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The Specialty Coffee Grading Scale Explained

The Specialty Coffee Grading Scale Explained

The Specialty Coffee Grading Scale Explained

If you’re familiar with Plain Sight Coffee Roasters, then you’ve seen us refer to our products as ‘specialty’ coffee, but what does this term mean in the context of this drink? A great way to understand our coffee is by learning about the specialty coffee grading scale. This is a standardized evaluation that is crucial to the entire coffee supply chain and is what categorizes coffees into different grades. In this post, we explain the key specifics of this grading scale.

What is Specialty Coffee?

The technical definition for it is " that scores 80 or higher on the Specialty Coffee Association’s (SCA) quality scale." This score comes from a stringent inspection and cupping process performed only by certified graders. This involves stages that begin with a fresh green bean, all the way to a freshly brewed cup. Evaluating coffee beans in stages is necessary to determine their overall quality, and make sure each one merits the score it is given. As a result, you’ll find that specialty-grade coffees are some of the best in the world.

The Cupping Process

The Cupping Process

The cupping process, performed by an SCA certified Q grader (also called a ‘cupper’) is an important part of determining a coffee's score. There are many protocols and best practices for the cupping process that ensure a consistent and fair grading process.

The basic format of the cupping process consists of a dry sniff, a wet sniff, and tasting. The purpose of these steps is to determine the cupper's perception of quality. The quality of flavor attributes is analyzed, and then based on the cupper's expertise, these attributes are scored on a numeric scale.

A dry sniff is the evaluation of the fragrance of ‘dry’ coffee grinds, i.e. before any water has been added. The cupper will then add water a few degrees below boiling point for the wet sniff. A crust forms at the top of the cupping bowl, which the cupper breaks with a spoon. At this stage, the aroma coming off the soaked grinds is analyzed.

The coffee is given a chance to cool before it is tasted. The cupper fills a spoon with coffee and slurps it. The tasting process evaluates the primary attributes

  • Flavor
  • Aftertaste
  • Acidity
  • Body
  • Balance
  • Sweetness
  • Clean Cup
  • Uniformity
  • Overall evaluation.

To put it simply, a coffee will score well if it's free of negative impressions and has a balance between categories that lasts as the coffee cools.

The Primary and Secondary Defects

Aside from its sensory attributes, the SCA also checks whether the raw beans themselves are up to snuff. In this inspection, there are two major categories: Primary and Secondary Defects. Based on a 100-point scale, the grade is affected by the number of physical defects found in a 300-gram sample. While this does not impact the overall score in the same way that sensory attributes do, they are still relevant as they create off-flavors in a coffee.

Physical defects are caused by climate, harvest times, poor processing, and other factors. For example, a ‘quaker’ bean is one that doesn’t turn dark when roasted, which means that the cherry was picked before it was ripe. A ‘full black’ bean is darkly colored and shriveled, caused by over-ripe cherries or poor fermentation. Broken or chipped beans are caused by processing from poorly calibrated machines.

To be specialty-grade, the coffee sample should have no primary defects and five or fewer secondary defects. Each kind of defect has differing weights in scoring — some matter more than others. For example, a broken or chipped bean is considered a secondary defect, while a full black bean is considered a primary defect.

The Q Grade Score Sheet

The Q Grade Score Sheet

The SCA grading process adds an objective element to the coffee industry, which is dominated by subjective senses. The Q grade score sheet gives everyone a standardized frame of reference and is an easy way to discuss coffee quality throughout the coffee chain.

The SCA gathers concrete data from a group of certified Q graders, which is used to determine a final grade. Typically, several cuppers grade at once, and the scores are averaged, which makes the process fairer.

The final score of a coffee is obtained by summing up the individual scores given for each of the primary attributes mentioned before.

Defects are then subtracted from the total score of the attributes to arrive at a final score. The following Scoring Key is a comprehensive way to describe the range of coffee quality based on the 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

Coffee scoring is relevant to other aspects of the coffee industry. By using an objective scale, standards are set into place to create a fair market for coffee growers.

This assessment brings everyone involved in coffee production — from farmers to the roasters to the baristas — into the conversation of coffee quality. This allows many players in the industry to give concrete feedback to every stage of the coffee chain, allowing more people to improve their coffee quality.

Key Takeaway

With specialty coffee, you’re guaranteed quality. The stringent process that controls the specialty coffee grading scale ensures that certain standards are met before coffees can be considered specialty-grade.

This is why we at Plain Sight take great pride in the coffee that we serve you. We put in plenty of time and effort to carefully identify which beans have great potential for roasting. Check out our store today to explore and try out some of our latest coffee offerings.

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