So what’s this Q Grader thing all about anyway?
There was no more popular question posed to me when I had the privilege of hosting a Q Grader preparation workshop at the Golden Bean Coffee Roaster Competition and Conference on the Sunshine Coast last October. Once and for all, let’s answer some important questions surrounding the certification and its meaning:
Hat is a Q Grader?
Q Graders are accredited coffee cuppers who are the backbone of the Q Coffee System developed by the Coffee Quality Institute or CQI. CQI is the charitable trust of the Specialty Coffee Association of America that provides coffee quality improvement aid services in coffee producing countries, with 75% of its work funded by government or NGO donors in coffee producing countries.
The Q Coffee System was developed in the early 2000s as a program designed to improve the quality of coffee worldwide, by creating a common language for coffee quality evaluation and an independent certifying body for high quality coffee samples. Though originally focused on Arabica coffee, the program recently expanded to include Fine Robusta coffee (R Coffee) in what promises to have an even greater impact on coffee quality worldwide.
In the Q Coffee System, coffee producers submit samples to CQI or one of CQI’s authorized In-Country Partners for the purpose of independent quality evaluation. Those samples are evaluated by 3 similarly qualified coffee cuppers, called Q Graders, that rate the coffee based on its physical appearance as green coffee and characteristics when cupped following protocols set by CQI.
The evaluation results in a combined report of coffee characteristics and a numerical score on a 100 point basis, where coffees reaching the threshold of 80 points or greater are certified as Q Coffees and listed on CQI’s website at www.coffeeinstitute.org containing specific lot and contact information for potential buyers. Regardless of whether coffees reach the 80-point minimum for certification, a diagnostic report is sent back to the submitting party to clearly and objectively describe the characteristics of each sample. Each lot evaluated can be as small as one bag (60 kg) and no larger than one shipping container (18,000 kg) of coffee.
In order to carry out this program on such a large scale, CQI set out to certify Q Graders worldwide. At the time of writing, there are approximately 3,000 graders licensed worldwide in 58 countries. By itself, the Q Grader certification has become a widely successful gold standard of competency among those who cup coffee.
The Q Grader curriculum is designed as a certification course for those who routinely taste and evaluate coffee as a part of his or her profession.
Who Should Become Q Grader?
The Q Grader certification exam is recommended for any coffee professional who routinely evaluates the quality of coffee: coffee producers (farmers), coffee importers and exporters, green buyers, roasters, quality control personnel and baristas can benefit from what they learn about coffee and themselves from the Q Grader course series of tests.
In addition to establishing a language and baseline calibration for objective quality, the process of taking a Q Grader exam allows each participant (student) to evaluate his or her own abilities, coffee knowledge and sensory acuity in a controlled environment.
Although there is no formal prerequisite to register for a Q Grader course offered in Australia or any other country where programs are conducted, it is recommended that cupping be a routine part of your daily activities for the best performance and usefulness of the certification.
What does is take to become a Q Grader?
Each Q Grader must pass a battery of 22 exams over 5 days, designed to evaluate competency and sensory acuity in a number of areas closely associated with coffee cupping and grading. Although thousands of coffee professionals pursue the accreditation each year, only about 25% pass and obtain certification in a typical certification course, with the balance pursuing retakes of failed exams offered in subsequent sessions at SCAA Certified Laboratories and other CQI approved testing centers worldwide. One SCAA Certified Lab exists in Australia (Sydney), with others under development.
Each certification is valid for 36 months, after which time a calibration course must be taken in order to remain current. Those who do not pass all exams during a first attempt have up to 18 months to complete or retake all outstanding exams to achieve accreditation from their course date.
Course fees are set by each instructor or testing centre and vary by location, typically ranging from $1,500 to over $2,500 per person, taking into account the extra services included (like meals), cost of operating in each local country, as well as fixed expenses like supplies and certification licensing fees paid to CQI for each participating student. When enrolling, be sure to ask what is included in your fee.
What are the tests?
#1) General Knowledge Exam
The general knowledge exam is the only completely written test in the Q certification exam’s battery of exercises, consisting of 100 multiple choice questions about coffee cultivation, harvesting, processing, processing, cupping, grading, roasting and brewing.
#2) Sensory Skills Exam
Setting a baseline standard for taste acuity, subjects taking the Sensory Skills test must identify three (3) intensities of salt, sour and sweet odorless liquids individually and when combined in mixtures. The third of this three-part test is generally regarded as the most difficult of all exams in the Q Grader course.
#3) Cupping Skills Exams
The core exams of the Q Grader course are its 5 cupping flights. Each flight includes 6 coffee samples and one reference set used for discussion and calibration before exam time begins.
#4) Olfactory Skills Exams
The Q Grader course olfactory skills tests utilise the Lenoir Le Nez (pronounced ‘le nay’) du Cafe scent vial kit, which is available from the SCAA Store. The objective is to evaluate an individual’s ability to recognize thirty six (36) common aromatic scents often found in the fragrance and aroma of coffee.
The ability to correctly identify each of the 36 scents from memory is helpful, but more as a flavour memory muscle-building exercise than any direct correlation between what you smell in the vials and in your coffee cup.
#5) Triangulation Skills Exams
Triangulation tests are designed to increase your sensitivity to minute differences in coffee characteristics and also teach you a methodology of comparing one cup to two others for purposes of quality control.
#6) Organic Acids Matching Pairs Exams
Participants are first introduced to each of the six primary acid components of coffee in a brief lecture and then asked to match 2 out of 4 weakly brewed cups of coffee containing those acids in 8 sets.
#7) Arabica Green Grading Test
In the Arabica Green Grading exam, you are provided 3 x 350 g green coffee samples that have been first picked clean and tainted with a certain number and type of defects. Your task is to identify the defects in a 350 g sample and then correctly identify the adjusted defect count using SCAA rules and label that sample as being specialty coffee, premium coffee or commercial coffee
#8) Arabica Roasted Coffee Grading Test
Similar to the green grading exam, in this test, you must correctly identify the number of quakers (underdeveloped beans that do not roast properly) in a sample of 100 g, then identify that sample as specialty coffee, premium or commercial.
#9) Sample Roast Identification Test
In the Sample Roast Identification test, you must identify an ideal roast for coffee cupping. Subjects must identify the roast type of 4 trays being presented as either correct or incorrect for sample evaluation and describe why.
A new generation of Q Grader certification programs is currently under development by CQI and its tireless volunteers and is expected to be deployed in April or May of this year. Called v4.0, the updated system will expand each Q Grader course to 6 days from 5, with 3 whole days dedicated to teaching and calibration, with the remaining 3 reserved exclusively for exams. CQI has responded to feedback from numerous student courses worldwide for widespread demand for enhanced education sessions in addition to its hallmark evaluation exams. Look for v.4.0 coursing coming to Australia and New Zealand sometime in late autumn and early winter 2013.
For a complete list of available courses, visit the CQI website at www.coffeeinstitute.org.
Andrew Hetzel is a coffee quality consultant and instructor for both Arabica Q and Robusta R Grader programs offered by the Coffee Quality Institute.
For more information about Andrew and his upcoming classes, visit