Why become a Q grader?

Why become a Q grader?

By David Burton

Any serious coffee professional will tell you that objectively assessing coffee quality is probably one of the most difficult things to do. This is because no matter how hard we try, we will always let our own bias get the better of us, especially when it comes to something as subjective as flavour. Come New Year, I’ll be into my fifth year in coffee, and leaving my own bias at the door is still something I have to keep in check (however, I still love a bloody good Kenyan coffee)!

The term ‘Q Grader’ first came to my attention early in my career, and it was talked about as this mythical qualification, only achievable by the greatest palates in the world. Obviously, that sent me right down the road to where I am today – the owner of a Q Grader qualification!

For everyone who loves coffee, which is around 95% of the population (or at least 95% of the people I speak to) and hasn’t heard of the Q grader programme, hopefully this blog will give you an insight into the reasons why I feel it is a massively important part of the industry. For those of you who know the Q, and are thinking of giving it a shot, then hopefully this piece might shed a bit more light on the programme and help set you up for success (along with the hundreds of coffees you’ll need to cup along the way)!

The Q Grader programme was established in 2004 as a way to objectively assess and grade coffee on its many individual attributes, leading to an overall score based on quality that will eventually deem the coffee being graded either speciality or non-speciality. The coffee quality institute (CQI) is a non – profit organisation behind the certification and it is their aim to create an army of cuppers all over the world who can “speak the same language” on coffee quality. In essence, the Q system uses a given protocol and grading system that, if used correctly, will allow everyone in the supply chain to look at coffee objectively providing producers with valuable information about their coffee and in turn influence a coffees value.

Experience is a given if you are embarking on the Q – there’s no way you can fluke your way into getting a Q qualification! You’ll spend countless hours at the cupping table honing your sensory skills for the 6-day programme. This isn’t a programme you should enter into lightly, and I would suggest that a couple of years spent in the coffee industry would be a huge advantage. If you are in the industry and your job involves any form of quality control aspects or green coffee purchasing, it’s well worth looking into. It’s also worth a mention that the programme will set you back around £2000 and focuses heavily on the SCA cupping forms, so if you don’t know what that is I would recommend doing some research and start cupping pretty sharpish.

The Q grader assessments

The programme runs for a total of 6 days with the first 3 days spent in calibration. Calibration is a very important part of the programme and will allow everyone to assess a range of coffees and discuss their findings. The main objective of this is to make sure that everyone is within the same range when scoring each coffee (creating the common language). The remaining time is made up of theory-based sessions covering a huge range of information including sensory evaluation, olfactory analysis, through to roasting and cupping protocols with a broad look at industry knowledge. Then, on day 4 the fun really begins…..

There are a total of 19 examinations all held under strict exam conditions, as follows:

Cupping skills

There are 4 cupping exams to be taken and cover various coffee growing regions and processing methods. These are split into 4 groups:
  • Milds (mainly coffees from Central and South America)
  • African
  • Asian
  • Naturally processed coffees

In order to pass these exams you’ll need to assess 6 groups of coffees from various countries within that region, for example, Ethiopia, Tanzania, Kenya, Burundi, Rwanda and Uganda would make up the African section. You will need to assess and grade each coffee on its individual attributes as shown in the SCA cupping form below. This form needs to be completed to protocol, and you’ll also need to be in line with the other cuppers in the class. Some cups are also spiked with a defect and will need to be marked correctly on your cupping form. This is why I can’t stress enough how important it is to be familiar with the SCA cupping form.

The SCA cupping form

Olfactory skills

This is split into four individual exams and uses Jean Lenoir’s Le Nez du Café kit. The kit includes 36 scents that represent a range of smells found in coffee. They are broken into 4 sections and cover enzymatic, (pre-harvest) sugar browning, (beginning of roast) dry distillation (end of roast) and aromatic taints (post-harvest). The scents are presented in 36 small vials and to pass the exams you must be able to identify each scent correctly and also match it with a pair. Examples include walnut, lemon, coffee blossom, smoke, rubber and potato, to name a few. It’s worth buying two kits as you will need to practice matching pairs.

