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Passing the Q: On Coffee's Premier Certification

This six-day exam means serious business.

by Maciej Kasperowicz | March 11, 2020

If you’ve read a good amount about the coffee world, you might have noticed that certain coffee professionals, like me, are referred to as Q Graders. Coffee, like many industries (you might have come across a documentary about wine's Certified Sommelier Examinations in your Netflix scrolling, or had a beer enthusiast tell you about becoming a Cicerone), has certifications from everyone from baristas to roasters. The Q Grader Exam is a certification that calibrates people on standards for cupping coffee.

Cupping is the way we evaluate coffee throughout the supply chain, and it’s how many huge coffee buying decisions get made. It also ideally allows for a common language of coffee that can be used from coffee producing countries, to coffee buyers, to anyone in between. For a cupping, small samples of coffee are roasted in as standard a way as possible, so that all the qualities available in that coffee are available to taste. When a roaster buys a coffee, they then make specific decisions ensure that coffee is as good as possible. But in a sample roast, all the potential of that coffee is laid bare.

Calibration in this case means agreeing on general standards, so even if individual coffee drinkers prefer certain coffees over others, that preference is not the only thing guiding our feedback.

The information we get from that cupping is only really valuable across the supply chain if we can all be in calibration, and that’s what this certification is all about. Calibration in this case means agreeing on general standards, so even if individual coffee drinkers prefer certain coffees over others, that preference is not the only thing guiding our feedback.

For example, if a coffee smells like peaches and I don’t particularly like peaches for some reason (I like peaches fine, I’m not a monster!), I can agree that peach is a desirable fragrance. And if a coffee has a lot of desirable fragrances and it smells pretty intense, I can agree to score it’s fragrance and aroma highly. The Q also has several tests that pick out the parts of flavor that can be made objective. For example, if one cup of water has some sugar, and a second cup has twice that amount of sugar, that second cup is objectively sweeter.

The "Q" in Q Grader stands for quality, specifically the quality in Coffee Quality Institute. The CQI not only administers the test and trains instructors, but also links coffee professionals around the world, allowing producers to submit coffee for professional grading.

The exam is currently attached to a course, and the course and exam combo is a six (full) day affair. It takes place at an SCA-certified campus, taught by instructors who are all experienced Q graders themselves. The first few days are focused on classes, which are lectures combined with runthroughs of the exams. The last few days are the exams themselves, with the sixth day focused on retakes (according to my instructors, something like five percent of people pass the test without needing a retake). Fourteen of the 19 tests are eligible for retakes that week, and most cuppers can get two shots at a retake on the sixth day.

Anyone who hasn’t fully passed all 19 tests by the end of the week (I’ve heard 50 to 60 percent as the first-week passing rate), can return for a later exam to retake the tests they haven’t passed yet. If you pass, you’re a Q Grader for three years, at which point you need to come in and recalibrate to make sure you’re still on the same page.

The Cupping Calibration Exam

Cupping calibration is arguably the most important test in the exam, as they test the actual thing this certification certifies you to do.

Cuppers cup four tables (one with washed coffees from Central America, one with washed coffees from Africa, one with naturally processed coffees, and one with coffees from Asia). To pass, they must achieve three things.

First, they have to demonstrate that they know how to use every part of the SCA cupping form correctly. Second, they must correctly pick out the cups that have been spiked with synthetic defects. Defects are off flavors and aromas that appear in coffee because of things that happen while coffee is growing, being processed, or being stored and transported. Q instructors spike a few cups throughout these calibrations with fairly intense versions of these defects (like mold, ferment, and phenol, the last of which has an off, chemical flavor), and if the cupper misses one, they fail that test automatically. Finally, the group of cuppers (including everyone taking that exam and the instructor) must be calibrated. That means you need to score pretty close to the group’s average total score of the coffee and the averages of some of the component scores (such as flavor, body, and acidity) to pass.

Following each of these calibration cuppings are four corresponding triangulation tests. Triangulation is a useful test that evaluates not the total quality of coffees, but whether or not they’re significantly different from each other. You are presented with six triads (sets of three) of coffee, divided regionally just as the calibration tables are, in which two of the cups of coffee are the same, and one is different. You must successfully identify the different cup in each triad. This is one of several tests that take place in a red light room so that differences in color can’t help you identify the correct answer.

A few tests involve tasting the coffee to identify very specific characteristics, including the acidity we value so much in specialty coffee. The format for the acids test is called matching pairs. You’re presented with eight sets of four cups of diluted coffee. Two cups in each set are spiked with one of four acids that occur in coffee (citric, malic, phosphoric, and acetic). You must identify which cups are spiked (not so hard) and identify the correct acid (pretty hard).

