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Specialty Coffee is the Top 10% of All Coffee

By Kimberly Wells Dupries October 07, 2017 0 comments

What is specialty coffee? Why is it so special?

We could easily tell you that specialty coffee is simply the best coffee in the world. Yet, that does not explain how or why specialty coffee is truly special. That requires a bit more of an explanation.

So, let's start at the beginning.

By definition, specialty coffee is the top 10% of coffee. Or said another way, 90% of the coffee being consumed today is not specialty coffee. We know...that's a lot coffee being consumed which does not fall into the specialty category! It is also a fantastic stage to stand on and begin enlightening you, our fellow java lover, about the differences in coffee levels so that you can make more informed choices about the coffee you consume.

Why does this even matter? Think of it like this... You would typically pick the best vegetables, the best fruits or the best cut of meats when you prepare a dish. Coffee is no different than any other ingredient that you would spend time checking over in order to find the best. There are good, great, and best options out there! The better your coffee bean, the better your cup of coffee is going to taste when you drink it.

Any coffee reaching the standard of being called "specialty coffee" has been through rigorous grading and scoring at several levels between the farm and the final brew in your cup.

Grading Green Coffee

The first step in the process of determining if a coffee reaches specialty grade or is a lower grade coffee, begins with grading the green coffee beans. The Specialty Coffee Association (SCA) sets the guidelines for grading green coffee. A grade from 1 to 5 is given on the beans based on defects, size differences, the moisture content, the number of quakers allowed, taints and cupping faults.

Wait! Before I read more...what's a quaker?

A quaker is an industry term to describe under-ripe, undeveloped coffee seeds that fail to roast properly. These are most often the result of unripe, green coffee cherry making it into the final product. Normally, these are skimmed off as floaters (in the wet-process ) or visually removed in the dry-process method. Source: The Coffee Shrub

Here is how the green coffee bean rubric breaks the grading down for 300 grams of coffee.

Grade 1: Specialty Grade Coffee Beans: These beans are not allowed to have any primary defects, they have the most consistent sizes and must exhibit a distinct attribute in one or more of the following areas: taste, acidity, body, or aroma. Zero quakers are allowed. The moisture content must be between 9-13%. Also, the coffee brewed from these beans must be free of any taints or cup faults when tasted. 

Grade 2: Premium Grade Coffee Beans: Same as Grade 1 except there is an allowed maximum of 3 quakers. The coffee may also contain 0-8 full defects.The moisture content must be between 9-13%. Also, the coffee brewed from these beans must be free of any cup faults when tasted. 

Grade 3: Exchange Grade Coffee Beans: 50% of the coffee must be sized above a screen 15 hole size and less than 5% below screen 15. There is an allowed maximum of 5 quakers. 9-23 full defects. The moisture content must be between 9-13%. The coffee brewed from these beans must be free of any cup faults when tasted. 

Grade 4: Standard Grade Coffee Beans: 24-86 full defects in 300 grams of coffee.

Grade 5: Off Grade Coffee Beans: More than 86 full defects in 300 grams of coffee.

Scoring Roasted Coffee

Now that you know how the green coffee grading is done, let's move on to the roasted bean scoring.

Roasted coffee is graded on a scale of 1 to 100.  The grade is comprised of scores based on:

  1. Fragrance/aroma
  2. Flavor, aftertaste, acidity, body, and balance
  3. Sweetness, uniformity, and cleanliness
  4. Scoring (adding up the scores from 1-3)

Coffee is evaluated using a professional technique known as “cupping". Cupping involves a series of specified steps, which adhere to the SCA Cupping Protocol and Scoring, which brings out the best in the coffee in order to score steps 1 through 3 above. Each of the areas listed above are scored based on a quality scale which is defined below.

Quality Scale
6.00 - Good 7.00 - Very Good 8.00 - Excellent 9.00 - Outstanding
6.25 7.25 8.25 9.25
6.5 7.5 8.5 9.5
6.75 7.75 8.75 9.75


Once all of the scores for steps 1-3 have been determined, they are added up (step 4). This will give the coffee a final score which will determine if the coffee is a specialty coffee or not.  Additionally, if a coffee scores as a specialty coffee, it provides a specific level for the specialty coffee.

Total Score Quality Classification
90-100 Outstanding Specialty
85-89.99 Excellent
80-84.99 Very Good
<80.0 Below Specialty Quality Not Specialty


Here at 21 Queen Street Coffee Company, we only sell "Excellent" and "Outstanding" scored coffees.  We believe you deserve the absolute the best when it comes to coffee.  After all, it is what we like drinking and we enjoy finding and bringing that coffee to you.



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