Coffee Bean Grading And Classification: What You Need To Know

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When it comes to coffee, the quality of the beans makes all the difference.

Coffee bean grading ensures that every cup delivers the best possible flavor and aroma.

This process sorts and classifies beans based on their quality, helping consumers and suppliers make informed choices.

In this blog post, we will explore how coffee beans are graded and why this matters.

What is Coffee Bean Grading?

Coffee bean grading is the process of evaluating and categorizing coffee beans based on various quality factors.

These factors include size, weight, defects, and overall cup quality.

The primary goal is to ensure consistency and quality in every batch of coffee.

Grading is essential because it helps suppliers and consumers understand the quality of the beans they are dealing with.

For consumers, knowing the grade of coffee beans can enhance their coffee-drinking experience by ensuring they get the flavor and quality they expect.

The SCA Coffee Beans Classification System

Overview of the SCA System

The Specialty Coffee Association (SCA) plays a significant role in coffee grading.

The SCA has established a widely accepted classification system that sets the standards for coffee quality.

This system helps maintain consistency and reliability in the coffee industry.

The SCA classification system evaluates coffee beans based on three main criteria: defects, cup quality, and size.


Defects in coffee beans are unwanted characteristics that can affect the overall quality of the coffee.

The SCA classifies defects into two categories: primary and secondary.

Primary defects, such as large stones or unripe beans, significantly impact the coffee’s quality.

Secondary defects, like shells, have a lesser impact but are still considered during grading.

The fewer defects a batch has, the higher its grade.

Cup Quality

Cup quality refers to the taste, aroma, and overall experience of drinking the coffee.

The SCA uses a cupping process to evaluate these attributes.

During cupping, trained professionals taste the coffee and score it based on its flavor, acidity, body, and aroma.

High-scoring coffees are classified as specialty grade, indicating superior quality and distinct flavor profiles.


The size of coffee beans is another important factor in grading.

Beans are sorted using screens with different-sized holes.

Larger beans generally indicate higher quality and command higher prices.

Uniform bean size is crucial for even roasting, which in turn affects the flavor and consistency of the coffee.

Coffee Bean Grades Explained

Grade 1: Specialty Coffee Beans

Grade 1, or Specialty Coffee Beans, represents the highest quality in the coffee grading system.

These beans must have no primary defects. This means there are no large stones, unripe beans, or shells in the batch.

Specialty Coffee Beans are also free of Quakers, which are unripe or poorly roasted beans.

The taste of these beans is what sets them apart. They have distinct attributes in their flavor, acidity, body, or aroma.

This distinction makes them stand out in the coffee world. High scores in cupping sessions are another hallmark of Grade 1 beans.

These sessions evaluate the flavor, aroma, and overall quality of the coffee.

Common examples of specialty coffee include single-origin beans from renowned coffee-growing regions.

These beans are often used in high-end cafes and by coffee enthusiasts who appreciate superior quality.

Specialty Coffee Beans are ideal for those who want a unique and exceptional coffee experience.

Grade 2: Premium Coffee Beans

Grade 2, known as Premium Coffee Beans, is a step below the highest quality but still offers excellent coffee.

These beans can have up to six defective qualities. While they are not as perfect as Grade 1 beans, they still maintain high standards.

Despite the slight imperfections, Premium Coffee Beans deliver a great coffee experience.

They share many characteristics with specialty beans, such as good flavor and aroma.

However, they might have minor defects like slight discoloration or minor physical flaws.

These beans are commonly used in quality cafes and restaurants.

They are also popular among home brewers who want a high-quality coffee without the premium price tag.

Premium Coffee Beans offer a balanced blend of quality and affordability, making them a favorite for many coffee lovers.

Grade 3: Exchange Coffee Beans

Grade 3, or Exchange Coffee Beans, have 9 to 23 full defects.

These defects can include broken beans, discoloration, and minor insect damage.

While these beans are of lower quality than Grade 1 and Grade 2, they are still widely used.

You often find Exchange Coffee Beans in supermarkets.

They are commonly used in commercial coffee blends. These beans are affordable and accessible, making them popular for everyday coffee drinkers.

Despite the defects, they can still produce a decent cup of coffee, especially when blended with higher-grade beans.

Grade 4: Standard Coffee Beans

Grade 4, known as Standard Coffee Beans, contain 24 to 86 full defects.

These defects can significantly affect the taste and quality of the coffee.

Common defects include black beans, broken beans, and moldy beans.

Standard Coffee Beans are often used in blends and instant coffee.

The defects in these beans make them less desirable for high-quality coffee, but they are still useful in products where the coffee flavor is less critical.

These beans provide a cost-effective option for large-scale coffee production.

Grade 5: Off-Grade Coffee Beans

Grade 5, known as Off-Grade Coffee Beans, have more than 86 defects.

These beans are of the lowest quality in the grading system.

Defects in this category include severe discoloration, broken beans, and significant mold.

Due to their poor quality, Off-Grade Coffee Beans are not suitable for regular consumption.

Instead, they are often used for non-food purposes, such as in the production of coffee by-products.

These beans may also be used in some industrial processes where the coffee flavor is not important.

Factors Influencing Coffee Bean Grades

Defects in Coffee Beans

We covered this briefly earlier but as you know, defects in coffee beans are a major factor in grading.

Common defects include large stones, unripe beans, and shells.

