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Posts Tagged ‘Cupping’

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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