The Grades of Coffee

Have you ever come across the term ‘grading’ in coffee?

“Yes, but wasn’t sure what it meant?” Or “Nope, never”? Either way, don’t panic as we are going to dive into some common coffee grading terms and what they mean.

In many coffee producing countries around the world, coffee beans have been graded by size for much longer than they have been graded by quality. More often than not, the size and quality of the beans are seen as being one of the same, when really, they are not.

coffee in a cooling bin

Rather than its size, speciality coffee is graded on quality, scoring points on areas such as the taste, aroma and mouthfeel of the coffee. To gain speciality status, the coffee in question must score 80 points or higher.

Where coffee is graded by its size, numbered sieves are used to determine the size of the beans. Once the beans have been hulled, they will be mechanically shaken through a series of huge sieves which will separate them into their groups. The top sieve with have larger holes for the coffee to fall through. The beans that will not fall through this sieve will be the largest, and in some parts, still demand the highest price. The beans that fall through the top sieve and into the 2nd sieve, but will not fall further are graded and as it continues through the sieves.

Different Countries use different terms

Different countries and continents use different grading systems when explaining the size of their coffee beans. For instance, in Colombia, coffee is only named when it fits in one of two size groups. Excelso and Supremo. The words ‘Excelso’ and ‘Supremo’ were created by the FNC (Federación Nacional de Cafeteros) as a way of promoting Colombian coffee. They aren’t actually linked to the quality of the beans, but rather, they are just to grade the size.


These beans are quite large; however, they are smaller than Supremo beans. They can pass through a 16-grade sieve which has holes of a 16/64 inch diameter. However, they are too large to pass through a 14-grade sieve (with 14/64 inch holes.)

green coffee beans sitting on top of a moisture analyser


Supremo beans are the larger of the two. They can pass through an 18-grade sieve however they are too large for a 16 grade. Excelso and Supremo beans can come from the same coffee plant, but will be sorted to separate them into size. Using this as an example, it is clear to see that the size alone cannot distinguish the quality of the coffee as often, it has come from the same plant.

Ripe coffee cherries

Central America

Coffee beans are split into six different sizes in Central America. These are:

• Superior
• Segundas
• Terceras
• Caracol
• Caracolli
• Caracolillo

el cipres, costa rica

The largest beans are between screen size 18 and 16, or to call them by their names, Superior and Segundas respectively. As the screen size gets lower, the quality generally is seen to decrease too. Similar to Colombia, countries in Central America use size to determine quality.


Huye Mountain

As in other areas, the grading system of sizing African coffees is linked to the quality of the coffee. However, this isn’t always the case.

Countries in Africa, particularly Kenya, have a grading system which can be quite confusing to look at from a glance. But don’t worry, I’ll break it down for you. The grading system is split into seven sections:

• E
• AA
• AB
• C
• PB
• TT
• T

Although there is quite a few, they are all quite simple once you understand what they all mean.

Coffee farmer

The Breakdown

‘E’ is the largest size of bean you can get. The ‘E’ stands for Elephant – pretty simple, right? This is where two beans interjoin with the cherry and grow together. Although bigger beans are often seen to be better, with these sorts of beans, they will often break apart when being processed or when being roasted as they are fragile.

‘AA’ beans are often seen as the highest quality of beans you can get in Africa. They are slightly smaller than ‘E’ grade beans and have a screen size of 18 or above. Due to their perceived higher quality, these beans come at quite a high price.

‘AB’ beans are a combination of screen size 16 and screen size 15 beans. Generally, these are seen as a more standard size and account for around 30% of Kenya’s annual coffee production.

green coffee being sprinkled into a sack

‘C’ grade beans are a grade below ‘AB’ beans and are often seen to have a low quality. It’s also very unlikely that this grade will have beans as good in taste as the ones found in ‘AA’ and ‘AB’ grade coffee.

‘PB’ is the grade given to peaberries. This is where a single bean has grown inside the cherry rather than two.

‘TT’ is used to determine a smaller grade of beans still. TT grade coffee is often made up of the smaller beans from grades ‘AA’, ‘AB’ and ‘E’. These are also the lightest beans you can get.

‘T’ grade beans are the smallest and usually, the lowest quality grade as ‘T’ grade coffee is mainly made up of chips and broken pieces of other beans.

coffee sack from brazil - two chimps coffee

Coffee Graded by Altitude

A number of countries in Central and South America use altitude as a way of grading their coffee. This way of grading isn’t linked to quality or traceability, but it does give an idea as to how high above sea level the coffee was grown and nurtured. There are some examples of this below.

El Salvador

Beans that are graded by altitude in El Salvador are put into three groups.

Strictly High Grown (SHG) is for beans that are grown at an altitude above 1200 metres.

High Grown (HG) is for beans that are grown at an altitude above 900 metres.

Central Standard (CS) is for beans that are grown at an altitude above 600 metres.


Guatemala has its own version of grading with altitude.

Prime is for beans that are grown at an altitude between 750 and 900 metres.

Extra Prime is for beans that are grown at an altitude between 900 and 1050 metres.

Semi-Hard Bean is for beans that are grown at an altitude between 1050 and 1220 metres.

Hard Bean (HB) is for beans that are grown at an altitude between 1220 and 1300 metres

Strictly Hard Bean (SHB) is for beans that are grown at an altitude over 1300 metres.


coffee cherries

Similarly to El Salvador, Honduras uses altitude to grade its coffee.

Beans that are grown at an altitude of 1200 metres and above will be graded as Strictly High Grown (SHG).

Beans that are grown at an altitude of 1000 metres and above will be graded as High Grown (HG).

coffee in an orange mug with a kettle and tin

I don’t know about you, but all this talk about coffee is making me thirsty!

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