The Specialty Coffee Grading Scale Explained

The Specialty Coffee Grading Scale Explained

The Specialty Coffee Grading Scale Explained
The cupping process

If you’ve ever wondered what sets Plain Sight’s products apart as "specialty" coffee, understanding the basics of the specialty coffee grading scale is key. This scale is a standardized evaluation that’s widely used in the coffee supply chain, categorizing coffees into different grades. This scale not only dictates the quality of the coffee but also serves as a roadmap for coffee producers, buyers, and enthusiasts alike.

What is Specialty Coffee?

The technical definition defines specialty coffee as " that scores 80 or higher on the Specialty Coffee Association’s (SCA) quality scale." This score is derived from a thorough inspection and cupping process conducted exclusively by certified graders. The assessment journey begins with the examination of fresh green beans and concludes with the tasting of a carefully brewed cup. This evaluation process, conducted in stages, is essential for determining the overall quality of the beans and ensuring that each bean deserves its assigned score. As a result, specialty-grade coffees are among the best you can find globally.

The Cupping Process

The Cupping Process
Cuppers performing a dry smell test

The cupping process, led by a certified coffee expert known as a 'cupper', is crucial for deciding how good a coffee is. There are specific steps and rules to ensure fairness and accuracy.

First, the cupper smells the dry coffee grounds to check their fragrance. Then, hot water is poured over the grounds for another smell test. A crust forms at the top of the cupping bowl, which the copper breaks with the spoon. Then, the aroma coming off the soaked grinds is sniffed and analyzed.

After a while, when the coffee has cooled a bit, the cupper tastes it. They slurp it from a spoon to judge its flavor, aftertaste, acidity, body, balance, sweetness, and overall quality.

Simply put, a coffee gets a good score if it smells and tastes great without any unpleasant surprises.

The Primary and Secondary Defects

Apart from how it tastes and smells, the SCA also checks if the raw coffee beans are top-notch. They do this by looking for two types of problems: Primary and Secondary Defects. They use a 100-point scale to grade the beans based on the number of issues found in a small sample. While these issues don't affect the taste as much as other factors, they're still important because they can make the coffee taste bad.

These problems happen because of things like the weather, when the beans were picked, or how they were processed. For instance, a 'quaker' bean doesn't get dark when it's roasted, which means it was picked too early. A 'full black' bean is really dark and shriveled because the cherries were too ripe or weren't fermented properly. Beans can also get broken or chipped during processing if the machines aren't set up right.

For a coffee to be considered top-quality, it can't have any primary defects and should have five or fewer secondary defects. Each type of problem affects the score differently—some are worse than others. For example, a broken or chipped bean counts as a secondary issue, while a full black bean is a primary one.

The Q Grade Score Sheet

The Q Grade Score Sheet
A cupper analyzing coffee aroma

The SCA grading process brings an objective aspect to an industry usually judged subjectively. Using a score sheet called the Q grade, everyone can have a standard way to talk about coffee quality.

During the process, certified Q graders provide solid data used to determine a final grade. Usually, multiple graders evaluate the same coffee, and their scores are averaged out to ensure fairness.

To get a coffee's final grade, the scores for its different attributes are added up. Then, any defects found are subtracted to get the final score. The Scoring Key below gives a clear idea of coffee quality based on this final score:

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

The Impact of Scoring

Scoring coffee has a huge impact on the coffee industry. This evaluation involves everyone in coffee production—from farmers to roasters to baristas—in discussions about coffee quality. It lets all players in the industry provide specific feedback at every step of the coffee-making process, helping more people enhance the quality of their coffee. It also sets standards that make the coffee market fairer for growers and coffee producers.

Understanding this scoring system is also beneficial for the average coffee consumer. It gives them the power to make more informed choices when selecting coffee to buy and enjoy. Additionally, understanding the grading process helps consumers appreciate the value of specialty-grade coffees, even if they come with a higher price tag. This transparency and understanding bridge the gap between producers and consumers, enhancing the coffee experience for everyone involved.


With specialty coffee, you can count on top-notch quality. The careful process behind the specialty coffee grading scale means only the best coffees earn that special label.

This is why we at Plain Sight are passionate about the coffee we offer. We put in the time and effort to identify beans with amazing roasting potential. Check out our store today to explore and taste our latest coffee offerings.

Edited by Natalie Ann Unson
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