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Q Grader Calibration Students

What is the Q Arabica Grader Exam?

This past January I hit a milestone when I taught my 100th CQI course. I have had the pleasure of helping many people on their coffee journey and I can only hope that they have learned at least as much from me as I have from them. One of the main classes I have taught is the Q Arabica course, which is the certification course to become a Q Grader for arabica coffee. I would like to spend some time in my next few posts discussing what the Q Grader certificate is and offering some tips for those who would like to pursue the certificate.

What is a Q Arabica Grader?

According to the Coffee Quality Institute, a Q Arabica Grader is “An individual who is credentialed by the CQI to grade and score coffees utilizing standards developed by the Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA).” This credential is achieved by passing a series of 22 tests. To maintain Q Grader status, one’s certificate must be renewed every three years through a formal, evaluated calibration with other Q Graders. 

The Q Grader is often referred to as a “sommelier” of coffee; however, this is not quite a valid comparison, the main difference being that a sommelier is largely focused on wine knowledge and service (pairing a wine with a customer’s wants and needs and properly serving the wine), whereas a Q Grader is solely focused on evaluation of the raw material: green coffee. A well-qualified sommelier must know wine in general—viticulture and enology, specifics of wine regions and their profiles—while also being expert at wine service. And while I’d hope that a well-qualified coffee professional would have similar knowledge of both coffee science and service, a qualified Q Grader is simply asked to quantify and describe a coffee’s quality, both through a physical evaluation of the green coffee and a sensory evaluation that follows a set of protocols. 

Q Graders can serve many functions across the supply chain. Here are just a few:

  • Coffee grower: Gaining the ability to evaluate the quality of their own coffee is perhaps one of the most empowering things a coffee grower can do. Though knowledge of quality doesn’t guarantee a higher price, it is a major step in the right direction
  • Coop/Exporter/Importer QC Department: Q Grader skills enable quality control professionals to better assess the quality of lots coming in and appropriately separate higher-quality lots. A Q-certified professional will also be better equipped to understand clients’ wants and demands and to pair them with the right coffees. 
  • Roaster: Learning how to identify coffee quality is a must for a quality-focused roaster. What’s more, a Q Grader-certified roaster will be better able to serve their customers, using the quality and flavor choices they make to determine brand identities and roast preferences. 
  • Quality Consultant: This is a fairly new but very active space, especially here in Brazil. Consultants work with growers to improve quality—through new genetics, post-harvest practices, improved storage conditions, and many other factors—and help determine what works, what doesn’t work, and why. If you are not keeping score, you don’t know who is winning. The quantification of quality and the ability to accurately describe sensory attributes are keys to quality improvement. 

Why the Q Grader System is Important

That it is more focused does not mean that it carries less value. In fact, I would argue the opposite. The fact that the Q Grader system is more focused does not mean that it carries less value. In fact, I would argue the opposite and that it has played a huge role in the specialty coffee industry. Perhaps this anecdote can shine some light as to why. Many years ago, when I first began sourcing in Brazil, several of the growers I met with would repeatedly tell me with great alacrity how many bags they had sold to Illy the previous harvest. This was clearly their way of communicating that they were selling quality coffee.

Photo of Joel with coffee growers he visited in 2006.
Visiting coffee growers in Brazil in 2006.

They also told me directly that they had quality coffee and showed me their quality production, but by referencing Illy they were basically saying, “Look, it’s not just me saying this, Illy says so too.” Why Illy? Because they were one of the first major buyers of higher quality Brazilian coffees, in particular the pulped naturals that began appearing in larger quantities around 20 years ago. They were a foreign entity and, to boot, a gourmet Italian coffee brand, buying in a country where, like most origins (especially at that time), the “good stuff” was sent away and the “bad stuff” was consumed locally. (When I opened Casa Brasil as a cultural center and Brazilian market in the mid-2000s, I always thought it offensive that several Brazilian brands’ highest quality line was their “export” line—implying somehow that foreign consumers deserve better coffee than domestic drinkers.

Over the years I started hearing less about Illy and more about “specialty coffee” and coffees that scored above 80 points (the threshold for specialty). As Brazilian production improved, few were proud of 80 points and instead the bar was raised to 83/84. In the last several years, modern growers often talk about their portfolio of flavor profiles and/or start the conversation with a question, “What are you looking for?” This suggests a level of grower agency and skill almost unthinkable a mere 30 years ago.

Flavio and Luiz Saldanha showing different coffees at their farm Fazenda California is Jacarezinho, Parana, Brazil
Flavia and Luiz Saldanha from Fazenda California in Jacarezinho showing some of the different coffees available from their farm. Fazenda California has been a pioneer of developing a portfolio of flavor profiles.

