"Q-Grading" is a term used a lot in the specialty coffee world, so what is it exactly? Today we're going to break down what it's about, how people become certified, and the significance of what it all means. Luckily for us at Ferris, we have two staff members who are certified and can explain it all for us.
Let’s start at the basics. What exactly is a Q-Grader & the Q Test?
A Q-Grader is a trained and licensed coffee cupper that can evaluate coffees based on the expectations and practices created by the Coffee Quality Institute (CQI) and Specialty Coffee Association (SCA) practices. The modern SCA was established in 2017 by combining American and European associations to form a globally recognized common forum of coffee professionals to discuss issues and set quality standards for the specialty coffee trade. The goal of having this grading system called the Q-Test was to establish a common language that buyers, roasters, importers, producers, and farmers can use to speak about the product with an established definition of quality.
So a Q-Grader is a bit like a sommelier of coffee world, a skilled professional that understands and judges coffees on multiple levels. We'll discuss later what those variables are and the expectations the industry holds to each one. Both our VP of Coffee Operations, Sam Mirto, and the head of our Educator Department, AJ Willett, went through the grueling testing to become certified. "There are a couple reasons for wanting to do this," Willett explained. "Career advancement and professional development was one of them. Passing your Q is a big deal in our industry and opens up doors and opportunities. It’s also a feather in your cap in some ways. There aren’t a lot of “higher education” certifications in our industry, so going through the Q affirms your sensory skills and abilities in a professional way to peers, employers, and yourself. Outside of the personal desire to achieve this professional milestone, the skills and knowledge that is required to learn in preparation for passing the exams is necessary for my job responsibilities and growth at Ferris."
What does it take to become a Q-Grader?
Twenty-two tests. We're not joking. Multiple tests that cover each and every detail of a coffee from seed to cup. Mirto has had his certification for five years now but can still remember the bubbling nerves this test can bring about. "I had studied for months before the exam, so I felt prepared, but nerves certainly hit you when you’re in the moment," he confessed. Preparing beyond book studies, you have to be equally studious to keeping yourself healthy and sinuses clear with allergies at bay. Any slight sickness could be detrimental to a test that essentially grades your senses. Willett, who recently passed the exam in early 2021, admits that the pressure can get intense. "I didn’t want to fail. Not only am I representing myself, my results, effort, and success were directly tied to Ferris, and I didn’t want to let the company down." The nerves were warranted, just read below about each test individuals have to pass:
- General Coffee Knowledge Test: this exam is the only written test in the Q Grader course, which consists of 100 multiple choice questions about coffee cultivation, harvesting, processing, cupping, grading, roasting, and brewing. Candidates have 60 minutes to complete the test with 80% accuracy as the passing score.
- Sensory Skills Tests: three tests that set a baseline standard for taste acuity. Candidates are tested on their ability to identify three varying intensities of salty, sour, and sweet odorless solutions. The test is divided into three parts: Reference, Blind Identification, and Mixture Set.
- Olfactory Skills Test: these four tests evaluate a candidate’s ability to recognize 36 common aromatic scents using a specialized perfume kit from a French Lab, Lenoir Le Nez de Café. There are four tests with 15 minutes each, whereby candidates have to match six among nine blind pairs, then identify three specified vials of scents for each of four groups: Enzymatic (scents from cultivation and process), Sugar Browning (smells associated to the early roasting process), Dry Distillation (scents from later roasting stages), and Aromatic Taints (smells resulted from storage, handling, and process errors.)
- Cupping Skills Test: requires candidates to grade coffees using the Q Cupping Form, which is a set of criteria used to officially grade coffee qualities. There are four tests with 60 minutes each, whereby candidates are scored based on accuracy and consistency of grading and descriptions. Candidates must grade six different coffee samples. Each sample has 5 cups to taste through, identifying uniformity in addition to scoring.
Be sure to check out our cupping video from Guatemala for a behind-the-scenes look at what our VP of Coffee Operations does when visiting origin.
- Triangulation Skills Test: refines the sensitivity of candidates in distinguishing minor differences in coffee characteristics, and teaches them the methodology of comparing cups for quality control. The four tests are conducted in a dark room as the lack of light eliminates any visible differences between the coffee samples. Candidates are presented with six sets of three cups, and have to identify the odd one out.
- Organic Acids Matching Pairs Exam: evaluates candidates on their ability to identify the common acids found in coffee, by naming and matching two of four weak brewed cups of coffee containing those acids, in a total of eight sets.
- Arabica Green Coffee Grading Test: requires candidates to identify the defects and calculate the adjusted defect count from each of the three 350g green coffee samples provided, before labelling them as “Specialty Coffee”, “Premium Coffee”, or “Commercial Coffee” based on SCA standards.
