Q-Grading Coffee: Part 1 of 5 on Coffee's "sommelier status"

Flavor preference is subjective. Tons of factors can influence how and what you taste and smell. The place you grew up, your genetics, what foods you had access to -  even allergies. When we focus on assessing a coffee and pointing out flavors and attributes, we don’t focus on “right” or “wrong,” but rather on creating a common language and breaking down barriers of communication to reach a consensus. Focusing on quality is paramount, but encouraging the fun behind tasting and continuing to grow together are also integral to building a coffee community that lifts up and supports all people in the supply chain. So how do we learn that common language, especially in an industry where we are miles or oceans apart? This is where the Q-Grader program comes in!

Just as the wine industry has sommeliers, the coffee industry has Q-Graders. The Q-Grader exam takes place over six days, and is intended to highlight the olfactory (nose!) and sensory (taste!) skills of a cupper (coffee taster!). The test itself is demanding - my tongue felt like sandpaper by the end. But it also helped me grow as a professional, and showed me how to taste objectively alongside coffee professionals across the globe.

When grading coffee to the Specialty Coffee Association’s standards, flavor plays a large part, but we also bring focus to four key parts of a coffee: acidity (brightness or tartness), body (the weight of the coffee), aftertaste (how long it lingers), and balance (the overall harmony of these components).


So how do you grade someone’s sensory and olfactory skills? The Q-Grader tests include:

-Calibrating with other test takers. This is the most important part! To pass, you must be able to calibrate to the entire group of test takers (most of whom you have probably never met). To do this, you must know how to grade and notate coffees objectively, and come to a consensus on scores within an acceptable range.

-Tasting different concentrations of sweet, sour, and salty flavors, and identifying both the solution and the intensity of each solution on a scale of one to three. The second part of this exam combined these three flavors into mixed solutions with 2-3 components each. You are required to identify which flavors were combined in a given solution and identify the concentration of each on a scale of one to three. Yikes!

-Triangulations, the fun test of the group! A triangulation is a set of three bowls of coffee, one of which is different. You need to identify the odd cup out. Test takers do four different triangulation exams based on growing regions or processing methods, and each test consists of six sets of coffees. The test is also taken in a red-light room so that the color of the ground coffee can’t influence your decision.

 -Acid tastings: weakly-brewed coffees are spiked with acetic acid, malic acid, phosphoric acid, and citric acid and you must identify which acid is in which cup.

-Identifying roast levels and roast defects, like over-roasting, under-roasting, and under-developing your coffees.

-Identifying thirty-six individual scents that represent four key parts of the roasting process: Enzymatic (the aromas derived from the coffee plant and berry itself), Sugar Browning (aromas that develop during the roasting process), Dry Distillates (aromas from the latter part of the roasting process or sometimes processing), and aromatic taints and faults, which are scents that are a result of improper roasting, harvesting, processing, storage of green (raw) coffee.

That’s a lot! And that’s just about half of what Q-Graders must pass. How do we link it all together, though? In the interest of keeping it brief, but spectacular, we’re going to present four more newsletters focusing on the four aforementioned aspects of coffee tasting: acidity, body, aftertaste, and balance. Once the series is realized, you can look forward to a zoom class where we’ll taste it all together and try to calibrate ourselves as a group that understands the difficult, beautiful realities of coffee production! 

Until next time,

-Mandy Spirito, Head Roaster at Little Waves Coffee Roasters