While the initial intent of the Q Grader system, and an aspect that still remains, was the certification of a coffee as “specialty” by a group of Q Graders, I believe a far more important aspect is the improved quality and content of communication across the supply chain. More so than many other beverages, especially at the scale of coffee, growers, co-ops, exporters, importers, roasters, baristas, and consumers now have a common language in which to discuss coffee quality and ultimately conduct trade, including a common scoring system and set of descriptors to define cup quality. In describing their portfolio, the modern Brazilian grower is likely to say something like, “I have an 83 coffee that is full-bodied and sweet, with flavors of caramel and a rounded citric acidity. I have an 87 microlot that has lactic acidity, a creamy mouthfeel, and flavors of red berries, in particular ripe raspberries. I have another 87 microlot, but that one has less body, a much sharper citric acidity, jasmine in the fragrance, and flavors of lemon and papaya.” This is a far cry from, “I sold 200 bags to Illy last year,” and I think the value aggregation it brings across the supply chain—from the grower who will receive more for those coffees to the consumer who can have more flavor profiles to choose from—is obvious.

History of the Q Grader

In fact, the SCAA protocol for evaluating arabica coffee was developed in Brazil. A great account of this process is given by Ted Lingle and Sunalini Menon in Britta Folmer’s The Craft and Science of Coffee (a book I highly recommend) in Chapter 8, Cupping and Grading–Discovering Character and Quality. Although the art of cupping coffee—infusing ground coffee with hot water and then slurping the coffee liquor to evaluate its quality and attributes—has existed for centuries, it wasn’t until 1984 that the process was documented in detail by Ted Lingle in the The Coffee Cuppers’ Handbook. This seminal book helped transform cupping from a private, ad hoc practice into a standardized process. (Lingle donated both the book and its proceeds to the SCAA.)

The Coffee Cuppers' Handbook,, 4th edition.
The 4th Edition of the Coffee Cupper’s Handbook

According to Lingle and Menon, “the formal SCAA protocol for cupping and grading arabica coffee grew out of a specialty coffee promotion program of the International Coffee Organization that began in 1999. Although there were five countries involved in this program, the cupping protocol was originally developed for Brazilian arabica coffees. The promotion of the Brazil coffees hinged on creating a cupping competition that would be immediately followed by an internet auction. To conduct the cupping competition, a standardized cupping form was needed as well as a standardized format for roasting and preparing the coffee. Through trial and error, over a 5-year period, the SCAA cupping form evolved into one that arrayed 10 important quality attributes, each worth 10 points, so that evaluation would be based on a 100-point scale” (Lingle and Menon, 2017).

Those attributes were (and still are): 

  1. Fragrance/Aroma
  2. Flavor
  3. Aftertaste
  4. Acidity
  5. Body
  6. Uniformity
  7. Balance
  8. Clean Cup
  9. Sweetness
  10. Overall   

In 1995, SCAA founded the Specialty Coffee Institute (SCI) as an educational offshoot. In 1998, when coffee prices plummeted, the SCI changed its name and mission, becoming the Coffee Quality Institute (CQI), with the mission of “improving coffee quality and the lives of those who produce it.” Per Lingle and Menon (2017), “The cornerstone of this program was the development of the Q Coffee System, which was a formalized method of cupping and grading coffee, based on the SCAA Cupping and Grading protocol. The initial pilot program was funded through a grant from USAID and the first classes for a group of students from Colombia were presented in Spanish at SCAA’s headquarters in Long Beach, CA, USA. In addition to teaching the Cupping and Grading protocol, the students were put through a battery of sensory tests to measure their ability to taste and smell, as well as their sensory acuity in differentiating coffees based on their origins, and their consistency in actually rating different quality levels using the SCAA cupping form. For the first time the coffee industry had created a ‘formal’ cupping training program; open to everyone willing to take the week-long course, and it was a huge success.”

Joel with his Q Grader class in 2007 (at that time it was called the Cupping Judge Course)
My SCAA Cupping Judge class from 2007. The Cupping Judge class later became the Q Grader Course with the addition of the General Knowledge Exam.

The Q Grader Course

The Q Arabica Grader Course is six days in duration. The first three days are largely spent taking practice exams and reviewing pertinent material. The final three days are the actual exams. Generally, the practice exams cover half the quantity of coffees in the final exams. Courses must be held in an appropriately certified coffee laboratory. 

Photo of students at a Q Grader course in Brazil in 2006. They are taking the Organic Acids exam under red light conditions.
Students taking the Organic Acids exam during a Q Grader course at the Brazilian Specialty Coffee Association in 2016. Some exams, such as the Organic Acids and Triangulations, are performed under red lights to minimize the ability to discern differences visually.

The Q Grader Arabica Exams

The Q Grader exams are designed to test a student’s ability to distinguish coffees from similar origins (triangulations), use the cupping properly to evaluate cuppings (cupping), identify properly roasted coffee (roast level identification), identify aromas (olfactory), identify taste intensities (sensory skills), identify acid intensity and type (organic acids), and physically evaluate green and roasted coffee (green grading and roasted grading respectively). 

1. Cuppings (4 exams, 60 minutes each)

Students must evaluate six coffees (three coffees during practice), properly using the cupping form, accurately identifying any defects present, and calibrating on the scores given. 