- Arabica Roasted Coffee Grading Test: candidates are required to identify the number of roast defects in a 100g roasted sample. Specialty coffee can only have 1 roast defect per sample.
- Sample Roast Identification Test: requires candidates to determine an ideal roast for coffee cupping, by utilizing their sense of taste and smell to evaluate brewed coffee samples and identify each of its roast type under red light. This is a sensory version of roasting defects. There are common issues that happen during a roast, such as applying heat too fast, resulting in properly roasted coffee on the outside, but severely under roasted on the inside.
So it's a lot to undertake as you can see. Mirto elaborates that going through these exams was essential to building better business purchasing practices at Ferris. "It’s really important when you purchase coffee to able to have a common language with producers about quality. We can then start to have price discovery conversations with them, which is important so they can sell their coffee for a nice margin above their production costs."
All of these tests are taken over the course of a few days and not every test requires 100% to pass. The passing grade for each test ranges from 75% to 100% and some of the tests allow for three tries to pass. It's reassuring to know you can re-take an exam but for the tests that require sharp senses, it becomes harder not easier to re-take. Senses become dulled and overworked, the nerves build up and the second guessing creeps into your thoughts. There is a tendency to second guess yourself, which can be detrimental. For Willett, the pressure built up more after passing exam after exam. "There is often only one person that passes all twenty-two tests without retakes in a class. As more and more tests got checked off, I found myself eventually the only person still trucking along without a retake." And as the two final exams came and went, Willett was elated to find out that he'd passed both- awarding him with a 100% clean-slate of passing (no retakes!)
"When I found out I passed that test it was a really weird feeling. All of the pressure of the exams, excitement of passing, milestone of getting my Q, and the exhaustion of the week all mixed together in an emotional cocktail. I cried in the bathroom for 30 seconds and then had a manic amount of energy that I didn’t know what to do with. It’s a bizarre accomplishment to try and share with other people as well. No one knows what a Q-Grader is or the challenge to get to that point. Family and friends really can’t relate to what it feels like to hit that milestone and that’s fine. It’s a very unusual thing to try and celebrate or receive praise on. I called my brother after I passed, and he was excited for me, but couldn’t really relate in a way that made you feel seen. But it’s like that with every niche accomplishment: sommelier, placing high in a competitive marathon or race, playing your recital music without a fault, you get it."
But it is a big accomplishment. Currently there are only roughly 5,000 individuals in the world with the certification, 400 specifically in the United States and we're lucky to have two of them on staff!
Many people seek the glory. Classes are filled with an array of candidates; owners and operators of coffee shops, quality lab technicians, coffee roasting technicians, and even some students. There is an interesting bond that is created with everyone throughout the week. Spending twelve hours a day tasting coffees and doing high pressure timed tests brings individuals together in a unique way.
Just to note: the license must be renewed every three years. By requiring the three year calibration, it helps keep the integrity of the program intact, removing non-relevant and uncalibrated coffee cuppers from the program. Quality is one of the most important variables that influences the value of a coffee; being able to agree on that quality through a universal scoring system is critical for our supply chain from seed to cup.
So why does all of this matter and how does it contribute to the specialty coffee business?
Passing the Q is a lifelong personal and professional achievement for many and not one to be overlooked for its impact in the industry. For Ferris, the investment of having two staff members who are certified is a business move that attributes to our purchasing methods and quality control. The certification is useful for purchasing coffee, selecting roast profiles, troubleshooting quality issues, creating consistency, understanding coffee origins, and more. It allows us, as a business, to communicate objectively about quality throughout the entire coffee supply chain, which adds considerable value for our wholesale partners, as well as retail customers.
Specialty coffee represents the top 5-10% of coffee produced in the world annually, so it’s a small global market currently, but in the United States, we have seen growth every year. We think it has the potential to continue to grow and be appreciated significantly in upcoming years. "Producers and farms that take pride in quality, have a unique story, and have more complex flavor profiles are the ones we search for," Mirto emphasized. "Because these coffees are more unique, and more care is taken in making them that way, a premium is paid to the producers, and in turn our customers pay a premium for them. This desire to be a productive part of a sustainable supply chain also led to our decision to focus more on quality."
Ultimately, we think everybody benefits from higher quality coffee, so that is the focus for the Ferris brand today. Farmers and producers get recognized for the premium care they put into their product. Importers are able to highlight special coffees being brought in or recognize the exclusivity of beans. Coffee roasters, like Ferris, are able to vet quality products. And ultimately, the customer will be able to enjoy and experience high-caliber coffees.
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