When I first began working with coffee, I was always fascinated by how this tiny bean had become so famous worldwide. During my first project with a plantation company, I got a glimpse of the magnitude of the coffee industry. I was a farm manager at the time, and my inquisitive nature eventually led me to be in charge of quality control. As an assistant cupper in the quality control laboratory, I was regularly tasked with categorizing and classifying coffees based on customer preference profiles, and this is where I met a Q Arabica expert. I’d heard of this qualification before, but I’d never given it much thought. All I knew was that it was an exam to assess your sensory skills in coffee tasting and that it was quite difficult to pass!
The Q-Grader’s exam is part of the Coffee Quality Institute and is meant to create a universally shared language for coffee tasters. There are currently two types of Q-Graders for assessing coffee quality- Arabica Q-Graders determine whether Arabica coffees meet the quality standards required to be labelled as “specialty coffee,” and Robusta Q-Graders do the same for canephora coffees, which we refer to as “fine grade coffee.”
The Q-Grade certification is an internationally recognised certification for grading green coffees and cupping calibration. Meaning, that everyone that passed the Q grading exam will give a calibrated score for the same coffee. Also, note that the course is quite expensive too.
During the first two days, when we practiced what was in store for us, I tried to learn as much as I could and began to plan how I would approach the upcoming exams.
Despite the fact that it was a stressful couple of days, my efforts finally paid off, and I passed!
In this blog, I’d like to share some advice on the many things I wish I’d known before taking the Q Arabica exam, which I hope will be useful to you on your Q-Grader journey.
What does the Q-Grading exam consist of?
The exam for Arabica coffee consists of 19 different tests, where the participants are tested on their skills to
- objectively assess coffee quality
- identify, quantify and articulate coffee characteristics
- detect coffee defects
- communicate coffee characteristics using common terminology
The Training Plan that helped me pass the Q
While simple as they sound, and almost trivial, I cannot emphasize enough on the importance of rest & consistent sleep.
Rest up – this is very critical, start your day fresh with a lot of energy. Even though I struggled to get some good sleep by over-strategizing and being anxious, it will not help unless you sleep well. You will be cupping a lot of coffee, and If you’re not used to this on a regular basis you tongue will get fatigued and everything will start to taste and smell the same.
Relax – To try to keep yourself relaxed. Listen to some of your favourite tracks when time permits.
Also, don’t change your flow. If you are used to drinking or eating specific foods, don’t change them for the test.
The Exam Structure
Is spread over a span of 5-6 days, with the first three dedicated to trial tests as a practice. The other 2-3 days will focus on 19 tests, starting in the morning and finishing in the evening
The main groups of tests.
- General Knowledge (1 test)
- Sensory Skills (2 tests)
- Olfactory Skills (4 tests)
- Triangulation Skills (4 tests)
- Organic Acids Matching Pairs (1 test)
- Arabica Green Grading (1 test)
- Arabica Roasted Coffee Grading (1 test)
- Sample Roast Identification (1 test)
- Cupping Skills (4 tests)
Consists of 100 multiple choice questions. Keep in mind that the questions cover a broad array of topics – from green coffee; harvest, cultivation, processing, cupping, grading, roasting, and brewing, to trade. The majority of the information needed for this can be found in SCA booklets and websites. So, make sure you are well-versed in basic information that is industry wide.
Sensory Skills (my Arch Nemesis)
This is the test. Known to induce a degree of fear in test-takers.
The test is split into two levels.
The first parts are quite easy. You will have to identify three intensities of salt, sour and sweet and categorize those. This was fairly simple.
But in the next set you have to identify eight mixes of different modalities – of the above intensities. Which means that you will be given eight cups and have to identify the different tastes present and their intensities.
This is extremely difficult. Because the existing taste profile changes on the addition of another. For example, a sweet intensity 2, will taste different when it is mixed with a sour intensity 1.
What makes it even more challenging is that you will have taste-transfer problems. Meaning, if you taste one cup that is high in acidity, the next cup you taste will automatically taste more sweet, because of the acidity you had in the first cup. If under prepared and not strategized well, it is a demanding test to undertake.
During the practice round I did fairly well and it gave me a confidence boost. But truth be told, it was the hardest of them all.
And so this is the test on which I strategized the most. Here are some of the takeaways:
Never leave a Blank: For example, you are given eight samples; four of which have two components and four with three components. Meaning that there will be four blank intensities on your answer sheet. However, the markdown for incorrectly noting ‘not present’ is four points. But the markdown for noting the lowest intensity, while there is in reality nothing present is only two points. So unless absolutely sure, never leave a blank.
Pay attention to your Palate: The logical strategy to use is to understand how each of the intensity feel on your pallet, and pay attention to how it feels on your tongue and how it reacts to the different tastes. Where did you feel the sweet? Where did I feel the sour? The salt? Did it tingle, or not?
Ask for guidance: You are offered a practical run where you can ask the instructor or the assistant instructor to guide you and give you some tips. This helps tremendously, and here I was able to mix the cups I was given and calibrated myself on those. What does a sweet intensity 3 and salt intensity 2 taste like? What does a sour 2 and salt 1 taste like? Etc.
After that, I went straight into the exam. Failed in my first attempt, despite using the similar strategy that had worked for me. So in my second attempt, I stuck to my gut, used the same strategy, and passed!
