This month’s issue of the trade rag CoffeeTalk posed the question of standardized specialty coffee ratings and grades as an aid to consumers: Toward standardized specialty coffee ratings and grading [PDF, page 8, 7.6Mb]. The article opens with mention of $130 a pound Hacienda Esmeralda Geisha. It then questions how retailers and consumers can inject some predictable sanity into pricing high-quality bean stocks.

So just how can the layman consumer reliably know when a coffee is really worth $20 a pound and when it is not? The challenge, according to some specialty coffee experts, is in being able to separate gradings for specialty coffee from the mass commercial coffee that dominates the trade. Historically, the industry has based itself off of “C” grade coffee — mass production coffee with much lower quality standards and a low baseline price traded on the floor of the New York Board of Trade (NYBOT, now Ice Futures U.S.)

Oddly enough, the answer probably lies partly in their invocation (via CNBC this time) of the ever-popular wine analogy. Wine buyers rarely base their purchase decisions purely on the grapes. More often, consumers are willing to pay more for specific vitners, labels, and vintages — and not by any special grading system that tells consumers that a $10 bottle of wine is made from one class of grapes and a $30 bottle is made of some other grade. Unless the wine comes in a box — or any container larger than the gas tank of a Mini Cooper — wine buyers follow few other large-grain cues associating price with quality.

Of course, coffee can similarly be sold by regions, varietals, crop harvests, and even single estates. But this represents a progressively smaller and smaller share of the specialty coffee market. So if there’s going to be any meaningful grading system at all, it will need to be very simple — more like the grade A and AA we see for eggs (and even that is a bit much for many consumers). Meanwhile, labels like Jamaica Blue Mountain or Kona will continue to command their prices just on recognition alone. The marketing efforts behind different varietals, etc., may prove far more influential than any grading system.

Just ask a Japanese-speaking Tommy Lee Jones about his favorite coffee-in-a-can: