Sorting and Grading Coffee

Sorting and Grading Coffee

Government of countries which export coffee usually operate or advise a department or agency which establishes a standard, regulates and monitors the coffee trade, and assesses bean quality through quality control inspectors. In many countries, the administrator is a coffee board authority; in others it is an institute, possibly under the control of the ministry of agriculture or of trade and industry.

Grading Coffee

Unfortunately, there is no international standardization of coffee quality, as coffee is graded by a set of characteristics peculiar to each producing country. A sample of beans is taken from a bag, judged according to that country's standards, and the sack of beans from which the sample was taken is given a quality rating, good or bad, depending on the outcome of the assessment. The characteristics by which most coffee is graded are appearance (bean size, uniformity, color); number of defective beans per sample; cup quality, which of course includes flavor and body; and whether the beans roast well and evenly. Because the classifications of grades and the descriptive terminology differ from country to country, and the standards of quality are only relevant within that country's range of coffees, it is not easy to interpret a coffee's true quality without some familiarization of the particular country of origin's grading system. There is at least one constant, uniform reference from country to country: all countries determine bean size with standardized screens, so the buyer doesn't have to guess how large is large or how small is small from the producer's relative point of view.

A coffee may bear an exotic regional name, and/or may be classified by the processing (washed or unwashed). It may have a descriptive title, or just an alphabetical letter or two, possibly followed by a number. For example, in certain countries where the coffee industry has been nationalized, the grading system may seem to be rather uninspiring, as in Kenya, where a bag of coffee may be a washed "AA", with a number to denote one of ten cup-quality classes; yet this ordinary-sounding coffee is acknowledged by most experts to be consistently one of the world's best coffees. In India, however, a Plantation A - assume "washed" because an unwashed is designated "cherry" - was one of the highest qualities available, but was not in the same league as the Kenyan. India, however, has recently changed to a free market, so it remains to be seen what grading system will be used.

Most Caribbean and Central American countries indicate quality by words denoting altitude: Costa Rica's eastern regions produce LGA (low grown Atlantic), MGA (medium grown Atlantic), HGA (high grown Atlantic) while the western slopes grow HB (hard bean), MHB (medium hard bean), GHB (good hard bean) and SHB (strictly hard bean); the harder the bean, the higher the altitude and the price! The best plantations of Costa Rica can label their own bags as well denote the altitude, and both Costa Rica and Nicaragua also use exotic regional names. Nicaragua also indicates classifications of quality and altitude with titles like Central Bueno Lavado (MG), Central Altura for high grown, and Central Estrictamente Altura (SHG). Guatemala is a bit more obscure with its altitude designations, since the adjectives, which sound purely descriptive, indicate altitudes beginning at 700m and rising to 1,700m: Good Washed, Extra Good Washed, Prime Washed, Extra Prime Washed, Semi Hard Bean (SH), Hard Bean (HB), Fancy Hard Bean and Strictly Hard Bean (SHB).


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