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Students taking the matching pairs exam during a Q Grader course.

5 Tips for Passing the Q Grader

The Q Grader Arabica exam is the highest level of professional certification for a coffee cupper. As I detailed in my previous post, it is a grueling set of nineteen exams set over six days that test your olfactory, gustation, and your ability to score coffees of various origins, processing methods, and qualities. I offer the following five tips to help future students in their bid to become a Q Grader.

  1. Come Prepared
  2. Respect Your Future Self
  3. It’s Just Your Opinion
  4. Trust Yourself
  5. Start with Simple Questions

Q Grader Tip 1: Come Prepared (Practicing for the Q Grader)

There are several things you can do in the weeks leading up to the Q course to increase your chances of passing. The skills tested during the Q are just that, skills, and you can improve them with training.


Part of the Specialty Coffee Association Arabica Cupping Form
Part of the Specialty Coffee Association Arabica Cupping Form. For the full form, visit the SCA Store.

The first time you use the SCA Cupping Form should not be at your Q Grader course, and one of the best things you can do prior to the course is to become familiar with it so that your focus during the cuppings is the coffees, not the form. In particular, get used to using the horizontal and vertical scales and what to do when a coffee has an issue (uniformity, clean cup, sweetness).  How do you know if you are getting it “right”? One way you can self-check is to see if your words match your numbers. If you are saying things like “astringent, woody, harsh, rubber, or tobacco” and your scores are high 7s or in the 8s, then likely your story is not coherent. Similarly, if you score a coffee an 88 but your descriptors are “caramel, sweet, chocolate” something seems to be missing from your story. During a Q Grader course, there are no retakes of the cuppings nor of the general knowledge exam. It pays to be familiar with the form.


The Le Nez du Café exam during a Q Grader course.
The Le Nez du Café exam during a Q Grader course.

There are two key things you can do here, but both entail purchasing a Le Nez du Café kit. The first is knowing the options. There are many aromas in the world, but only 36 are currently tested in the course, and these are divided into four groups of nine. As a good cupper, you should also be building your internal smell library. To pass the test, you should know the nine options for each test.

The second item to prepare is to discover which scents you have a hard time differentiating. This is especially true for the most difficult of the Q Grader olfactory groups: Group B Sugar Browning. Are you consistently confusing two of the aromas? (For example, when you smell a vial, you are not sure if it is roasted hazelnut or roasted almonds.) Determine a question you can ask yourself to lead you to the answer. In the case of this example, I might ask, “Are you Nutella?” Find that one attribute that can help you choose between the two or more aromas you are confusing with each other.      

One thing I have learned from teaching this class for many years is that students can improve on sensory skills. My advice is to forget the tongue maps and theory and focus solely on what YOU are feeling on your tongue.

One of the hardest Q Grader tests is Sensory Skills Part C, where either two or three components are mixed into a single solution. Of the eight solutions, four have two components and four have three components. In my opinion, the key to passing this test is to learn how to identify absence. What does it feel like on your tongue when there is no acid? Where is acid “hitting you.” How about salt and sugar? In all the time I have taught the class, I have only had one student who got all of the presence/absence right, but still didn’t pass solely because of intensity.

The test was first laid out in Ted Lingle’s Coffee Cuppers Handbook (and can currently be found in Appendix II of the most recent (2011) edition.

Per the Coffee Cuppers Handbook, base (Level 1) Intensities are: 

Sour: 0.25 grams of citric acid per liter of water

Sweet: 5.00 grams of standard white sugar per liter of water

Salt: 0.50 grams of standard table salt per liter of water

To increase intensities to levels 2 and 3, simply multiply 2 and 3 respectively to each base level (e.g., Sour Level 2 = 2 x 0.25 = 0.50 grams per L; Sour Level 3 = 3 x 0.25 = 0.75 grams per L). Note that to practice level 3, where the solutions are mixed, you cannot just pour together these solutions since that will result in a 1/3 dilution for the four solutions with three components, and a 1/2 dilution for the four solutions with two components. For example, if you mix 333 ml each of Sour 3, Sweet 2, and Salt 1 you will end up with 0.25 grams of citric acid (Sour 3), 3.33 grams of sugar (< Sweet 1), and .166 grams of salt (< Salt 1). When making the mixed solutions, be sure to prepare them all in the 1 L quantities. 

The organic acids test (sometimes called the matching pairs test during the Q Grader) comprises two parts: identifying cups with a higher level of intensity (in a group of four you must identify the two cups to which acid was added) and then identifying the acid.

To practice identifying the acid, buy liquid acids (home brewing stores often have them). Put drops of acid into a diluted cup of coffee until you can taste it. Now conduct triangulations by putting a few fewer drops into one cup (and none into the other two cups).

Identifying Acid Type: When training, it is important that you learn to identify the acids by their characteristics and not their intensity as intensity may vary on the test. For me, citric dances on my tongue and fills my mouth, malic is pointed, acetic often gives me a tinge of nausea, and phosphoric is what is left. Many describe the feeling of phosphoric acid on their teeth, which does not occur for me at the levels used in testing. If you get all of the pairs correct, then you only need to identify two acids correctly to pass the exam. Figure out which acids are the easiest for you to identify, and start with identifying those on the exam.


