We all know and love specialty coffee but do we actually know about what happens under the hood of making the distinction between commercial, specialty and rare coffee?

We’re talking about the grading process. Most beautifully designed bags of specialty coffee have a glitzy sticker with a number on it. And you’re absolutely right – that if the number is higher the coffee is better! But there is quite a lot of detail that goes into that number coming to life.

Grading of coffee is such an important bridge between the source of the coffee crop and the final result you are picking up from your local roaster. It originated from the Specialty Coffee Association of America & the process of cupping. When coffee professionals carry out cupping they are assessing certain attributes of each coffee and this evolved to converting these to a score (out of 100). The banding of the scoring system looks like this:

  • < 79 = Commodity Coffee
  • 80 – 84.99 = Very Good
  • 85 – 89.99 = Excellent
  • 90+ = Outstanding

Cupping typically focuses on defects, sweetness, acidity, balance, mouthfeel & flavour. When it comes to specialty coffee the reason it is so “special” is the fact that all of these mentioned factors are balanced and there are no defects. No-one has graded a stomach-churning acidic coffee as specialty because that one factor is overbearing over the others.

Although this all seems intuitive enough, what we have to remind ourselves of is that these scorings are done by individuals, each one with their own subjective view of acidity, flavour or balance! Enter the Q (quality) grader, equivalent to a sommelier of wine. A certified Q grader is not just there to taste coffee but to align the taster so that all of those with a Q grader certification judge a coffee in a similar way. So… simple enough huh? Well, not really! As you can imagine refining this skill of tasting coffee and all agreeing on each of its qualities takes a lot of practice and a hell of a lot of cups of coffee. You have to view this skill as starting out with a super wide net and only through the collective assessment of many Q graders do you zone in on the specifics of each attribute we mentioned above.

So far this is all quite romantic, creative and almost artistic but as with all things in life there is another side of the Q grading that is less appealing. The monumental irony of grading is that typically the buyers of coffee determine the grade and grade equals price. Now it doesn’t take much to see where this can go. The coffee industry attracts people from many nations, social backgrounds and motivations. Bad agents are present in all fields, but coffee has more than its fair share. There have been many instances where grading is purposefully kept low when dealing with the farmers to get a more competitive price for coffee. Only to find that coffee sitting on a shelf of an edgy little coffee shop in New York or Dubai being branded as a spectacular 86-point coffee.

Don’t fret, we are all getting wise to it. In a lot of cases the appeal of specialty coffee is its origin. As consumers, we want to know the fine details of each batch so that we can trace its origins and the people that are behind it. Therefore, it is our responsibility to be inquisitive with our roasters and coffee houses to ensure that we are not enabling bad practices and that the good money we pay for a coffee is trickling down all the way through the supply chain.

Coffee is a complex beverage and a complex world! With positives come negatives but we have a choice on which side we focus more on. It’s safe to say that overall, the grading system in coffee has allowed the masses to better understand specialty coffee. This means that higher prices are justified, and people are willing to pay a premium to ensure that they are buying a quality product that is responsibly sourced. However, grading should not become a vanity metric, do not let the grade of a coffee get in the way of what you like, taste and enjoy. Few things in life are left to be subjective and thankfully our dark beverage is still one of them. So, brew, enjoy and continue to help the trade become better than it was yesterday.

About the author

Daumantas is the founder of Perc Box, the UAE’s first coffee subscription service. FLTR told the story of this exciting new entrant into the local specialty coffee industry here. Follow Perc on instagram here and subscribe here.