higher its grade. But it’s not all about size; defects play a big role, too. 

For example, a bean with fewer blemishes has a better chance of being crowned with a higher grade.

Understanding Screen Sizing and Classification

Before being exported, coffee beans are sorted by size using screens with numbered holes. These numbers, ranging from 8 to 20, represent the hole sizes in 64ths of an inch. 

For instance, a size 18 screen has holes that are 18/64 inch wide. A coffee bean is classified by the largest screen it passes through but not the next smaller one. There’s a bit of leeway here; for example, the Specialty Coffee Association (SCAA) allows a 5-percent variance in size.

Interestingly, though, Arabica beans typically use even-numbered screens, while Robustas use odd-numbered. This means a batch of Arabica beans graded as size 18 might technically be 17/18. 

The screening process, although standardized in technique, varies in terminology globally. 

So, while you might hear “screen 17/18” in one place, local terms are used elsewhere, leading to a lack of standardization in coffee bean size descriptions.

coffee cupping cup quality

Coffee Cupping: Evaluating Aroma and Flavor

Cupping is where the magic happens in coffee grading. It’s like a taste-test marathon for coffee experts. They slurp and savor, seeking out the subtle notes and aromas that define a bean’s character. 

This process is crucial for grading specialty coffee beans. 

It’s not just about how the coffee looks; it’s about how it makes you feel with its smell and flavor. A great cupping score can catapult a coffee bean to the top grade.

Do you want to know more about coffee cupping? Make sure to read are in-depth guide: Coffee Cupping Guide For Beginners

Secondary Defects and Their Impact on The Coffee Bean Grade

In the world of coffee grading, not all defects are created equal. Secondary defects, while not as severe as primary ones, can still significantly influence a coffee bean’s grade. These defects range from minor blemishes to more severe issues like insect damage or small, underdeveloped beans.

Think of it like picking out produce at the market. You might overlook a small bruise on an apple, but you’d probably skip one that’s half-eaten by bugs. 

Similarly, while a few small beans in a batch might not be a deal-breaker, extensive insect damage can drastically lower a coffee’s grade, affecting its overall quality and flavor profile.

ethiopian coffee green coffee

The Grading System of Green Coffee

Green coffee beans are like hidden gems waiting to be discovered. In the coffee grading world, they hold a special place. Before these beans are roasted to perfection, they’re judged in their raw, green state. 

This is crucial because the quality and characteristics of green coffee greatly influence the final grade. 

Factors like bean size, color uniformity, and the presence of any defects are meticulously evaluated. This stage is essential in determining the potential of a coffee batch before they reach the coffee roaster.


As we’ve journeyed through the intricacies of the coffee bean grading system and various classifications, it’s clear that this process is more than just sorting beans – it’s an art. 

Understanding the different grades, from the exemplary specialty grade to the versatile exchange grade, reveals much about the journey of your beloved coffee. 

For you, the coffee enthusiast, this knowledge deepens your appreciation of every cup. It’s not just about taste; it’s about understanding the story and effort behind each bean. 

So next time you sip your coffee, remember the journey it’s been on – from a graded green bean to your cherished morning brew.


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