Sensory skills

This exam is the one that most people fear, which is totally understandable. To pass this gruelling onslaught of sensory evaluation you will need to sit 3 exams where you are asked to identify basic tastes at varying intensities. These include sweet, sour and salt solutions. Exam 1 is relatively easy as you are allowed to know what taste the solution is but you have to assess the intensity of that taste out of 3 cups. For example, you know it is salt in the cup but you need to place them in order of intensity. Exam 2 gets a little trickier as you are now asked to the same thing but without the comfort of knowing what taste is in the cup. Exam 3 steps it up to a whole new level, which is where most people come unstuck. Exam 3 asks you to identify 8 individual cups with 4 of the cups containing 2 of the taste solutions and the 4 remaining cups have 3 of the taste solutions in. It gets worse! Each cup will have varying levels of taste intensities. For example, cup one could be low salt, medium sweet and high sour then cup 2 could be low salt, low sugar. It’s pretty horrific and it will have you second-guessing yourself for the whole of the exam. As clichéd as it sounds, go with your gut, and don’t go back in and slurp too many times. Also stay away from the beer and curry the night before…


Triangulations is the process of picking the odd one out from a group of coffees. I’d become familiar with doing this and thought it’d be pretty straightforward. How wrong I was! This part of the programme is split into 4 exams and you’ll be asked to triangulate all the coffees from the first part of the exam. This is done under red light so you can’t make judgements based on roast colour. In the exam, 6 sets of 3 coffees are set up, and you need to determine which out of the 3 is the rogue coffee. This might sound easy, but coffee has a habit of changing dramatically in flavour as it cools – often the dry aroma is the best indicator of which one’s the odd one out. Try to clarify your answers on the first or second taste, having done most of your evaluation on dry aroma.

Organic acids/matching pairs

In this exam, you are given 4 sets of 4 coffees, 2 of which will have been spiked with an acid. A very mild washed coffee is used for this exam and it is your job to identify which cups have the acid in, and also identify the type of acid. All these acids are found in coffee and develop throughout the growing and processing process – in large quantities they can leave an undesirable cup flavour. The acids are citric (like in lemons etc), malic (the sort of acidity in apples and rhubarb), phosphoric (found a lot in cola) and acetic (a vinegar-like acidity). This was a tough one and my only advice would be to buy yourself an organic acid kit, brew up some coffee and spike away. Practice is the only thing that will help you here.

Sample roast Identification

This exam consists of being able to identify 4 cups of the same coffee that have been roasted in 4 separate ways. This exam for me was the one I looked forward to as, being a roaster, it’s something I’m always keeping tabs on, on a daily basis. The test is to identify 3 undesirable roast flavours -these include baked, underdeveloped and over-roasted, and also identify the sample that had been roasted well. The tricky thing about the exam is that there is a repeat cup on the table. The samples I cupped and identified went; baked, over roasted, perfect, underdeveloped and perfect, and although I look for these flavours in our roasts, under exam conditions there’s a lot of second-guessing. One thing I took away for this exam was to cup multiple times and don’t make the assumption you have it on your first pass especially when there is a repeat cup. Going from an over-roasted coffee to an underdeveloped coffee really threw me off so just watch out for that.

The final 3 exams covered green grading samples (analysing the quality of green coffee), roasted coffee grading and a general knowledge exam. For these, I’d recommend buying an SCA green grading handbook and brushing up on your industry knowledge, as some questions cover processing, coffee anatomy and a few trade questions. The first 3 days of the course cover a lot of the information needed to get a pass.

The course itself, although immensely gruelling and intense, was one of the most enjoyable weeks of my career. I learnt a hell of a lot in those 6 days and have made some friends in the industry that I will have for life. Gaining the qualification has given me the validation that we at Rounton Coffee Roasters are roasting and assessing the coffees we buy to a very high standard and doing justice to the coffees we are so fortunate to get our hands on. The Q system has been created because quality is so intrinsic to a coffee’s value and I feel it is our job to do everything we can to assess our coffees in a fair and unbiased way. This is what adds value to the whole supply chain and rewards the people that have worked so hard to produce our coffee. To anyone who’s serious about upholding the values of quality and transparency in coffee, this qualification can be a career-defining moment. I’m more excited than ever to be roasting coffee, knowing that myself and my team are doing everything we can do to make it as good as it can be.