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The ABC’s of Q

In Coffee Education, Coffee Links, Coffee Projects on August 9, 2011 at 3:06 pm

More than 125 million people worldwide rely on coffee production for their livelihoods. Many of these small coffee farmers struggle to meet their basic needs.

The Coffee Quality Institute believes quality is the most important variable affecting price and livelihoods; working collaboratively with producing and consuming countries to create the institutional changes that can build a more sustainable marketplace. At the CQI’s core is a commitment to empowering coffee producers with the tools to compete in the world marketplace; as well as increase reward for quality and transparency. Simply put, prosperous communities translate into a sustainable supply of quality coffee.

It’s difficult to facilitate a discussion process around coffee quality when there are no established protocols or common language. It is important to exchange consistent and reliable information on the crop throughout the supply chain. The Coffee Quality Institute (or CQI) established the Q Grader program as a professional accreditation for coffee graders. This non-profit program aims to ease the exchange of information among professionals working in the coffee industry.

Why Q Grader certification?

1. At the heart of the CQI is a multi-faceted “solution” based approach. The CQI stresses that Q Grading comes with responsibility; it’s a license, not a certificate. People’s livelihoods are influenced by the determinations of a coffee’s quality. It’s not enough to know whether or not a coffee is good or bad; more important is to understand where these “defects” occur in the process chain and how to resolve them. i.e. Full blacks? Don’t pick up cherries that have fallen to the ground; Chipped / cut beans? Figure out if it’s happening during pulping or at the dry mill and adjust the equipment accordingly. The happy consequence? Issues of quality are resolved, the crop gets to market, and it often fetches a higher price.

2. Credentialing = credibility. There’s a lot to be said for holding one of the most highly-regarded qualifications in the coffee industry. There are always going to be highly accomplished people (particularly in the food industry) who have arrived at their positions purely from a vocational stream; but no matter what industry you work in, one of the truths of the upper echelons is credentialing. It may seem redundant to certify in a skill set you think you already have and may practice regularly, but if nothing else, it means not always having to prove your professional worth.

So back in May I decided to set out on the road to the Coffee Solutions facility in Hopedale, Massachusetts. My Q Grader process would be overseen by Rob Stephen, whom I’ve worked with over the last few years and whose breadth of coffee knowledge and industry experience has served as a model for me. Rob, Beth Anne (Q Instructor in-training), and Helen worked tirelessly to ensure everything flowed according to schedule and that everyone involved was more or less organized, well fed, and comfortable. I couldn’t have expected more.

On a purely practical level, the 8-hour drive to Massachusetts from my home in Hamilton was the closest, most affordable way to participate in the 5-day intensive.  

What is a Q Grader?

Q Graders are cuppers licensed to:

  • Assess quality levels of coffee lots
  • Differentiate between exportable & non-exportable
  • Determine Commercial / Premium / Specialty grade
  • Identify attributes of flavour
  • Detect defects & I.D. the cause
  • Give attribute points objectively
  • Describe a cup profile
  • Speak the common language of coffee
  • Calibrate with the buyer

What happens @ Q Grader exams?

There are 9 different test areas; 22 exams over 5 days. These are full days so don’t make any other plans…and despite great intentions, most of my evenings were spent resigned to my hotel room following days that would accurately be described as “intense” sensorially (hence Q Grader Intensive) I did manage to get myself out to the Coffee Solutions’ traditional Q Bowling night, and a mandatory run to Cape Cod…being from Ireland, I can’t ever resist the opportunity to go to the ocean.

Sensory skills test your ability to distinguish three of the basic tastes (sugar, salt and sour) You must not only be able to differentiate between concentrations of tastes, but also identify what type of tastes are included in a blend of two or three tastes at the same time. The three sections of this test are: reference sample, blind identification, and mixture identification. This was one of those sections that I needed to retake; fortunately I wasn’t alone so the sensory skills section was included in our Friday “scheduled” retakes. Definitely not one to over think; it’s more of a “dig deep” exam. Brutal.

