Tasting coffee is, by and large, a subjective experience: our perception of body, sweetness, acidity, and flavour notes will likely be different to those around us.
However, in recent years, the coffee community has made efforts to standardise the way we judge coffee. In particular, the industry’s leading association – the SCA – has introduced a universal grading system against which all coffees can be scored to determine their quality.
Those responsible for scoring the coffees are known as certified Q graders – skilled individuals with high-level knowledge of coffee and its distinct characteristics. Often considered the sommeliers of the coffee world, Q graders are a valuable part of the coffee supply chain, helping set a global standard that benefits both buyers and sellers through a shared understanding of quality coffee.
However, in order to become a certified Q grader, you must go through rigorous training and pass a series of examinations to earn the coveted qualification. To find out more, I spoke with certified Q grader and head of production at The Gentlemen Baristas, Roosa Jalonen.
What is Q grading?
Q grading is the evaluation of coffee quality through a process of smelling and tasting coffee, commonly known as cupping. It involves scoring the coffee based on several attributes, including aroma, flavour, and acidity.
According to SCA cupping protocol, any coffee that scores above 80 points is specialty grade and can be further classified into “very good”, “excellent”, and “outstanding”, based on the final score.
To become a licensed Q grader, one must undergo a rigorous Q grader programme managed by the Coffee Quality Institute (CQI).
First established in 2004 to create a standardised grading system, it allows coffee to be evaluated objectively and consistently worldwide. It also provides a common language for those involved in the coffee supply chain to understand, discuss, and effectively improve coffee quality.
Roosa works as the Head of Production at The Gentlemen Baristas in London. She says that having a Q grader certification is particularly helpful for those who work closely with green coffee, such as in buyers and head roasters.
“As a head roaster, you need to know the quality of green coffee and how to get the best out of it,” she says. “The Q grading course provides a lot of useful training, such as taste perception, green defect detection, and identification of roast faults. It also allows to develop a sensory focus on the product.”
For roasteries, employing a certified Q grader helps transfer some of the power from the traders to the roasters. Specifically, Roosa says that it allows her to judge the coffees she buys and determine whether the quoted score is accurate – and, therefore, whether they’re paying the correct price.
“I use the skills I gained from the certification all the time, because I’m regularly buying coffee for my roastery,” she explains. “I find my judgement of coffee to be much better than it would have been before the Q grading certification.”
The Q grading programme: What does it entail?
There are two types of Q grading certification: one for arabica and one for robusta.
The Q grading course runs for six days: three dedicated to training and workshops, and three dedicated to tests. Participants must pass each of the 19 tests in order to become accredited.
Specifically, the assessment includes cupping tests, triangulation tests, olfactory tests, sensory skills, organic acid matching pairs test, sample roast identification. skills, green coffee grading, and roasted grading.
These tests are designed to measure the participant’s ability to objectively assess coffee, identify and analyse sensory characteristics, and detect roast and green defects.
“In the exam, you will need to know what baked, underdeveloped, and overdeveloped coffees taste like,” Roosa explains. “Then there is also a quaker test, where you have to identify quakers from the batch.”
Meanwhile, the olfactory test includes identifying and pairing scents using the Le Nez du Café aroma kit, while the organic acid matching pair test requires participants to identify the four common acids found in coffee (acetic, citric, malic, phosphoric).
There is also the more challenging sensory skill test, which requires participants to identify basic tastes at varying intensities and combinations.
Top tips to prepare for the certification
While there is no formal prerequisite for taking the Q grading course, Roosa says that it’s beneficial to have cupping experience prior to joining the course.
This is because the extensive materials and information covered in the course can be overwhelming for those who are not familiar with cupping or the sensory aspects of coffee.
To top it off, the rigorous tasting and testing in a short period of time, combined with the additional pressure to pass the exams may make it more stressful for the participants.
Therefore, Roosa says, “when you take the course, you want to be ready to do the exams.” She recommends practicing and preparing for some of the tests in advance.
For instance, with the olfactory test, you can purchase the Le Nez du Café aroma kit and practise pairing the aromas. An article from the Barista Institute also suggests becoming familiar with the SCA protocols and handbooks for cupping, brewing, and classifying green coffee defects, as well as the SCA cupping form.
Furthermore, you should taste as much coffee as possible in the lead up to the course in order to expand your palate and develop sensitivity to a wide range of flavours.
Roosa tells me that her prior experience practising and competing in cup tasters competitions has helped her significantly in the triangulation test, in which you must pick the odd coffee out of the group.
“For me, the hardest part of the course was scoring, where I had to get my head straight on what the coffee would score,” she says. “When you’re scoring, you need to be able to justify it and be as fair as possible. For me, it was a learning curve of detaching my own emotions away from scoring.”
Although obtaining a Q grading certification can be intense, sufficient practice and preparation goes a long way. Above all, remember to trust your palate and be confident in your decisions.
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