Author’s Note: When I first joined Royal, I had a vague idea of the difference between a Grade 1 and Grade 2 Ethiopian washed coffee, but didn’t really understand the complexity of the country’s grading system. Over the past few years, cupping through hundreds of coffee from various grades, I think I got a little desensitized to the nuances, and maybe forgot a little bit about the fact that Ethiopian grades can be a complete mystery to most roasters. When one of our traders, and Ethiopian coffee buyer, Caitlin McCarthy-Garcia asked me about drafting a quick guide, I said sure. How hard could it be?
Famous last words! It turns out there are almost no resources available on the topic, and my research ended up taking months and involved half-a-dozen interviews with experts, scrubbing through low-quality cupping form scans from decades ago, and reconnecting with a long-lost colleague I’d met in Chicago and last seen in Lima, Peru, but had no idea they’d been on the advisory committee in Addis, and inadvertently got themselves banned from the Ethiopia for a decade!
Whether you’re the kind of reader that just wants to know the differences in taste between a G1 and G3 Natural, or if you’re ready to dive into the history and evolution of the unique system – and the quirks and twists of fate that got us to where we are today – you’ll find it in the guide. – Chris Kornman
Ethiopian coffees, widely acknowledged as some of the best beans in the world, have their own unique grading system which divides qualities into numbered groups and “Under Grade” (UG) for the lowest quality beans.
This Guide to Ethiopian Coffee Grades will briefly describe what you can expect to find in each single origin quality tier that Royal Coffee carries and provide both technical guidance and historical context.
Royal Coffee’s Ethiopian offerings:
Grade Zero: A Royal Coffee exclusive, this is a custom dry-milling specification from a collaboration between Royal Coffee and Wuri milling and exporting partner, BNT Industry and Trading PLC. Grade Zero is designed to produce a near-perfect condition of micro-lots from the mountainous regions of southern Ethiopia, and we are proud to showcase these lots of better-than-grade-1 status. Grade Zero coffees go through extra sorting steps at the dry mill, including additional passes through the optical sorting machine, and slower, more meticulous hand-sorting by the dry mill’s team. These extra processing steps produce exceptionally clean coffee with intense floral flavors and are geared towards those who are looking for a super specialty experience, for the connoisseur.
Grade 1: Natural (dry processed) and Washed (wet processed) coffees alike in the G1 tier are top-notch, almost always consisting of the highest quality specialty coffee beans that are carefully sorted and have an intense aroma and complex taste with a range of flavors, including fruity acidity, well-balanced body, and complex notes of floral, berry, citrus, and tea-like tones. The green coffee prep is typically pristine and will easily pass SCA criteria for defect counts. These coffees always cup well with delicate flavors, bright acidity and medium body, and can sometimes reach the stratospheric, mythical realm of 90+ points. Expect the iconic floral notes paired with regionally distinctive and process-driven sweet fruit tones. Royal carries a wide array of both Grade 1 washed and natural options for the discerning coffee lover.
Grade 2: Widely available specialty grade beans, often arriving a little earlier and at lower price points than their Grade 1 counterparts, there can be some good deals on great coffees with excellent sweet flavor in this category. The green also possesses an excellent quality, although they may have slightly smaller sizes or a few more secondary defects compared to Grade 1. However, they still maintain distinctive flavors and are sought after in the specialty coffee market. Royal Coffee purchases washed coffees in the Grade 2 tier currently, but not natural G2s.
Grade 3: Because of awkward differences in grading defects in washed versus natural coffees, Grade 3 can become a repository for some really nice tasting, mostly cleanly sorted naturals. Thus, Royal Coffee exclusively buys natural coffees in this tier, and those we purchase we generally consider flavorful, easily cupping in the specialty tier often up to 85+ points in most cases. Natural G3 Ethiopias tend overall to simply be less intense than G1 Naturals, possessing similar berry-forward fruity flavors but may lack some of the complexity and distinctiveness found in higher grades.
Grade 4: Royal Coffee buys natural Grade 4 Ethiopias that meet certain cup requirements, cupping for us at least 80 points (SCA) and above. While they may not exhibit the same level of complex flavor as the higher grades, they can still offer a satisfying taste experience with distinctive light earthiness, heavier body, spicy flavors, and noticeable Ethiopian coffee characteristics like dried fruity notes and chocolaty depth. On visual inspection, this coffee will be notably less clean than higher grade standards (containing a varying amount of under-ripes and other secondary flaws which may, when roasted, present as quakers) but still frequently meets SCA standards for Exchange Grade. While we observe frequent quakers in almost all G4 naturals, we have no tolerance for primary sensory defects.
Grade 5 and below: Royal Coffee does not purchase any Ethiopian coffee beans below Grade 4.
Understanding the Ethiopian Grading System
A version of Ethiopia’s iconic grading system has been in place since 1960, with quality monitoring undertaken by the Coffee Liquoring Unit (CLU, pronounced like the word “clue”) in 1982. Recent changes have refined the system under the authority of the Ethiopian Commodity Exchange (ECX, est. 2008), including a major overhaul in 2017.
Currently, the pre-shipment sample (PSS) grade established prior to export is primarily given by the CLU. Additional grades may be assigned prior to final export; including preliminary grading in Addis by the CLU’s parent organization, Ethiopian Coffee & Tea Authority (ECTA), and an independent grading in field offices given by ECX locations. The multiple assessment nodes occasionally causes some discrepancies for primary and secondary sellers (suppliers and exporters). However, for the importer and coffee roaster, the most important, relevant, and final grade will usually be the PSS assigned by the CLU.
Ethiopian coffee passes through a multifaceted grading system to determine its export value, initially broken into two categories: Raw Value and Cup Quality Value.