The Roast ID Exam

The roast ID exam is useful not so much for learning to score coffee as it is for learning how your coffee should be roasted for scoring. It’s another triangulation test, in which each triad has at least one coffee roasted to the SCA’s sample roast standard and at least one coffee that’s either too dark, too light, or baked (meaning, roasted to the right level, but too slowly).

You must identify the odd cup in each triad, and whether that cup is correctly roasted or, if not, which way it’s roasted in. In my experience, finding the dark roast cups isn’t difficult, but getting your brain to identify the difference between light, baked, and just right under the red light isn’t as easy as you might think.

The Sensory Skills Exam

Not all tests involve tasting coffee. In the sensory skills exam, you are provided first with three different intensities of water diluted with sugar, salt, and citric acid. After calibrating, these solutions are mixed up and you are left to correctly identify which taste you’re tasting and the relative intensity of the flavor. This is mostly a warmup for the following test, in which you’re given eight cups, all of which have either two or three of the tastes in them at the same time. You must identify which tastes are present and their intensity. So, for example, the first cup might be three salty, one sour,two sweet, and the second cup might be one salty, zero sour, three sweet.

The two components of flavor are taste and aroma, so there is also a test that takes the former out of the equation completely and focuses on the latter. The four aroma tests utilize Les Nez du Cafe aroma kits, which house 36 aromas that appear in coffee. These 36 aromas are split into four sets based on the SCA’s Art of Aroma posters, and the tests involve matching six of the aromas in each set of nine between two kits, and identifying three specific aromas.

Aromas and fragrances are so connected to our specific memories that it can be hard to convince oneself that some of the samples in the kit really do represent their scents. I found the sugar browning set, with aromas of caramel, toast, and a bunch of roasted nuts particularly difficult to get straight. Practice for this test then, often involves trying really hard to create those connections between the aroma kit and your brain to make them more instinctual than conscious.

The Green Grading Exam

A few tests don’t involve any sensory skills at all. The green grading exam helps you identify beans that have been damaged during growing or processing in ways that are visually apparent and would eventually lead to off flavors in the cup if roasted and brewed (or, in the case of the foreign object “defect,” which includes anything from stones, to nails, to legumes — a whole bunch of damage for your grinder). You get one hour to sort three 350 gram samples of coffee, classify the defects (there are primary and secondary defects, and certain defects take more than one bean to count as a “full defect”), and add them all up.

The Roasted Coffee Grading Exam

This exam sorts out beans that you can tell are defective after roasting. These are called quakers, and if you’ve ever seen a few beans in your bag that are way, way, way lighter than the rest of the beans, that’s what those are. There beans that are underdeveloped in some way, and therefore don’t have the sugars and proteins needed for the browning processes that turn the rest of your coffee a deep brown color. Sorting these out is probably the easiest test in the course; it usually takes a few minutes at most.

The Written Exam

Finally, what exam would be complete without a written component? There is an hour-long multiple choice test, with 100 questions about coffee that largely cover things that have been covered throughout the Q course, with a few things that you’ve hopefully picked up on your coffee journey. I’m pretty sure a few of the questions don’t make any sense at all, but such is life.

Individually, these tests range from easy as pie (ok, that's just the roast grading one) to pretty difficult. But with the right preparation they’re all eminently passable. Even on the tests with tasks that are super-hard (the final part of the sensory skills test or the acids-matching pairs, for example), the standards for passing are often pretty fair. But that is very much not to say that the difficulty of the Q is overblown, because you aren’t taking these tests individually, you’re taking them back-to-back to back over two or three days.

The physical toll on your palate is significant; most people who have passed the test advise tasting less if at all possible and relying on your nose, not just because your initial instincts are generally right, but also because that cuts down on palate fatigue.

The mental fatigue is just as real. The Q is expensive, so either you or your company has likely paid a few grand for you to be there and you don’t want to disappoint. Most of the folks taking the Q have a good amount of time in the industry, so having to actually face your weaknesses as a cupper can be tough. Even if you come into the process with as little pressure and ego as possible, having to stay focused all day can be tough and while rest is the most recommended tonic, getting to sleep after the first night of testing — when you not only know you have a full day of testing ahead of you and anxiety about your first day's perfomance — is easier said than done.

It’s the ability to focus and push past that fatigue, not just being a particularly good taster, that I think makes the Q feel like such a significant accomplishment for those who get it. But more importantly personal reinforcement, it prepares you to contribute to a world where people throughout the supply chain can honestly and clearly communicate with each other.