These imperfections can significantly impact the coffee’s quality and taste.

For example, large stones can damage equipment, while unripe beans can cause sour flavors.

The more defects present, the lower the grade of the beans.

Altitude and Region

Altitude plays a crucial role in coffee bean quality.

Beans grown at higher altitudes are typically denser and have a more complex flavor profile.

This is because the cooler temperatures at high altitudes slow the maturation process, allowing the beans to develop richer flavors.

Additionally, the growing region influences bean characteristics, with different regions producing distinct flavor notes due to variations in climate, soil, and cultivation methods.

Preparation and Processing Methods

Proper processing is essential to maintain coffee bean quality.

Various methods, such as wet processing and dry processing, can affect the final taste of the coffee.

Wet processing tends to produce cleaner and brighter flavors, while dry processing can result in a fuller body and more intense flavors.

The choice of processing method can enhance or diminish the inherent qualities of the coffee beans, making it a critical step in the production of high-quality coffee.

The Grading Process

Visual Inspection

Visual inspection is the first step in grading coffee beans. Inspectors carefully examine the beans for defects.

Common defects identified during this process include large stones, unripe beans, and shells.

Each defect type is noted, as they impact the overall quality and grade of the beans.

Screening and Sorting

After visual inspection, beans are screened and sorted by size. This involves passing the beans through screens with different-sized holes.

Uniform bean size is crucial for consistent roasting.

Evenly sized beans roast more uniformly, which is essential for achieving the desired flavor and quality.


Cupping is a critical part of the grading process. It involves tasting the coffee to evaluate its quality.

Key attributes assessed during cupping include flavor, aroma, acidity, and body.

Professionals use a standardized process to ensure consistency and accuracy in their evaluations.

Cupping helps determine the overall cup quality, which is a significant factor in the final grade of the beans.

The Importance of Coffee Grading

For Suppliers and Distributors

Grading is crucial for maintaining consistency and quality in the coffee supply chain.

It helps suppliers and distributors ensure that they are providing a reliable product.

By adhering to grading standards, they can meet customer expectations and build trust.

Additionally, grading plays a significant role in pricing and marketing.

Higher-grade beans can command premium prices, while lower grades may be marketed for different uses, such as in blends or instant coffee.

For Consumers

Understanding coffee grades benefits consumers by enabling them to make informed purchases.

Knowing the grade of coffee helps consumers identify the quality and potential flavor profile of the beans they are buying.

This information can enhance the coffee-drinking experience, allowing consumers to select beans that match their preferences and expectations.

Whether they seek a high-quality specialty coffee or a more affordable option, grading information provides valuable guidance.

Challenges in Coffee Grading

Consistency in Evaluation

One of the major challenges in coffee grading is maintaining consistency. Each grader may have slight variations in their assessment.

To address this, graders often undergo extensive training and use standardized protocols to minimize discrepancies.

Subjectivity in Tasting

Cupping, the process of tasting coffee, can be subjective. Different tasters might perceive flavors differently.

To reduce this variability, cupping is usually performed by multiple experts, and consensus is used to determine the final grade.

Environmental Factors

Environmental factors like humidity and temperature can affect coffee quality during grading.

Controlled environments are used to ensure that these factors do not influence the grading process.

Identifying Defects

Detecting and categorizing defects accurately is crucial. Some defects are small and hard to spot.

High-quality equipment and experienced graders are essential for precise defect identification.

Adapting to Varietal Differences

Different coffee varieties can exhibit unique characteristics.

Graders need to be knowledgeable about these differences to accurately assess quality.

Continuous education and exposure to various coffee types help in addressing this challenge.

Innovations in Coffee Grading

Innovations in coffee grading are enhancing accuracy and efficiency.

Advanced imaging technology now aids in the precise identification of defects that were once difficult to spot manually.

Automated sorting machines use optical sensors to categorize beans by size and color with greater speed and consistency.

Additionally, software applications are being developed to assist graders in recording and analyzing data more systematically, reducing human error.

These technologies not only streamline the grading process but also help maintain high standards of coffee quality, benefiting both producers and consumers.


Coffee grading is essential for determining the quality and consistency of coffee beans.

It impacts the flavor and overall experience for both suppliers and consumers.

By understanding the grades, you can make better-informed choices when purchasing coffee.

Explore different coffee grades to experience the variety in quality.

Try high-grade coffee for a superior taste experience.

Thanks for reading!


What are AAA grade coffee beans?

AAA grade coffee beans refer to the highest quality Arabica beans, typically larger and more uniform in size.

They have minimal defects and superior flavor profiles, often sourced from specific regions known for producing exceptional coffee.

What is the strongest grade of coffee?

Grade 1 (Specialty Coffee Beans) often provides the most intense and complex flavors due to its high quality.

What is the lowest grade of coffee?

The lowest grade of coffee is Grade 5, also known as Off-Grade Coffee Beans.

These beans have more than 86 defects and are usually not used for direct consumption but for non-food purposes.

What is C grade coffee?

C grade coffee typically falls between lower commercial grades.

It may have more defects and inconsistencies in flavor and quality compared to higher grades.

These beans are often used in instant coffee or blended with higher grades to mask their defects.

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Jacob Harris

Jacob is a coffee enthusiast who turned his passion into a career. As the owner and editor of Karma Coffee Cafe, he shares his extensive knowledge and recommendations, captivating fellow coffee lovers.

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