You may have heard the term “premium coffee” used in advertising campaigns for some major restaurant chains. What you might not know is that premium is actually a grade of coffee, and unlike premium gasoline, premium coffee is not the highest grade. A commonly used system of classifying coffee beans was developed by the Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA) in order to help buyers and sellers understand the quality of the coffee being exchanged. There are five grades separated by the amount of allowable defects, size, flavor, and moisture content. Defects can include anything from stones and sticks to insect damaged beans.
|SCAA Grading Scale|
|Grade 4||Below Standard|
|Grade 5||Off Grade|
As you’d expect, Specialty coffee, having the least amount of defects would ideally have the flavor most true to ripe coffee beans. Moving down the scale means more defects and debris which means flavors that are less enjoyable. It also means lower prices. That cup of Folgers or Maxwell House coffee most likely falls in the Exchange or Below Standard level, while a fresh bag of coffee beans from a local coffee roaster like Thou Mayest would be considered Specialty.
Ex5 Podcast Episode 8: Coffee
This is where things become challenging because the grading scale is one used only within the coffee industry itself. It’s not government-regulated and it’s not common knowledge, so coffee companies don’t need to report the grade on their packaging. In fact, they could call themselves a specialty coffee company but sell premium coffee. They could call their coffee premium but it could very well be exchange grade.
For the consumer who is now thoroughly confused, it all boils down to finding a coffee that your enjoy drinking for a price that you are willing to pay. Unfortunately, as it stands today, there isn’t a mandatory, standardized system for knowing what’s in your cup.