Coffee Bean Grades: The Ultimate Guide

The Best Answer:

There are three commercial grades for coffee: commodity, premium, and specialty. To classify the coffee beans under one of these three grades, they need to be evaluated by Q Graders based on their size, color, and several defects. You will be able to recognize which category your coffee beans fall under by the coffee bag label or by simply asking your local barista!

Coffee is one of the most widely consumed beverages in the world. Whether for enjoyment or to help with that early morning caffeine rush, coffee beans are an integral part of our lives. But how do you know which type of beans to buy? What grade should they be?

Here’s everything you need to know about coffee bean grades! The post will provide information about what different types of coffees there are and their corresponding grades. It will also give some recommendations on how to choose high-quality coffee beans.

What are Coffee Bean Grades?

Coffee Bean Grades

Did you know that there are different grades of coffee beans? Are you not sure which grade is suitable for your taste in coffee? Don’t worry! This blog post will help you understand what the different grades mean and how they affect flavor.

The first step is understanding the coffee bean grades.

After the coffee beans have been harvested and processed, they go through quality control to inspect for any problems with the beans. The first way they check them is by separating and grading them on size and color. This is how it’s done:

Green coffee beans are first graded on size and their degree of defects (if any). However, there is no official grading system for green coffee beans, so we will only describe how it works in practice as this may help you as a consumer better understand what kind of coffees you buy.

Size Grading

This step determines whether the green coffee bean will be classified as extra-large (XL), large (L), regular (R), or small/mini (S):

Extra Large: over 60 percent screen 15/16mm 

Large: 50 – 60 percent screen 14.4mm

Regular: less than 40 percent screen 12.5mm

Small/Mini less than 30 percent screen 11.0mm

The size grade may be followed by a letter that refers to the general appearance of the sample:

AA is for beans that are free from all defects

B means bent

C means cracked

D means defective

E means erratic (i.e., visibly different in shape)

F means faulty L1 is off-grade but has only slight discoloration

L2 indicates significant discoloration.

Defects Grading

This next step determines whether the bean is free from defects or has some. The type of defect will decide how it is labeled, as follows:

AA means absolutely no defects

A means one unsound seed

B means 2 – 5 unsound seeds

C means 6 – 15 unsound seeds

D means 16 – 35 unsound seeds

E means 36 – 65 unsound seeds

F means 66+ unsound seeds

For example, an L-2/D-8 would indicate that the green coffee has a low density and is very dense, with 8 being the highest degree of darkness, plus there are only 8 to 15 defective beans. Defects may also be graded on length, width, and depth.

Commercial Grades of Coffee Beans

Coffee Bean Grades

The commercial grades of coffee beans that can be sold are:

  • commodity
  • premium
  • specialty

Let’s break them down a little bit further.

Commodity coffee beans are the cheapest and most plentiful. They’re usually grown on large farms in mass quantities. These coffees will have plenty of defects and often one or more off-flavors common to lower-quality coffees.

Premium coffee beans are the next step up from commodity-grade beans. In general, they will be free of off-flavors but may have slight defects such as broken beans or stones that pass through the processing system. These coffees are typically not certified organic. They are sometimes offered as “shade-grown” or sun-grown instead since they’re produced in smaller quantities than larger farms grow for commodity standards.

Specialty coffee beans are the top of the line. They’re usually produced in small quantities, such as on a single farm or by a cooperative group of farmers. These coffees will be free of defects and have very subtle flavors that distinguish them from other coffees. Usually, these coffees are certified organic, and some may even carry fair-trade certification as well for those extra “green” points.

The Q Graders

q grade coffee

But what determines the difference between commodity and specialty grades? For this, we turn to the experts: nationally recognized coffee tasters and graders, otherwise known as Q Graders.

The Q Grader is an industry-standard third-party organization that schools individuals in tasting, grading, and cupping (the scientific evaluation of coffee) at home with a process developed by the Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA).

Q Graders are highly skilled individuals with a minimum of 3-5 years of professional coffee tasting experience and detailed knowledge of green coffee grading standards.

The Q graders evaluate the green coffee beans for acidity, body, aroma, flavor, and aftertaste with a series of sensory tests to understand how those flavors are perceived.

Based on their findings and information from the exporting company, the Q Grader assigns a grade to each lot of green coffee. Every green coffee bean must be evaluated before it is accepted to ensure it meets SCAA standards (i.e., minimally insect-damaged but free; no evidence of mold or mildew; sound; good color; good size; etc.). The quality score you see printed on your bag of coffee is determined by the Q Grader as well as the country of origin.

How to choose the highest quality coffee beans

highest quality coffee beans

When you purchase coffee beans at a grocery store, chances are the bag was filled with bulk coffee purchased from various producers and blended to produce an average cup of Joe. Unfortunately, the roaster probably won’t mention where the green coffee came from, making it difficult to trace back to specific growers.

To ensure you buy specialty grade green beans, look for the following:

Country of origin

While this doesn’t guarantee quality, it can be a strong indicator. Look for information about where your beans were grown and roasted, and contact the company directly if you have questions before purchasing. Coffee certified organic, or bird-friendly (free-trade) will usually indicate a higher level of commitment by the roaster to freshness, sustainability, and ethical practices throughout all levels of the supply chain.

Roast date

If possible, purchase your coffee in whole bean form and grind it at home immediately before brewing to ensure maximum freshness. Specialty grade coffees are usually roasted within two weeks of sale, so this should not be a problem even when purchasing online.

Price per pound

While quality comes at a price, it is important to balance cost with value when looking for specialty-grade coffee beans. Generally speaking, green coffee will increase value over time, making well-aged selections more expensive than younger crops. However, this also means that older growing regions such as Jamaica and Ethiopia may offer more excellent prices than newer ones like El Salvador or Kenya due to their relative scarcity and demand from roasters who often pay premium prices for older beans.


The Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA) has established labeling guidelines for green coffee to help consumers identify specialty-grade coffee. In addition, many roasters will indicate on their packaging via a logo or specific wording that they sell premium quality beans and/or list the country of origin on the bag.

Frequently Asked Questions

What are the grades of coffee?

The three commercial grades of coffee that you will find in the market are commodity, premium, and specialty coffee.

What grade of coffee is best?

Without a doubt, the best grade of coffee is AA, otherwise known as specialty coffee. So when you visit your local coffee shop, make sure to ask them if they have such a coffee on offer. If they know and can direct you, this shows they value high-quality coffee and sell it to their customers.

What is the highest quality coffee bean?

The highest quality coffee bean has the most optimal color and size and has no defects. Therefore, such coffee beans are classified as specialty coffee beans.

Last Thoughts

Coffee beans are graded based on their size, shape, and internal qualities. The higher the grade of coffee bean, the more expensive it will be to purchase. So a specialty grade is a high-quality coffee that has been grown in an optimal location by farmers who have invested time and resources into improving its flavor profile with meticulous care.

It’s worth noting that there are many different grades for each type of coffee bean, so if you want to know how your favorite brew stacks up against others out there, make sure you check what kind of grade it falls under before deciding which one to buy!

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