How to identify high-quality coffee

A great cup of coffee starts with a great bean. While this may sound easy, identifying a great coffee can be very challenging if you don’t know what to look for. In this entry, we are going help you distinguish buzz words from words that universally indicate high quality coffee.

The buzz words

Single origin, small farm, fair trade, sustainably grown, organic, small-batch roasted, craft… This string of feel-good words sounds impressive when used to describe coffee — and impressive coffee is often described using these words but these words alone do not signify quality. Single origin means that all of the beans in a specific coffee came from the same farm or region. The same goes for small farm coffees. Moving on to sustainable, fair trade, and organic; these classifications represent an aspect of a coffee’s growing conditions and often apply equally to both arabicas and robustas. Finally, craft and small-batch roasting. While many craft (which implies a small batch) and small-batch roasters roast high quality coffee, many roast medium-high quality coffee. Craft and small-batch merely inform the purchaser that small quantities of beans are roasted simultaneously in the same roaster. Now that we’ve teased out the buzz words, let’s review the words that are sure to describe a high quality bean.

Indicators of quality

Specialty coffee is a coffee term conferred on coffees that earn a score between 80 and 100 on the Speciality Coffee Association of America (SCAA) rating scale. When evaluating specialty coffee, all aspects of growth, processing, and roast are considered. Specialty coffee designation implies that the coffee embraces most of the coveted bean qualities described below.

Arabica coffee is the highest quality coffee species. Believed to have originated in Ethiopia, arabica beans are rounder, richer, larger, and more flavorful than their robusta counterparts. Arabica beans produce an array of flavor notes and textures depending on their growing conditions and are lauded for their clean, clear, after-taste free close. (Click here to learn more about the difference between arabica and robusta beans).

Shade grown indicates the coffee was grown under a natural old-growth forest shade canopy. Shade grown coffee is a higher quality coffee than sun grown coffee, which is grown in open fields. Shade grown cherries take significantly longer to mature than sun grown cherries, allowing them to develop a fuller, richer flavor. This extra maturation process also endows the beans with a rich, smooth, clean taste.

Strictly High Grown (SHG) / Strictly Hard Bean (SHB)* indicates that the beans were grown at or above an elevation of 4,500 feet.

High Grown (HG) / Hard Bean (HB) indicates that the beans were grown at an elevation between 4,000 and 4,500 feet.

SHGs and HGs are near always shade grown, meaning the beans matured slowly, creating a full, rich, pleasing flavor. SHG and HG beans are denser, more evenly toned, and of higher quality than beans grown at lower altitudes.

Microlot indicates that the beans are unique in character and of exceptional quality, earning a cupping score of 85+. To be considered a microlot batch, the beans must be grown at high altitudes, in nutrient-rich soil, and share the same size, shape, and profile.

When searching for a high quality cup of coffee, look for the words arabica, high grown, shade grown, strictly hard, and microlot. With these descriptors, you can rest assured your roast was made with a high quality bean. To learn more about coffee growing conditions and processing, we encourage you to visit the following blog entries:

The Life of a coffee bean…

Coffee processing: dry, wet, washed, and honey

Single origin, microlot, co-op, small farm: what’s the difference?

Making the grade: coffee sizing and grading

*Altura is the Spanish word used to describe high grown coffee (e.g., Mexican Altura).

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