Matching aroma pairsis based on Le Nez du Cafe aroma kit developed by Jean Lenoir. For each test nine numbered aroma vials and six letter-coded aroma vials are selected from the same group. The goal is to match the six letter-coded aroma vials to their corresponding numbered vials. The participant must match similar aromas and describe the name of at least three. Candidates are placed in a dark or red room to avoid matching the colour and codes of each bottle. There are four tested aroma groups: Enzymatic, Sugar Browning, Dry Distillation, and Aromatic Taints.

Organic acid matching tests your ability to distinguish the difference between a control cup of coffee and one “enhanced” with acetic, citric, phosphoric, quinic, or malic acid. It is amazing to experience the differences between a control cup of coffee and another with citric acid. The cup of coffee with citric acid significantly increases the acidity, flavor and body compared to the control. This was a particularly interesting section as a roaster; giving me a better understanding of how acids are either enhanced or degraded depending on heat (roast) and how that influences the cup profile. Bear in mind that adding food grade acids to a control cup is a little different than when acids occur naturally as a part of a particular coffee’s profile; my mouth felt most battered by the end of this day’s exams.

The ability to cup and rate coffee attributes consistently, using SCAA standards for Coffee Cupping & the SCAA Cupping Form to record results is mostly the point of the process.  Theoretically, any given value to fragrance, aroma, flavour, aftertaste, acidity, and overall impression should have similarity to any other cupper’s points provided they share the same cupping session and similar experience / sense memory. There are five sections covering coffees from Brazil, Colombia, Central America, East Africa, and Indonesia. The key here is to make decisions; being a good cupper means having an opinion.

Triangulations examine your ability to differentiate coffees from each other. Each triangulation consists of six flights of three cups each; two cups are the same and one is different…similar to the format used in “Cup Tasters” competition. The cupper’s task is to select out the one that’s different in each set. Candidates are placed in a dark or red room to prevent distinguishing between coffees based on colour, surface oil etc. There are five triangulations for a total of 30 sets.

Green Coffee Grading distinguishes between different types of green coffee defects and the ability to identify and classify them. Based on the number and types of defects, participant must be able to grade the coffee quality as either “specialty” or not.

Roasted Coffee Grading evaluates roasted coffee for “quakers.” Also tested is the ability to evaluate coffees that are over roasted, under-roasted, or baked vs. a coffee that is roasted per SCAA cupping protocol standards. The Agtron (the numerical roast level) must be identified as well as the attributes or defects cause by each type of roast.

General Knowledge examines growing, post-harvest, and coffee trade regulations. This is one of the few exams that you can actually prepare for ahead of time. The CQI suggested reading list includes: Coffee Technology by M. Sivetz; SCAA Green Coffee Defect Handbook; Coffee Brewing Handbook; and the Coffee Cupping Handbook & Protocols. I particularly recommend Sivetz if you haven’t ever been to origin; its occasionally dated, but essential reading for that “big picture” understanding of what’s happening at the producer end.

All referenced resource material is available at

Retakes for failed sections are often scheduled into the day-5 itinerary (as was the case during my own particular Q experience), but no guarantees. Stand-alone retakes are available after the intensive week, conducted during other scheduled Q Intensives. There are, or course, associated fees and restrictions on the number of retakes you can do. For international prospective Q Graders, returning to the U.S. (or wherever there’s an SCAA Certified Cupping Lab) retake opportunities could be difficult and costly…and to my understanding, only about 20% of participants pass all components by the end of the intensive week…so in most cases, you should expect to have to retake sections at some future date. Fortunately for the Canadian contingent, there is a certified lab in Montreal where Q intensives are held about twice a year. Q courses are held regularly throughout the United States. Check the CQI website for upcoming dates & locations.

The Bottom Line

Despite the stress, cost, retakes (almost no one escapes this disappointment), limited opportunity, and time away from business, I would have to say that the whole Q Grader process was well worth it.

I like to believe that I have a better understanding of all aspects of what I do in the coffee industry. I am better equipped to communicate with others in the process chain using shared “coffee” language, and draw from a broader palate of sense memory and experience when evaluating coffee.

