Coffee Bean Classification – Grade

Coffee Bean Classification – Grade

Quality grades for green coffee

The bewitching scent of freshly roasted coffee beans has something contemplative about it. Strict quality control is required under comparable conditions so that the sensual pleasure is not clouded by impurities, rotten beans or inferior coffee. They identify the best beans, the aromas of which develop fully during roasting and which achieve the highest prices on the world market. You can find out more about coffee bean classification in our magazine.

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Two classification systems in competition

For coffee bean classification, two methods have become established at coffee trading venues that meet the different requirements of buyers, sellers and government inspectors. This is the classification standard of the SCAA, the Specialty Coffee Association of America, and the so-called Brazil / New York method.

While the SCAA method enables retailers to quickly compare different coffee beans, some important, not infrequently occurring defects are not taken into account with this method. A shopper wandering around sacks of coffee in search of perfect beans will quickly find the best deal using the SCAA method.

On the other hand, the Brazil / New York method represents a way of absolute classification of the sample.

As a coffee connoisseur, one likes to wonder which beans are the absolute spearhead. In the video, Asser Christensen, barista and founder of “The Coffee Chronicler” explains what, from his expert point of view, characterizes the highest quality beans.

Espresso beans

Five degrees of SCAA classification

So how do the coffee roasters decide which beans to roast in the roasting oven under careful control and constant circulation to make aromatic coffee? For this purpose, information on the variety, size, origin and the classification according to SCAA classification in five different grades are used.

  • Grade 1 – specialty coffee
  • Grade 2 – premium coffee
  • Grade 3 – commodity
  • Grade 4 – coffee below standard
  • Grade 5 – off-grade coffee

The SCAA classification involves drawing a 300 gram sample. The tester sticks the coffee sack with the sample spike and pulls the desired amount of coffee beans out of the inside for testing. The beans are then carefully examined.

Auditors make sure that the size is uniform so that the beans roast evenly later. A uniform color is an indicator of a uniform ripening process and of the smell that reveals unwanted fermentation.

Then he starts counting defects such as stones, branches, dried or broken beans or so-called quakers. If the sample contains fewer than five such defects, it is assigned grade 1 as the highest class, up to eight defects still grade 2 and between 9 and 23 defects grade 3.

Read more:

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Quaker, floater, peaberries – what checkers sort out

The scent of freshly roasted coffee beans is imprinted in our memory the first time we open a coffee package. Everything that stands in the way of this sensual experience was sorted out beforehand with considerable effort, by hand during harvest or mechanically during processing. How carefully the actors proceeded is attested by the inspectors with the coffee bean classification.

In doing so, they pay attention to Quaker, i.e. unripe beans that resist roasting and do not contribute to the aroma. Its wrinkled surface reveals it when it is dry and its ability to swim on the surface when it is wet. Coffee cherries with a kernel that is too small or empty hulls that were harvested without any aromatic kernel also swim as floaters.

If the core consists of only one complete core and not the usual two halves, the coffee experts speak of so-called peaberries. As with coffee beans that are too large, it is not possible to achieve a uniform degree of roasting of these weirdos together with other beans. To be able to enjoy the full coffee, they must be sorted out before roasting.

SCAA – the organization that set standards

The guidelines that the Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA) used to distinguish good coffee from bad coffee still apply today. The organization itself has now merged with the Specialty Coffee Association of Europe (SCAE) to form the Specialty Coffee Association (SCA). As the name suggests, the new organization continues to provide further training and information about coffee with the highest quality class, grade 1 specialty coffee.

For this purpose, producers, roasters, importers and exporters, mail-order companies, baristas and experts from the coffee industry joined forces in 1982 to form the SCAA. By setting quality standards, they ensured that coffee would become the delicacy that we enjoy today in coffee shops, restaurants or in our own homes.

Read more:

Barista training: how to become a professional coffee artist

The precise set of rules of the Brazil / New York method

Differentiating good coffee beans from bad ones was not enough for importers on the New York Futures Exchange. They wanted to record precise information on the quality and the defects that occurred in a delivery.

During this quality control, inspectors draw a 300 gram sample and count any foreign bodies such as stones, branches, shells or floaters. If less than 1% of these foreign bodies are in the sample, they comply with Brazilian law and the sample is allowed to go to the second stage.

Now sour, green, too large or too small and insect-eaten beans are sorted out individually, classified in a defect grid and counted. Each type of defect is assigned a number of beans that count as a “full defect” as a deficiency point. Depending on the type and number of defects, there is a point value that very precisely describes the condition of a coffee bean delivery.

Trust vs. control

The classification naturally raises some problems. On the one hand, dealers classify the goods that could offer a lower price if the valuation is low. Here, trust in the objectivity of the assessment plays a major role. On the other hand, the Brazil / New York method requires highly trained inspectors who are very familiar with the coffee beans. This is the only way to recognize all irregularities and whether they represent a reduction in quality for the entire sample.


The condition of the coffee beans becomes more important at the latest when they reach the customs station, when officials demand different taxes for untreated, decaffeinated and roasted coffee beans, as well as for extracts, essences or concentrates from them. At the moment, the import of untreated green coffee into the EU is duty-free, which is why European coffee roasters pay a lot of attention to the classification system.

Conclusion: coffee bean classification

A huge effort is made to ensure that no bad bean spoils the aroma of coffee in the morning. In America, coffee from the two highest grades, specialty coffee and premium coffee, flows into our cups almost exclusively.