You might have heard about this mythical quest of coffee tasting called Q grading? A secret, well actually not so secret society of super tasting wizards able to perceive the slightest difference in cups of coffee, to fill out complex cupping forms with ease and find subtle off flavours like a quarantine detection hound. Perhaps you’ve asked yourself the question if it is a valuable skill you should learn? if you should sit the exam? Can I pass? Or perhaps you’re just curious as to what happens in those red-light rooms during testing.
Read on intrepid tasters.
All jokes aside, objective quality scoring of green coffee on the SCA cupping form is an incredibly important mechanism for making sure producers are fairly paid and buyers receive what they pay for. Evaluating coffee quality objectively is considered one of the most challenging tasks by coffee professionals, this is due to the subjective nature of flavour and varying amounts of exposure to a variety of coffee origins and quality levels depending on how long you’ve been in the industry, this can lead to personal biases influencing you evaluation. Learning the skills to be able to evaluate as objectively as possible and globally calibrated is of the highest value for sensory analysis and maintains the fairness required for all stakeholders selling and buying green coffee.
The Q Grader program was established in 2004 by the Coffee Quality Institute (CQI) to assess and grade coffee based on its individual attributes. It aims to create a common language for coffee quality around the world and to improve the quality of life of producers through realising better quality and, as a result, higher selling prices. Having their coffee assessed through the Q grading system provides producers with valuable information and feedback about their coffee and shows opportunities to increase the quality.
To become a Q Grader, you will submit to an intensive 6 days of sensory evaluation, skills building and then put them to the test with exams on each discipline. Over the course of the class will find out your base level of sensory acuity/skill and build on those skills with the aim of passing and becoming a Q grader. Ideally you will have a considerable amount of coffee tasting experience prior to enrolling to be able to successfully complete the accreditation, however it is not impossible to pass even if you are relatively new to coffee, however, be under no illusion this is challenging course, and many students need to attend a second or third course to successfully pass all the modules.
So, you’re keen, how do you know if you have the base level skills required? Some people get worried they may not be able to taste, this is probably an unnecessary concern as its highly unlikely you have joined a taste-based industry without having a “normal” level of tasting skill. Spending a few years in the coffee industry would be an advantageous way to acquire this experience and awareness, however focused diligent practice will allow those new to coffee to also develop the skills required for successful navigation of the course. It is important though to expose yourself to as many coffee qualities and origins as you can, perspective makes up a significant part of having the situational awareness to be able to be objective with the quality scoring AND familiarise yourself with that SCA cupping form!
For many successfully becoming a Q Grader is a career defining moment, because it is a challenging course it will be a badge of honour signifying your skill level. It is almost a mandatory accreditation for anyone in the coffee industry involved in farming, processing, selling, quality control or green coffee purchasing.
What does the course look like?
To pass Q you will need to successfully complete 19 tests. As we’ve covered above the program’s primary goal is that cuppers can fill in the cupping form accurately and with scoring calibration. To achieve this goal there is obviously substantial focus on the Specialty Coffee Association (SCA) cupping form and the testing of this completed by evaluating 4 separate tables of coffees. There are also another 15 test modules that isolate cuppers’ sensory systems and skills. By treating these skills in isolation, they provide the ability to build foundation skills, these skills are then combined, often subconsciously, when cupping. Here’s a breakdown of the testing skills.
4 Flights (tables) of coffee are cupped to assess the student’s ability to differentiate quality attributes, to taste and capture defects in coffees (if they are present) and correctly fill in the cupping form. The tables are divided into those groupings to help students achieve calibration within those styles. It is in the student’s advantage to have previous tasting experience of coffees from each of those categories to assist in being able to rank their relative quality objectively. I can’t stress enough working knowledge and comfort using the SCA cupping form is highly recommended, practice, practice, practice! The value of this is hopefully obvious pathway to cupping score mastery.
Sensory Skills (2 tests)
Aqueous solutions of sweet, salt, sour and bitter will test your ability to identify the type and taste modes. This tests your tongues sensitivity to concentrations of these modes both individually and as mixtures to determine if you fall into the non-taster, normal-taster, or super-taster category (don’t worry your unlikely to be a non-taster). These are important building blocks that you need to be able to correctly assess while filling in the cupping form they help you isolate and score the structure, body, and balance elements of the form.
Olfactory Skills (4 tests)
Aromatic compounds from the Le Nez du Café set are used to build your flavour memory and test flavour recall. An important skill when trying to identify flavours in coffee. Flavour identification in coffee is often tricky for the new cupper it’s a complex beverage with many competing flavour compounds. Flavour identification is a buildable skill, it may not be immediately obvious, but flavour is a memory, it is why you sometimes recall vivid memories when tasting.
Triangulation (4 tests)
Not a guessing game, although sometimes it can feel that way, triangulation is a cuppers ability to differentiate attributes of coffees, to be able to identify the “odd one out” set as a group of 3 coffees with 2 cups being the same and 1 cup different. This is a vital skill when working in a roastery to determine if coffees can be blended or substituted. If you run out or a coffee might age prematurely and you need to keep a taste profile, you will need to find something as a replacement that you could not successfully triangulate. To practice set up triangles with friends. You can use 2 coffees and increase the difficulty by blending them together to create the odd cup making them progressively less different. For example, 2 cups coffee A, 1 cup of 20% coffee B and 80% coffee A.
Roast Identification (1 test)
This tests your ability to identify when the sample has not been roasted properly. It is super important you can identify if off flavours are from the coffee or from the roasting. When we cup, we can’t apply our knowledge and make assumptions about what the coffee could have tasted like we need to just describe what we experience so to be fair to a coffee if the roasting is off, we need to re roast and try the coffee again. To test this, you will triangulate again but this time it will be the same coffee roasted correctly, too light, too dark, and baked. To make it more relevant the correct roast profile will always be present in each triangle (but not always just the odd cup out) to pass you need to correctly triangulate each set and you need to identify which roast profile the “odd” cup is.
Organic Acids (1 Test)
Coffee is complex, with many organic acids making up its flavour, some perceived as acidic, some perceived as bitter. Being able to identify them not only increases you sensory ability but also increases your ability to describe what you are tasting. This exercise adds citric, malic, acetic and phosphoric acid to diluted coffee and asks you to identify both the spiked coffee and identify which acid it is.
Green and Roast Grading. (2 tests)
Specialty coffee is defined as scoring 80 points or above on the cupping form but also defined by how many defects are found in a 350g green sample. Specialty coffee allows no primary defects and up to 5 secondary defects it is important to capture these because they have a negative impact on cup quality. In roasted coffee SCA allows no quakers in a 100g sample. CQI allows up to 3 quakers in roasted. This is a critical skill because coffee is sold under contract and the green grade defect count is part of that contract. It is highly recommended to get a hold of the SCA green grading handbook to familiarise yourself with the classification of defects.
General Knowledge test
This is an exam of 100 questions to test your general knowledge and the information presented in the course. Doing some reading on basics of coffee farming, cupping protocols, and brewing prior to the course will assist your preparation and success.
Hopefully now you have an understanding of what is in store and you are motivated to get to practice and prepare for Q Grade success. Good Luck see you in an upcoming course soon