What does it take to become a Q grader?

A Q Grader is an individual who is credentialed by the Coffee Quality Institute (CQI) to grade and score coffees utilizing standards developed by the Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA).

We asked Estelle MacGilp, our Green Coffee Buyer to share with us what this qualification involves and her experience:

So, three years ago I finally decided to put my taste buds to the test and embark on a very intense 1-week course of training and exams to hopefully join the other certified Q Graders dotted around the globe. Although at this point I had cupped thousands of very different coffees from all over the world during my 16 years in the coffee business, nothing could have prepared me for the intensity of the course and exams. I was joined on the course by 14 other intrepid candidates from various areas within the coffee industry, other roasters, traders, baristas, coffee shop owners etc. The training and calibration exercises were all leading up to the 22 sets of tests we all needed to pass in order to become certified. These tests included, roast identification and organic acid matching through sensory, green/roasted coffee grading, a general coffee knowledge test, triangulation tests, olfactory tests, general sensory testing and of course cupping skills tests. At the end of the week, once all tests are complete, all candidates must anxiously wait to find out whether they have passed every test. I was fortunately one of the lucky ones with no retakes and therefore was able to join the worldwide team of Q Graders.

However, it doesn’t end there, every three years, in order to maintain their license, Q Graders must recalibrate. Fortunately, this is much easier in the sense that it only requires you to pass 2 out of the 3 cupping tests, but I had forgotten just quite how stressful even this could be! So, off to London I went to join my fellow students to put my taste buds and scoring to the test once again. This time, we had a quick calibration together on a table of mixed coffees from various origins and different processes. Then, without further ado, we get straight to the cupping. We had 3 cupping sessions, each an hour long and with 6 coffees per cupping. The cuppings are split according to origins or processing. Each coffee must be evaluated in terms of its attributes including, aroma, flavour, body, after taste, acidity etc. and scored accordingly. If there is a fault or a taint (an undesirable taste associated with the coffee) then this must be picked up and scored accordingly. For each of the cuppings the students scores for each characteristic are recorded and sent to CQI in the USA to determine whether each of the students are calibrated. Following this, another long 24 hours of waiting nervously and fortunately once again I was pleased to find out that I had successfully passed all 3 cuppings.

What’s the worst bit? Completing the score sheets correctly and fully in the time given and making sure it all adds up correctly at the end!

What’s the best bit? Cupping coffees from all over the world with fellow students from various areas of the coffee industry and comparing thoughts and comments on each coffee. All students sharing the same passion and enthusiasm for fantastic coffees!

So, what does it take to become a Q Grader? Most importantly it requires very good taste buds, lots of coffee cupping experience and confidence in your ability. Aside from these, a good level of concentration, the ability to keep calm under pressure and a good calculator and a rubber will also go a long way in achieving success here!