Size matters...at least when it comes to a coffee's name. “Extra Fancy,” “AA,” and “Supremo” all refer to coffees that have the same size beans before roasting.
Green coffee bean size is measured with series of screens with increasingly tiny holes. The beans are poured onto the top screen (with the largest holes) and sifted through until all the beans are caught on a screen. The smaller the bean, the more screens it passes through. “Extra Fancy,” “AA,” and “Supremo” all mean size 17/18 beans, beans that pass through a screen with 18/64 inch holes, but are caught on the next screen, with 16/64 inch holes. “Fancy,” “AB,” and “Excelso” mean beans that fall through the 16/64 inch holes, but are caught on the next level down.
"Peaberry” is another coffee name related to size. Coffee beans are the seed in a coffee cherry, and most split into two halves when processed. “Peaberry” refers to beans that don't form into two halves, but instead curl into a single oval shaped bean. Peaberries often come from older trees, tend to be smaller and are more common in some regions (Tanzania, for instance) than others.
Not all coffees are named for their screen size. Some aren't even measured. Many single estate and small coffee growers combine all of their defect-free beans in the bags they sell. Our Colombia Traditional Los Naranjos and all our Ethiopian coffees (both washed and naturally processed) are excellent examples of amazing coffee with a variety of bean size.
The best way to find the best coffee is to know your roaster. A good roaster can tell you where a coffee come from and how it's been graded. A good roaster also “cups” (a coffee industry term meaning “tastes”) every coffee to be sure the flavor is at least as good as its name implies.
The flavor of beans that are well developed and free of defects can vary with size, but bigger doesn't necessarily mean better. It doesn't mean worse, either. The flavor of the coffee depends on many factors, and size of the green coffee beans is arguably the least reliable measure of a coffee's quality.
So, does size really matter? Like many things in life, when it comes to the quality and flavor of your coffee, the answer is, “No.”
Next time on "What's in a name?" It's all about Process.