Processing : Grading and Beyond

The last step in coffee’s complex, labor-intensive trip to market is grading, the procedure whereby agricultural products are categorized to facilitate communication between buyer and seller. Approaches differ from country to country, but there are four main grading criteria: how big the bean is, where and at what altitude it was grown, how it was prepared and picked, and how good it tastes, or its cup quality. Coffees also may be graded by the number of imperfections (defective and broken beans, pebbles, sticks, etc.) per sample.

As the finest coffees move from the status of commodities sold by description to specialty products sold by specific lot, grading becomes less important, and origin (farm or estate, region, cooperative) more important. Growers of premium estate or cooperative coffees may impose a quality control that goes well beyond conventionally defined grading criteria, because they want their coffee to command the higher price that goes with recognition and consistent quality.

Even with fine coffee, however, government agencies in growing countries may impose grading standards to encourage and support quality and to attract and reassure foreign buyers. Coffee-growing countries like Kenya, for example, simultaneously promote high standards through imposing strict grading criteria while supporting growers by providing agricultural and social assistance. In many cases, governments may extend their support efforts to the consuming countries, where they promote their growers’ coffees either behind the scenes or directly through media campaigns, like the famous and successful Colombian effort featuring Juan Valdez and his donkey.