Can you make the grade? Coffee grading explained

Do you know your ‘premium’ from your ‘specialty’? Can you tell the difference between ‘off grade’ and ‘below standard’ grade? If you thought coffee was just coffee, then let us be your guide through the complicated world of grading.

Coffee is a natural product, and is affected by a wide range of factors including the weather and environmental conditions. This means that each sack of green beans is as uniquely a product of its terroir as a case of wine – and that’s before it goes through the storage, roasting and packaging part of the process.

As an initial step on their journey from plant to cup, the beans themselves are graded, based on a number of factors including growing conditions, size, region and quality. They’re then graded as follows.

Off grade (grade 5) – this is the lowest in terms of quality, and consists of defective, broken or poor beans. (‘Defective’ in coffee terms usually refers to processing defects such as unripe coffee berries or organic matter which have been mixed in, or occasionally to beans that have fermented. This affects the taste and strength of the finial blend.) Off grade coffee contains more than 17 times as many defects as Grade 1 coffee.

Below standard grade (grade 4) – these are low quality beans, usually used for preparing instant coffee. The defects in these beans will compromise taste, strength and complexity of flavour.

Exchange grade (grade 3): Also known as standard grade, these are mid-range beans which are used as a measuring stick for the other grades. ‘Exchange’ is also the grade used to determine the price of coffee on NYBOT (the New York Board of Trade stock exchange). Anything below exchange grade will be cheaper and anything above will carry a premium.

Premium (grade 2): Now we’re getting to the good stuff. Premium grade is allowed to have some primary defects, but the number of these is strictly controlled. It scores well for taste and strength, and top brands use it widely for their blends.

Specialty (grade 1): Think Rolls Royce, Bollinger and Cartier. If only the best is good enough, then this is the real crème de la crème. Specialty coffee has no primary processing defects and is the highest quality available. All the beans in rijo42’s RED and BLACK blends are grade 1, and our specialty grade 1 Tunki beans represent the very best value available on the market.

As well as grade 1 beans, we’re also proud to offer grade 1 service. Our quick, reliable, expert customer service is free of charge as long as you use our coffee – and that’s our real specialty. To find out more or book a free demonstration, visit our website