I slide off the top of a wooden box to reveal 36 numbered vials of “perfume.” Each number in the kit corresponds to a different aroma commonly found in coffee, some positive (lemon and butter) and some not so positive (medicinal and rubber). So how do you describe coffee? This is one many reasons to become a qualified Q-Grader (Quality-Grader). Personally it takes my passion for coffee and anchors it to a worldwide standard.
I am presently one of 40 USA Q Graders, 400 worldwide. That means I can buy and cup coffee confidently because I have passed 22 challenging sensory tests in the course of three days, consistently distinguishing brewed coffees by taste and smell from each major coffee-producing region, and able to grade coffee using established criteria.
The Coffee Quality Institute is a nonprofit organization that is the educational arm of the Specialty Coffee Assn. of America (SCAA).This brings a confidence in purchasing green coffee from around the world and identifying its many distinctions so you we can purchase the best coffee.The CQI expects those it has certified to grade coffee consistently and objectively using its 100-point scale. Practically speaking, a coffee that’s graded at 79 is worth less than a coffee graded at 89. “Consumers pay for higher quality,” Lingle, director of the Coffee Quality Institute, says, “but don’t necessarily pay for other certifications, like organic or fair trade.”
There are a number of exams. The olfactory test uses 36 vials of coffee aromas. You have to know all. You are asked to match like aromas, drawn from four aroma groups.
The triangulation skills test is much like Sesame Street’s “one of these is not like the other”. Faced with three cups, you must pinpoint which coffee’s origin is not the same as the others. It could be three coffees from the same region of Ethiopia, but one’s from a different farm. You have to get five out of six sets to get it right.
Green grading requires you to sort through 350 grams of unroasted beans for defects and cleanliness. We are looking to remove black or brown beans, foreign objects and beans with insect or fungus damage.
Then there is cupping, This is where you measure the consistency of multiple cups of the same brewed coffee, keeping in mind the aroma, acidity, flavor, body, balance… For the cupping test, we simultaneously grade blind samples of five brewed coffees using the 100-point scale. Personal preference is not the point here.
Any coffee professional is eligible to take the exam, but industry experience doesn’t necessarily provide an advantage. It’s not a test to prepare for, you do it in your daily job and understand it, or you don’t.