Students taking a triangulation exam during a Q Grader course at the Brazilian Specialty Coffee Association (BSCA) in Varginha, Brazil.
Students taking a triangulation exam during a Q Grader course at the Brazilian Specialty Coffee Association (BSCA) in Varginha, Brazil.

Get into the habit of doing triangulations and figure out “who” you can trust when the doubt creeps in. For you, is it always the case that “the nose knows” and you should always stick with fragrance/aroma? (I had a student who passed all Q Grader triangulations only on fragrance—he walked out when they started pouring!) If in doubt, what difference are you good at finding? The roast level, the acidity, the sweetness or dirtiness in the aftertaste? Where do you look? By going through many and maintaining a clear head (I always tell my students to walk away when the voices start) where to look will become more obvious and you will likely gain confidence. 

Your instructor should review all of the exam content with you during the Q Grader course. The content of the test comes from the instructor presentations and the SCA cupping protocols. Those protocols can be found here.

Q Grader Tip 2: Respect Your Future Self

The Q Grader course is a marathon. From the beginning, you need to have respect for the “you” that will be taking the last exams on the final day. The “you” that will have slurped hundreds of cups of coffee, battled many voices in your head arguing for different cups in a triangulation, suffered the mental anguish of trying to thoroughly describe the sensory attributes of dozens of coffees, all the while searching for defects and trying to make sure you are calibrated with the rest of the group. The mental focus, caffeine, and long hours take a toll, and the “you” of Day 1 of the Q Grader course will invariably be different than the “you” trying to pass the last exams on Day 6 of the Grader.

Yes, this means getting a lot of rest and drinking a lot of water. But it also means mitigating the amount of coffee you drink. One of my mottos is “think, don’t drink.” You need to make your decisions and walk away as opposed to staying for every allowable moment of every exam. Doing so will likely exhaust you. The chemical compounds that distinguish the odd cup out in triangulations do not reside in the last cold drops of the coffee liquor that you get from pressing your spoon against the grinds. They are there all along. If you catch yourself slurping coffee without thinking about what you are drinking, stop, drink some water, and then come back with a clearer mind.

I know that some people worry a lot more than others, and it is a hard thing to change, but it does you no good to worry about the score of an exam you have already taken. I often receive messages during the course from students late at night that they can’t sleep because I didn’t tell them if they passed or failed exams they had already taken. Make your decisions with as sound a mind as you possibly can, and then move on. 

I know this one goes without saying, but getting rest every night is key. The social moments and the bonding with your classmates are a key part of the course, but it shouldn’t come at the expense of getting rest. There have been times when for whatever reason a poor night’s sleep and/or a hangover somehow triggered me to focus more. But there have been many more times when they haven’t. On the other hand, I can’t remember a time when getting a good night’s sleep hindered my tasting abilities.   

Q Grader Tip 3: It’s Just Your Opinion

“If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” Perhaps a sound, the wave moving through the air that can be sensed by vibrations in our ear. But is it a good or bad sound? That is what you are being asked with cupping—not to describe the physical or chemical composition of the coffee, but rather how those make you feel and what they conjure up in your mind.

Put more simply, a score of 85 is not an inherent property of the coffee as is, say, its level of sucrose, its color, its pH, acidity, etc. It is a subtle but key difference. You are not trying to ascertain something that is external to you. You are trying to listen to what your body is telling you and describe your experience. Granted, your opinion must be qualified and calibrated to the group, but it is still your opinion.

Q Grader Tip 4: Trust Yourself

An image of Australopithecus afarensis "Lucy."
Between you and Lucy there has been a lot of luck, but all a lot of good decisions.

If you are reading this, you are the benefactor of an immeasurable amount of luck and, more importantly for our purposes here, good decisions. Life first appeared on Earth around 4 billion years ago, and there has been an unbroken link that has led to you. That gut reaction, your instinct towards something, is often not a baseless whim. It is founded in something. The symphony of wants and desires within the chaos is amazing, but it is there and ultimately it shapes the chaos.

Putting tips 3 and 4 together, you don’t need to become something different to pass the Q or become a great cupper. Those tastes and sensations have always been there. The name of the game is to calm the mind, perceive them, and trust that what you think—your perception—is a legitimate one. So, what do you do when your mind is a nervous mess that is not giving you good answers?

Q Grader Tip 5: Start with Simple Questions

I don’t know about you, but 90 percent of what goes through my mind is complete garbage. It doesn’t give me long coherent sentences, slowly stated so I can write them down at the pace of the thought. And if I ask it a complex question, especially after a long day cupping, I am more likely than not to get an answer like this. So, what I have learned over the years is to keep it simple. And the simplest question I can ask myself is “mM like, me no like?” and so that’s where I start. And when cupping, I ask that question from the frame of reference of the middle of the flavor wheel.  

Me like, me no like? Me like

Me like how? Me like sweet?  Sweet

Me like sweet how? Fruity or chocolatey? Fruity

What color of fruity? Dark purple, purple, red, orange, yellow? Red

Red fruit dried, red fruit berry? Berry

Strawberry, Raspberry? Strawberry, and a little tart. Just-ripe strawberry it is!

I remember taking the Q Grader course (then it was the Cupping Judge course) many years ago and the struggle, learning, and many of the friendships are still with me today. I hope some of these tips help, and please feel free to leave any comments or questions below. Godspeed, and cheers!

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