We explain what the Q Grader license is and how those with one pick the best coffees.
In the coffee world, we have plenty of great and not-so-great coffees to choose from. For roasting companies and coffee buyers, there has to be a way to make sure everyone is on the same page when it comes to selecting the best tasting coffees to work with. One way of doing that is by getting a Q Grader certification.
What is a Q Grader?
A Q Grader is basically the wine sommelier equivalent to the coffee industry; they are licensed professionals who are capable of scoring the quality of roasted coffees. In order to get this license, you have to pass a series of rigorous tests that measure your sensory abilities.
The Coffee Quality Institute is the nonprofit organization in the United States who created and administers the Q grader program. Their work is to improve the quality of coffee and the lives of the people who produce it. They partner with the nonprofit Specialty Coffee Association of America to create tasting standards by which Q Graders utilize to score coffee quality. They created the program in 2003, and have since given thousands across the globe this certification. It has become a strong accreditation in the industry, and there are currently over 300 Q Graders in the United States.
There are two types of Q Grader certifications you can get, for Robusta and Arabica coffees. Most coffee professionals choose to get this for Arabicas since most specialty coffee is made with Arabica.
Why should I get a Q Grader license?
A person may choose to get this certification in conjunction with their coffee job, whether they be a coffee roaster, café owner, or a green coffee buyer, to advance their experience in the field. It's a strong resumé booster on a coffee job application. Plus, some companies will even sponsor the cost of supplying an employee with the Q Grader license. However, it is also helpful to have if you have an aspiration to be a part of the coffee industry in a way that involves sampling or buying coffees.
With this, Q Graders are able to spot defects, point out the origins of unidentified coffee, and measure flavor and smell elements of coffee like acidity, sweetness, bitterness, and sourness. This knowledge helps them score coffees on the Specialty Coffee Association's 100-point quality scale. Kenneth David of the Coffee Review created this system to grade the quality of coffees on 100 points in 1997. The SCAA later refined this system to be graded on factors like acidity, body, balance, and aftertaste—factors that the Q Grader exam tests subjects on.
A breakdown of the coffee grading system
Any coffee below 80 points is not considered specialty coffee
- 80-84.99 - Very good
- 85-89.99 - Excellent
- 90-100 - Outstanding
Do you have to work in coffee to get one?
There are no qualifications for taking the test, whether you work in coffee or not. It certainly helps to be experienced in the field though, as the courses incorporate advanced coffee knowledge into the lessons. You can simply sign up for different Q Grader training programs (called the Pre-Q) here. The Specialty Coffee Association has approved of all of these courses, which can be found in cities all over the world. Coffee companies of all sorts host these classes, from coffee shops to roasters and special coffee campuses.
What do you learn in the Q Grader courses?
Throughout the Q Grader courses, participants learn how to cup, or taste, coffees with the purpose of grading them and noting the differences between different lots and varieties. Some tools that are useful for studying include the SCAA Cupping Handbook, the SCAA Brewing Handbook, SCAA Arabica Green Coffee Defect Handbook, the SCAA Green Coffee Classification Chart, an SCAA Cupping Protocol & Cupping Form, and a Le Nez du Café Aroma Kit. You can find many of these pieces on the SCA's website store here.
Video by Boot Coffee Explaining Q Grader. Boot Coffee is a longstanding coffee roaster in California that administers the Q Grader course.
What to expect on the Q Grader exam
The Q Grader exam itself is a challenging six-day course consisting of 22 tests, which rely on your sensory skills to differentiate coffee in all its stages, from green un-roasted coffee to roasted beans. You must also calibrate coffees with the SCA every three years to maintain the license. The Coffee Quality Institute gives a chart breakdown of the test here:
Elements of the Q Grader Exam
Triangulation - Triangulation is an activity in the coffee world in which, between three coffees, you have to guess the "odd one out." During the Q Grader test, you must do this with coffees from two regions—Africa and Asia. You must also differentiate between natural and washed processed coffees. You can find out more about these processing methods here.
- Cupping Tests - Examinees cup and score four flights of six coffee samples alongside other coffee professionals.
- Organic Acids Matching Pairs - Subjects identify four different types of acids that are commonly found in coffee.
- Sample Roast I.D. Skills - Spot the different types of errors found in roasted coffee samples. Utilize the rules explained in the SCAA cupping protocol roasting directions.
- Green coffee grading - Grading three un-roasted coffee samples.
- Olfactory tests - You will recognize 36 common aromatic scents that are commonly in coffee. Several of these are blind samples, and others are labeled amongst a series of groups.
- Sensory skills - Determine the strength of three different solutions of sweet, salt, and sour on their own, then mixed together.
- Coffee knowledge - Lastly, the Q Grader test will ask 100 multiple-choice questions about roasting, harvesting, cupping grading, growing, and processing.
Not everyone passes on the first try. However, you are able to make up portions of the test that you don't pass within the first try. A Q Grader license is an admirable undertaking for many coffee professionals, and it takes a lot of sensory skills, practice, and a strong palate to prove you have what it takes to professionally taste coffee!