If you can pass the stringent test of a Q Grader, you can perform a task that’s crucial to maintaining global coffee quality.
In a room lit with red lights, you stand in absolute silence. Around you, people sniff sets of small white bowls arranged in threes. Everyone is holding clipboards and a spoon. How did you get here? You’re trying to achieve one of the most respected and important global coffee qualifications by becoming a Q grader.
Quality grader (aka Q grader) is a speciality coffee accreditation awarded by the Coffee Quality Institute to an individual who shows proficient theoretical understanding of coffee by passing 19 tests over an intensive six-day period. Once certified, you are required to renew your qualification every three years to ensure your coffee tasting skill level is always up to date. These tests are conducted under a strict protocol in which no talking is allowed and the eerie red light reduces the perception of shade to take away any bias prompted by the colour of the coffee.
The tests require you to match organic acids through blind tasting, taste and identify minute dilutions of three taste modalities in water, identify eight different mixtures of those modalities, evaluate four sets of six varying coffees and annotate a score sheet with seven qualitative factors for each individual coffee, and assess green physical coffee to the speciality standard. It’s exhausting just reading that. Q graders need a thorough understanding of assessment through cupping to consistently quantify scores for aroma, flavour, acidity, aftertaste and balance, skills calibrated to the entire global community of Q graders. Any possible defects in processing must be noted and penalised. If the coffee receives a score above 80, it enters the speciality world.
Making the grade
Such a comprehensive and strict evaluation can raise the question: why? It’s only coffee. Well, in the early 2000s the coffee quality landscape looked completely different. Nearly all coffee was graded by individual companies on
a large commercial scale. This meant that the understanding of coffee grading was kept to a select group of people who weren’t necessarily on the same wavelength, with very little feedback returning to producing countries. Ildi Revi, director of learning at Ally Coffee and a Q instructor, says Q grading “is very much to assist producers. It is an organisational standard that qualifies coffee tasters to provide consistent and genuine feedback.”
Many producers grow coffee that sits just short of speciality grade, and just a few steps can push a farmer’s production over the threshold of an 80-point coffee. The Q grader’s feedback is crucial in shifting the bell curve of coffee quality towards a market that produces overall better-scoring coffee. Beyond just having more great coffee available, the effect is better prices for coffee producers. “Once you have passed the Q you become a contributing factor that determines the price someone will receive for their crop,” Ildi says. “Coffee score can greatly impact a producer’s life.”
As important as Q grading is for producing countries, the entire supply chain requires them. In Colombia, two Q graders evaluate every exported coffee and once the coffee arrives at its destination, it is up to the importer or roaster’s Q grader to confirm no damage occurs in transit. Without these checks along the chain, there is the potential for complex claims about poor coffee quality with no real understanding of where the problem might lie. “The universal language that the Q creates makes the supply chain much more efficient,” says Freda Yuan, head of coffee at Origin Coffee Roasters. “In the long term it has been so important for large-scale growth with consistency.”
As the demand for speciality coffee grows around the world, the importance of maintaining consistent quality has never been higher. The Q grader qualification instils confidence in the quality of coffee and provides a globally understood feedback loop that ensures we buy and drink quantifiably great coffee.SUBSCRIBE NOW!