The goal is to recognise 36 different aromas that can be found in coffee.
Almost everyone in my exam had memorised the different aromas based on the numbers. And that is extremely useful.
What was extremely useful for me, however, was memorising which aromas were in the kit and which aromas fell into which categories. The 36 aromas are classified into four groups.
- Enzymatic (cultivation and processing)
- Sugar browning (earlier stages of roasting)
- Dry distillation (later stages of roasting)
- Aromatic taints (storage, handling and processing errors).
If you are in the middle of the enzymatic category, Knowing what aromas to look for and which to ignore is extremely helpful.
This test is what you think it is.
Three cups on the table, one cup is distinct. Which one is it?
The biggest challenge here is taste bud fatigue. You are cupping so much coffee during the Q grading exam, that sometimes at the end of a long day your tongue says: “Meh, it all tastes the same”.
What helped me was to not only look for flavour differences alone, but body and mouthfeel differences as well. In my case, the coffees used for the triangulation test were the same coffees used for the cupping skills test. So don’t hesitate to ask if this is the case, and use the cupping skills test as a calibration session.
Organic Acids Matching Pairs
This test is particularly hard, and so it is wise to train beforehand. You will have to identify four acids: citric, malic, acetic and phosphoric acid.
During the test you will be asked to match 2 out of 4 weakly brewed cups of coffee containing different acids in eight sets. So you are asked to recognise the acid and match the two cups with the same acid together. Sounds easy? Well, think again!
The most important thing to do here is use your calibration test to really analyse what the acid is doing to the coffee and your tongue. Memorise some key phrases that best describe what you are tasting for each acid.
Identifying the cup with acid is the easy part, individual palates are tuned to identify either sweet, sour, or salt more easily. But classifying the acids was challenging.
For example, my notes contained the following:
- Malic acid tastes like green apples. It’s mostly present in the front of my mouth. It is the most sweet of all the acids and it has a softer mouth feel.
- Acetic acid tastes of vinegar. It is mostly present in the back of the mouth. It pinches your cheeks and has some bitterness to it.
- Phosphoric acid was the most flavourless. The mouth feel is quite different, soft and round. It has similarities to coca cola and I taste it mostly in the front of my mouth.
- Citric acid tastes of lemon. It’s vibrant and present in the front and sides of my mouth. It can be sharp. Compared to malic, the malic acidity will fall flat if I taste it after tasting the citric acid.
This helps, but make sure not to taste a large spoon, these acids tend to burn your tongue and lead to faster tongue fatigue. This test is therefore done on Day 2, post which you rest and start afresh the next day. So, do keep this in mind.
Arabica Green Grading
In this exam you will have to green grade three samples of green coffee, tainted with a certain number and type of defect. You need to clear two of the three in order to pass the exam.
The biggest hurdle with this test is time. You only get 20 minutes for grading and filling out your form correctly, which includes math work. This is very, very short.
Do make a time schedule for yourself. Spend 10 minutes on the grading. Spend 5 on determining the categories of the defects you found. Spend 5 minutes on the form. And stick to your schedule. If you spend too much time on grading, you will find it difficult to complete the form.
Arabica Roasted Coffee Grading
This is the easiest test of all! So, enjoy it.
You must correctly identify the number of quakers (light brown roasted beans) in a sample of 100 grams. Then mark the sample as specialty, premium or commercial coffee. Make sure you fill the form, or you will fail to clear this test!
Sample Roast Identification
A lot of people found this test really, really challenging, including me!
During this exam you have to identify the ideal roast for coffee cupping. There is a perfect roast, a strongly baked roast, a roast that is too light and a roast that is too dark and you will have to do identify them through a cupping exercise, in a dark room.
My biggest challenge was in identifying the baked roast; some thought it was the perfect roast; others thought it was the light roast. Focus on the mouthfeel and aftertaste. You might also be able to pick it up in Olfactory if you are able to make the connection, after which, simply reconfirm your logic with the taste.
This is one of the most important tests, and my favourite of them all!
There are four different cupping sessions
- Central American Milds.
- African Washed coffees
- Asian Washed coffees
These were some of the best coffees I have ever tasted, so don’t hesitate to score them high.
Each session, or table, consists of six coffee samples – the best one, the one with a defect and a matching pair. Identify them and score the matching pair similarly. Honestly, just score the coffee based on the individual parameters and you will do well.
You have to fill in the SCAA cupping form in the correct way, give appropriate scores calibrated to your trainer and be able to recognise cups spiked with defects.
This test really is not that difficult if you have worked with the SCAA cupping form before. So if you have practiced with that, you will be fine.
I will advise you to discuss the cupping protocol you use with your other participants. Find a good work flow and make sufficient space for the others and to taste the coffees and respect everyone around you.
If they like to cup very hot and you like it cold, make sure to tell them to not slurp it all away in the first 15 minutes.
Was it all worth it?
This is not, without a doubt, a training programme, but rather a week-long exam in which I learned a lot from the instructor, the assistant instructor, and my batch mates. I also met a lot of interesting coffee professionals, forming a network that I will cherish for the rest of my life.
But perhaps the most motivating factor for me was the validation of it all. The Q Grader helped me to become more confident with cuppings, and helped me benchmark this practice. This is a step toward professionalism and a scientific approach to understanding and communicating coffee measurements in defined terms, in relation to what we do and teach the community.