There are four exams:

  1. Washed Milds (wet processed coffees from North and South America);
  2. Africa (wet processed coffees from East Africa);
  3. Naturals (dry processed coffees from any origin); and 
  4. Asia (wet processed coffees from Asia).

2. Triangulations (4 exams, 45 minutes each) 

The triangulation test evaluates a student’s ability to distinguish among three coffees. Students must determine which of the three coffees is different (two are the same, one is different). As with the cuppings, there are six groups presented for each table during the exam (and three for the practice). The coffee flights are the same as the cuppings (Washed Milds, Africa, Naturals, Asia). 

3. Olfactory (4 exams, 20 minutes each)   

The olfactory tests a student’s ability to identify olfactory perceptions (smell). Students are tested on a total of 36 fragrances found in coffee, divided into four flights/exams of nine fragrances per the groups noted below. Students are presented with two sets of identical fragrances (one numbered set of nine and one lettered set of six) and must match the six lettered vials with their numbered counterparts. They must also identify by name three of the scents. 

  • Enzymatic: Fragrances originating from coffee cultivation and processing
  • Sugar Browning: Fragrances originating from the earlier stages of roasting
  • Dry Distillation: Fragrances originating from the later stages of roasting
  • Aromatic Taints: Fragrances originating from errors in processing and storage

4. Organic Acids (1 exam, 45 minutes)

The Organic Acids exam, also known as Matching Pairs, tests a student’s ability to detect and identify some common acids found in coffee: citric, malic, phosphoric, and acetic. Students are presented eight groups of four brewed cups of coffee (four groups of four brewed cups during practice). In two of the four cups in the group, a specific acid has been added (the same acid for both cups). Students must identify which two cups have added acid and identify the acid that was added. 

5. Sensory Skills Test (2 exams with ungraded reference, 1 hour total)

Much as the olfactory exam tests the nose (olfaction), the sensory skills exam tests the tongue (gustation). Students are tested on their ability to identify varying intensities of salt, sugar, and sour, first given separately, then combined into the same solution. The exam is divided into three parts.

Part I: This is a reference (answers are given during the exam). Students are separately given three intensities each of a salty, sweet, and sour solution in randomly numbered cups. The student must identify the intensities (e.g., cup 365 = Salt 1, cup 238 = Salt 2, cup 343 = Salt 3). 

Part II, Blind Identification: Students are then given the same solutions with new numeration. Instead of being given them by group (salty, sour, sweet), all nine solutions are given at once. Students must determine the component and the intensity of that component (cup 234 = Salt 1, cup 532 = Sour 3, etc.) 

Part III, Mixtures: Students are given eight cups. Now the components (sugar, salt, salt) in their varying intensities have been mixed into one solution. Four of the eight solutions have two components, four have all three components. Students must identify which components are present and their intensities (345 = Salt 3, Acid 2, Sugar 1; 541 = Salt 0, Acid 1, Sugar 3; etc.)

6. Arabica Green Grading (1 exam comprising 3 parts, 60 minute total duration)

This exam evaluates a student’s ability to identify physical defects in green coffee and to evaluate the coffee grade based on SCA Green Coffee Standards. Students are given 20 minutes each to grade three 350 g samples of green coffee and are allowed to use the SCA Green Grading handbook during the exam. 

7. Arabica Roasted Grading (1 exam, 15 minutes)

This exam assesses a student’s ability to identify “quakers” in roasted coffee. Students are given 15 minutes to assess a 100 gram roasted coffee sample by identifying the quakers and then stating if the number of quakers passes the threshold for a specialty coffee.  

8. Roast Level ID (1 exam, 45 minutes)

This exam evaluates a student’s ability to identify coffee that has been improperly roasted. The exam consists of triangulations of properly roasted coffee with different types of improperly roasted coffee: coffee that is either too dark, too light, or baked (coffee with the correct color but that was roasted for an extended period of time). Students are presented with five groups of three coffees. (All coffees are from the same green lot, just roasted differently.) As with the triangulation exams, students must identify the coffee that is different; however, for this exam, they must also write what the roast error is (light, dark, or baked). 

9. General Knowledge Exam (1 exam, 60 minutes in duration)

The general knowledge exam is a one-hour exam of 100 multiple choice questions that evaluate a student’s knowledge of the various aspects taught during the course (this information is covered in the presentations that generally precede each practice exam). These categories include brewing, CQI protocols, olfactory perception, organic acids, coffee processing, roast level identification, SCA standards, sensory skills (gustation), triangulation, and green grading. 

Want to learn more about the Q Grader Course? Stay tuned here for more articles in this series on overall and specific exam descriptions and tips. 

Cited and Recommended Resources: 

The Coffee Cuppers Handbook – Lingle

Coffee Sensory and Cupping Handbook – Fernández-Alduenda and Giuliano

The Washed Arabica Green Coffee Defect Guide

The Craft and Science of Coffee – Britta Folmer (ed.)

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