More importantly for me, I’ve garnered the potential to enact positive change all the way along the coffee chain; from producer to roaster. I’ve always felt philosophically aligned with the CQI’s strategies for sustainable economics through quality. Now, I get to play a part in a “larger-than-me” mechanism that’s committed to systemic change in coffee.

So why are you not Q?

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Wine + Coffee Pairing Event

In Coffee Links, Coffee Projects on October 23, 2010 at 9:37 pm
On Monday October 25th from 6 to 9pm,.Kitchener / Waterloo restaurant Classicos and Matter of Taste is putting on a party at one of Ontario’s most unique venues, Hacienda Sarria (pictured above and below)
Wine estate, Hedade Paco Do Conde, will be featuring their wines; catering services provided by Classicos Restaurant.
Matter of Taste and Speakeasy Roasteries will be hosting a coffee and desserts pairing. This is the first time the Ninety-Plus award winning coffee Amaro Gayo  (a naturally dried coffee from Ethiopia) will be presented in the region. This exceptional coffee has a rich body, heavy mouthfeel, and flavour notes of chocolate, dried banana and blackberry.
Tickets to this exclusive event are $40
Hacienda Sarria
1254 Union Street
Kitchener, Ontario, Canada 
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Business Scene: Speakeasy Roasteries

In Coffee Links, Coffee Projects on July 9, 2010 at 12:16 pm

by Dave Hall for CanWest Global Media

A local micro-roaster recently became the only Canadian roaster to acquire a prestigious Cup of Excellence coffee crop from Nicaragua and is now the worldwide exclusive supplier of Linda Vista coffee.

Speakeasy Coffee, which was established in Hamilton four years ago and has operated from Kingsville for the past year, is also rated as one of the top micro-roasteries in North America.

Owner Stephen Armstrong, a Londonderry, Northern Ireland-trained chef, first opened a fair trade store in Hamilton but quickly realized there was money in coffee beans, especially fair trade, direct trade, organic and specialty coffees.

“I knew I wanted to do something ethical and sustainable and it’s become very exciting,” said Armstrong.

“For someone with a social conscience, this was a match made in heaven.”

Once a roaster becomes involved in the direct trade market, the investment skyrockets because, as Armstrong says, “you can’t buy by the bag, you have to buy the entire crop which means needing $15,000-$20,000 up front so you can buy it when it comes up for auction.”

The Cup of Excellence is a competition conducted in nine coffee-producing nations with the winners chosen by a select group of judges who assess the coffees at least five times during the competition. Only those which score consistently high are allowed to continue.

Armstrong was the winning bidder for Linda Vista, a coffee produced in the region of Nueva Segovia in Nicaragua. Judged in a similar fashion to fine wines, Linda Vista is said to have the characteristics of chocolate, honey, apricot, vanilla, butter and raisin with a creamy feel on the palate.

Armstrong said that 80-90 per cent of what he pays for unroasted beans goes directly to the grower and “I’m paying between four and seven times the fair trade floor price for beans, which is $1.25 USD.”

Speakeasy coffees include Linda Vista from Nicaragua, Amaro Gayo and Longberry Harar from Ethiopia, Espiritu Santo from Costa Rica, San Julian from Guatemala, Altamira from El Salvador, Serrano Superior from Cuba, Mandheling Gayo from Sumatra and Purosa from Papua New Guinea, as well as a selection from Bolivia, Rwanda, Mexico and Brazil.

Speakeasy’s coffees are available online at

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“How many hands does your coffee have to go through?”

In Coffee Links, Social Justice & Environment on July 6, 2010 at 12:20 am

Asnakech Thomas was born on a coffee plantation and is proud that her family comes from coffee land deep in the Southern People’s Region of Ethiopia. In February 2007, her coffee placed first in a pre-selection process for Ethiopia’s first-ever private coffee auction. The result? She sold her coffee for $2 per pound, a 50 percent increase from what she received before. Asnakech is a client of Fintrac’s USAID-funded Agribusiness and Trade Expansion Activity (ATEA), which improves specialty coffee production and quality in Ethiopia.

