Generally speaking, “grade” is used to indicate the size of the coffee bean. It is associated with coffee quality. Coffee beans grown at higher elevations, for the most part, are denser, bigger and have better flavor than beans grown at lower altitudes. Perforated containers called “sieves” are used to pass un-roasted beans through the container holes to determine the coffee bean size or “grading.” Coffee grading varies by country and may include qualifications such as bean size, bean density, number of defects, altitude of cultivation, taste and more.
As an example, coffee beans called AA or Grade 18 beans, pass through a sieve with an 18/64″ diameter holes and are retained by the next smaller sieve with a 16/64″ diameter holes. Traditionally, Arabica beans receive “even grades” such as 20, 18, 16 and so on. Robusta beans, on the other hand, receive “odd grades’ such as 17, 15, 13 and so on.
Other grades that are commonly used are “high grown” (HG), “hard bean” (HB) or “strictly hard bean” (SHB), and “strictly soft” (SS) beans. What differentiates these grades from one another?
“High Grown” (HG), “Hard Bean” (HB) or “Strictly Hard Bean” (SHB) grades refer to coffee grown at altitudes about 4,000 to 5,000 feet above sea level. Coffee beans at these altitudes mature more slowly and grow to be harder and denser than beans grown at lower altitudes. High grown beans tend to have consistent taste attributes that make them more desirable and more expensive than other coffees from lower elevations. In general, HG and HB mountainside coffee is shade grown, hand picked, chemical free or organic and is considered specialty coffee.
“Strictly Soft” (SS) beans are grown at altitudes lower than 4,000 feet. These beans mature quickly and produce a less dense, lighter bean. The coffees from these beans can have more inconsistencies in flavor and taste attributes. For example, SS Arabica beans have a more “rounded flavor” as compared to the more flavorful and dense HG or SHB Arabica beans grown at higher elevations.
The question you may be asking yourself is: what difference does this grading system make to people’s lives?
- Actually, a huge difference. Coffee is the second highest traded commodity in the world after petroleum.
- There are millions and millions of people around the world whose lives depend on the coffee trade.
- Coffee grading allows farmers to see tangible differences in their lives. Grades of coffees that are more desirable, such as HB, SHB or HG, command higher prices.
- This means more money for medical care, social services, education, infrastructure development, environmentally focused business and living practices and much more.
- In order to qualify and maintain certifications for specific coffee subscriptions grades, coffee farmers are required to adhere to specific codes of ethic and farming practices or they lose their opportunity for stable buying markets.
- The trend towards shade grown coffee in many coffee producing countries where they can increase this type of production is not an accident but the result of observation of actual success by shade grown coffee growers.
- There is also a recognition of the many benefits for the environment, wildlife, flora, and society in general when land is not cleared of all trees and vegetation for ‘sun growing” and, instead, trees and bushes are maintained to provide the shade coffee bushes need.