How Specialty Coffee Beans are Classified and Graded

What are the factors that go into specialty coffee bean grading and classification? Let's talk about it.

Courtney Smith
April 11, 2023

Specialty coffee has become a sought-after commodity in the coffee industry. With the rise of third-wave coffee shops and the growing popularity of artisanal coffee, coffee enthusiasts have become more interested in learning about the quality of the coffee they drink. For specialty coffee importers and roasters, sourcing high-quality green coffee beans is of utmost importance. That’s where quality specialty coffee bean classification and grading come into play.

At Tropiq, we focus on providing importers and roasters with the best specialty coffee beans from around the world. Of course, our team of expert buyers carefully selects and grades each batch of coffee beans to ensure they meet our high standards. But more importantly, we also work with our producers to develop and further improve upon coffees with potential. With local teams at many of our origins, we're able to better foster and maintain relationships with coffee farmers and producers. This means we don't just cup, grade, and say "yay" or "nay" to coffees—we work in tandem to develop projects to produce high-quality coffees, unique profiles, and experiments with special preps.

But let's get into how specialty coffee beans are classified. It's based on various factors such as altitude of growth, processing method, and origin. These factors play a significant role in determining the quality and flavour profile of the coffee beans.

It's also important to note the difference between Arabica and Robusta varieties of coffee. Arabica coffee, which is made from the beans/seeds of the Coffea arabica plant, is generally of higher quality than other varieties and has more nuanced flavours. Most single-origin and or specialty coffees are 100% arabica beans. Robusta coffee, made from the beans/seeds of the Coffee canephora plant, is commonly found in commercial-grade coffee due its lower price point. Robusta coffee beans also have double the caffeine content as arabica beans and a stronger, more bitter profile. They are often incorporated into blends with less-bitter, complementary profiles for a more balanced finish.  Although lower in price, robusta beans aren't necessarily of poorer quality—they play an important role in some of the most revered espresso blends.

Altitude of growth

Coffee plants grow at different altitudes, and the altitude at which the coffee is grown can affect the quality of the beans. Higher altitude coffee plants tend to grow slower, which leads to a denser bean. This density translates to a more complex flavor profile, as the slower growth allows for more time for the coffee cherry to develop and mature.

Different processing methods of coffee

The method used to process coffee beans can also impact their quality and flavor profile. There are three main methods: natural (also called dry process), washed (also called wet process), and honey (also called pulped natural).

The natural processing method

This processing method involves harvesting the coffee cherries at peak ripeness, then drying the beans in thin layers (routinely turning them to avoid rot) in the sun with the fruit still attached. This method imparts a fruity and floral flavor. Once the cherries are completely dry, the skin and the fruit flesh are removed, and the green coffee beans are "rested" in storage prior to export.

The washed processing method

The washed method involves harvesting the coffee cherries when they're ripe and removing the fruit from the beans and fermenting them in water to remove the mucilage, resulting in a cleaner, brighter flavor. This method solely focuses on the bean itself, which means the origin and environmental conditions have a very strong impact on the flavour.

The honey processing method

The honey method is almost a hybrid of the natural and washed methods and involves removing some, but not all, of the fruit from the beans before drying, resulting in a sweet, honey-like flavor. The stickiness of the beans during processing is what influences the usage of "honey"—not the honey-like flavour. This process produces a fruitiness, but one that is less profound than some naturals. The acidity is more rounded than washed coffees, and the mouthfeel is more complex.


The origin of specialty coffee beans is another important factor in their quality and flavour profile. Coffee is grown in different regions around the world, and each region has its own unique environmental conditions that impact the flavor of the beans. For example, coffee from Ethiopia is known for its vibrant fruity and floral notes, while coffee from Colombia is known for its chocolate and nutty notes.

Further grading and scoring the coffees

Once the coffee beans are classified based on these factors, they are further graded based on their quality by a certified coffee taster (SCAA) or a licensed Q Grader (CQI). Specialty coffee beans are typically graded on a scale of 80 to 100 points, with 100 being the highest possible score. Beans scoring above 80 points are considered specialty grade, while those scoring below 80 points are classified as commercial grade.

The grading process involves evaluating the beans based on various criteria, including uniformity of size, absence of defects, and flavour profile. Specialty coffee beans are typically free from defects such as insect damage, mold, and sour or fermented flavors. The flavor profile of specialty coffee beans is complex and unique, with no off-notes or defects.

By creating a better understanding of the factors that impact coffee bean quality earlier in the supply chain (roasting brings a whole new set of parameters in developing flavour), the easier it is for specialty coffee buyers to make more informed decisions when sourcing their beans.

We are more than happy to answer any questions about the beans we source and projects we develop at origin to produce high-quality specialty coffee—drop us a line!

Courtney has 10+ years of experience in creating, building, and scaling strategies, brands, and content.