Fintrac helped Asnakech install a coffee processing machine and showed her how to run the eco-friendly pulper. The project also deployed agronomists and consultants to her mill to advise her on how to create specialty coffee at every step of coffee processing — from looking after trees, to picking, to drying cherries. At the same time, Fintrac was working on the other side of the coffee chain by organizing an open outcry private specialty coffee auction. The 2007 Ethiopia Limited Coffee Auction connected Ethiopian farmers with buyers from more than 40 countries. Whereas the current standard buying price for coffee is $1.30 per pound, at the auction, lots were purchased for as much as $5 per pound, an increase of over 280 percent.

While Asnakech was finishing up processing coffee for the season, samples of her coffee and samples from 20 other growers were shipped around the world for buyers to taste and grade. The Fintrac-supported auction gave producers like Asnakech an opportunity to reach new markets and showcase their specialty coffee. The lots sold at the auction were small and select, and enabled buyers and producers to connect and make long-term trade commitments. Asnakech’s lot was bought by an exporter in the US, and, because of the auction, she has made connections with other buyers and set up sales accordingly. With Fintrac’s help she went all the way from planting her trees to selling her coffee.

“Before,” Asnakech says, “I only knew coffee in the cup.” She mimics holding a delicate porcelain cup between her thumb and forefinger and drinking from it. “Now I know exactly how many hands the coffee has to go through to get there.” As for her coffee placing first, Asnakech says that it was good, but not good enough. “I received a score of 95. Next time I want 100.” USAID-ATEA is going to help make this happen by educating Asnakech about more technical selection processes to make her coffee even better. “I have two containers this year,” Asnakech says. “Next year I want four.” Asnakech knows she stands out in the coffee industry as a woman, but the fact that she is the only woman coffee producer and exporter makes her just want to try harder. “In the beginning, the farmers who bring their cherry to my mill could not believe a lady was in charge. Now they are used to it. It’s good — almost 80 percent of the people who pick my coffee are women. I want to encourage them.”

The information in the preceeding article was taken from a Fintrac presss release

Both of Asnakech Thomas’ award winning coffees,  Amaro Gayo Natural & Amaro Gayo Washed, will be available in August @

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10 things I love about Specialty Coffee…

In Coffee Links on March 1, 2010 at 11:12 am
  1. The coffee…I love everything about the stuff: the look, the smell, and feel of beans roasted & green; the breadth of flavours and aromas; the “gear” (brewers, grinders, roasters, espressos)…the day I bought a TDS meter for my coffee was the beginning of the end.
  2. Collaboration & information sharing. In my experience, there’s an absence of the cloistering of “secret knowledge” often  rampant in other industries.
  3. Excellence supports the artisan: from farmer, to mill worker,  to roaster, to barista.
  4. Personalities that take what they do very seriously, but not themselves.
  5. Anyone with the inclination can be an expert…but every coffee expert I’ve met readily admits that they “have so much more to learn.”
  6. Commitment to quality, ethical sourcing, and sustainability. Whether or not there’s agreement about the “how,” there is a diversity of approaches with more-or-less the same ends: Rainforest Alliance, Direct Trade, Cup of Excellence, UTZ Certified, Smithsonian Bird Friendly, FLO-Cert Fair Trade, national & international Organic standards, and 4C association.
  7. An almost collective rejection of over-roasting as a way of masking bean defects; letting coffee origins stand on the merits of their quality.
  8. Specialty coffee is a “culture”…a slow-food approach of sitting down with people and making connections over a cup of the world’s most complexly glorious beverage. This ain’t no “double-double to go.”
  9. Education of the reseller and consumer thanks to institutions like SCAA and SCAE, “the world’s largest coffee trade association with members representing more than 40 countries and every segment of the specialty coffee industry,” with a commitment to creating opportunities for success in specialty coffee.
  10. Great coffee doesn’t just happen by accident – it’s with the energies of people personally invested in improving quality through better growing & processing practices; strict roasting and cupping protocols, renewed attention to “one-cup-at-a-time” brewing, and a better understanding of coffee science.

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