- Raw Value – evaluation is divided into four sub-categories evaluating the quality of the green coffee bean’s physical makeup. Washed and Natural coffees are graded on slightly different scales:
- Cup Quality Value – a coffee’s sensory score is evaluated in four equally weighted categories: Cup Cleanliness, Acidity, Body, and Flavor. Natural and Washed coffees are graded on the same categories and percentages.
Additional considerations are made by the ECTA based on traditional regional flavor profiles and bean shape characteristics (such as Yirgacheffe, Sidama, Harar, Jimma, Bench Maji, etc.), though these regional profiles have faced unique challenges as new processing methods and styles are introduced, like honeys and anaerobics. Ultimately, using this point system – which is distinct from the SCA/CQI 100-point scale – and the indications of Ethiopian coffee regions, lots will be assigned a grade.
The Implications of an Ethiopian Coffee Grade
Based on cup and physical quality, traditionally Grades 1 and 2 are considered specialty quality, while Grades 3 and below are commercial coffee. However, because grading is heavily contingent on physical quality as well as cup score, it’s possible to find coffees in Grades 3 and 4 which may cup well, but have poor physical characteristics.
Additionally, because natural coffees are graded more harshly than washed coffees on physical defects, it’s fairly common to find quite nice coffees in Grade 3 and even occasional Grade 4 tier which cup-like specialty offerings, and may even overall appear fairly clean in physical characteristics.
Certain regions are still pegged into lower tier status under the current system due to historical trends and implicit bias. For example, you are unlikely to find an officially graded Harar 1; most of what we see falls into Grade 4 status. As a result, the system can occasionally perpetuate or stigmatize certain regions and even processing styles, which may result in lower incentives for producers to improve their quality under such circumstances.
Historical Context and The Future of Ethiopian Coffee Grading
The complexity in Ethiopia’s green coffee system is intertwined with economics and the evolution of the coffee trade in the country, the birthplace of coffee.
The CLU, formally established in 1982, began evaluating exclusively washed coffees but didn’t bring naturals into the cupping room until 1998. The CLU along with the Ethiopian Coffee & Tea Authority (ECTA est. 1995), largely controlled the grade and trade of coffee in the country until the formation of the ECX in 2007.
The CLU and ECTA exist under Ethiopia’s Ministry of Trade, but the ECX’s authority is organized under the Ministry of Agriculture. The ECX’s implementation and its immediate reliance on coffee for operational success sidelined the CLU and ECTA, and there remains some animosity to this day.
The ECX from 2008 to 2017 established regional labs where coffees were graded quickly in the field so that farmers could be paid before the coffees entered the auction. The coffees, once moved to Addis, would be graded separately by the CLU prior to export. If the CLU grade and the ECX field-assigned grade misaligned, exporters would often be faced with a loss of product and profit, as coffees would need to be re-milled to achieve the original grade.
The ECX grades, as outlined in addendums to the 2011 Ethiopian Coffee Buying Manual produced for the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), recognized 24 distinct specialty “contract” regions for washed coffees and 27 for naturals (and another 11 commercial washed coffee origins and 18 for naturals), and had nine numerical grades, plus UGs and an entirely separate category for Local un-exported coffees. Any coffee in the top 3 categories were re-cupped for “specialty assessment” using the CQI/SCA scale; that final cup score could override the original preliminary grade depending on how the cupping went.
The ECX also infamously removed the ability for exporters and importers to cup coffees prior to bidding, and eliminated traceability to individual microregions, estates, and washing stations. After years of extralegal transparency tactics and general specialty industry outcry, 2017’s proclamation legalized direct trade in the country, improved transparency requirements, reestablished the ECTA’s authority in the coffee sector, and initiated a review of the grading system. That review, which concluded in 2019, was led by K.C. O’Keefe – a Q Instructor and coffee value chain consultant for Boot Coffee – with whom I was fortunate to reconnect and consult while working on this piece.
One of K.C.’s insights from the time he spent working with graders in the country is the importance of mentorship. “Ethiopia has been grading its own coffees for far longer than most other countries,” he told me. Guidelines and traditions for grading have been passed down from person to person; which has in turn made the Ethiopian system “person centric, in that it’s a person who approves the coffee, not a standard.” This legacy, “still strong and alive” represents a beautiful and honored tradition, as well as a complication for amending or updating systems, methods, and guidelines.
Ultimately, in recent years the ECTA and CLU resumed regular duties and the ECX’s relevance waned. Today, as little as 10% of the nation’s single-origin coffees pass through the ECX’s auction, while 100% of exported coffees are still graded by the CLU. The ECX retains some value as a service provider, assigning raw coffee beans grades in their regional labs prior to centralized preshipment evaluations by the CLU in Addis.
While it’s evident that Ethiopian coffee production and grading has evolved over the years, it’s also true that the nature of change tends to be slow and certain systems remain little different from when they were first implemented. As such, the overarching themes of this guide should remain relevant for years to come. It is, to the best of my knowledge, the only such comprehensive and interpretive guide to Ethiopian coffee grades that exists in the public sphere. Please share freely with appropriate attribution.
Details on the ECX grading system are derived from Ethiopian Coffee Standards Unification and Revision Report (Sept 2019) prepared by Fintrac, Inc., under contract with USAID, and Willem Boot’s 2011 Ethiopian Coffee Buying Manual produced by Fintrac Inc., the contractor implementing USAID/Ethiopia’s Agribusiness and Trade Expansion program. My deep gratitude to Brianna Dickey, founder of CropConex, and K.C. O’Keefe for their time and sharing resources from their experiences on the Coffee Standards consultation committee. Thanks also to Marcelo Pereira for reviewing the document for accuracy.