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What is the Q Grader Coffee Exam?

Updated on June 2, 2016
2016 Flavor Wheel
2016 Flavor Wheel | Source

What is the Q Grader system and how do I gain the qualification?

The Q Grader system was created by the Coffee Quality Institute (CQI) in order to create a common and recognisable communication level between credible coffee assessors. CQI recognised there were many levels when talking about the quality of coffee and so set out to establish a skilled group of coffee assessors to grade coffee consistently using the same language and quality grading system.

The Q Grader system works through certifying cuppers by having them take the Q Grader exam. Once you have registered on the CQI website, attended and passed the Q Grader exam, you can then be available to have coffees send to you for evaluation. Your coffee scores are recorded next to your name on the website and others can view the coffees score as you are an independent assessor, having no connection to that coffee, farm or estate. It is up to you whether you want to evaluate coffees or not, so just passing the exam and having the certification is fine.

To become a Q Grader, you must first sign up for an exam in your area. The next exam can be found on the CQI website and exams are being held all over the world at any given time. Upon successful completion of the exam, you will be certified with the title of Q Grader. The certification is valid for 3 years, after this you will need to renew your Q Grader certification by completing a calibration cupping. Upon successfully completing the cupping, your certification will be renewed.

The main priority of a Q Grader is to determine whether a coffee can be considered specialty or not and score the coffee accordingly. If you deem a coffee not specialty grade then you need to show evidence why this coffee is not specialty through your evaluation of both the green sample and the roasted coffee by cupping the coffee and recording the results.

Although it may seem straight forward to register for a Q Grader exam and pass, it is actually one of the hardest coffee tests that you can take in your life. The pass rate is less than 30%. To pass requires completing 20 out of 20 tests successfully and most of the tests require a minimum of between 75% to 85% passing mark. The complete calibration and testing time is condensed into 6 days and if you are not used to being in constant contact with coffee then you will definitely have a hard time successfully passing the exam. Most of the candidates who take the Q Grader exam are competent coffee professionals and it is not unusual for someone with 5+ years of cupping experience to fail the exam.

Cupping @ Coffeyandcake.com
Cupping @ Coffeyandcake.com | Source

What tests are in the Q Grader exam?

The Q Grader exam is made up of 20 tests. There are a range of tests and you need to pass each one in order to successfully complete the certification process.

The 20 tests are:

  • General Knowledge
  • Sensory Skills A
  • Sensory Skills B
  • Sensory Skills C
  • Olfactory A
  • Olfactory B
  • Olfactory C
  • Olfactory D
  • Triangulation 1
  • Triangulation 2
  • Triangulation 3
  • Triangulation 4
  • Matching Pairs (organic acids)
  • Roast Standard Identification
  • Green Grading
  • Roasted Grading
  • Cupping 1
  • Cupping 2
  • Cupping 3
  • Cupping 4

Although there are 20 tests, some of the tests are repeated but with a different range of coffees. I will expand on each group of tests below.

General Knowledge - the name is quite explanatory. This test is 100 multiple choice questions based on general coffee knowledge. Many people think they know about coffee but this test will truly push people to their limits. The questions range from coffee cultivation, harvesting and processing methods to import/export, grading, pricing, evaluation, cupping and brewing. For example, do you know what the 'C' price is on the stock market? What are the Agtron roast levels internally and externally according to SCAA cupping protocol?

If you have no idea about the answers to these types of questions then you are probably not ready to sit the General Knowledge part of the Q Grader exam. The pass rate is 75 correct answers out of 100. Competent coffee professionals usually score between 85 - 95 for this exam. More than 95 correct answers is deemed excellent and 100 correct answers is outstanding.

Sensory Skills - this consists of 3 tests, Part A, B & C. Part A is a calibration with the answers given from the assessor, it is a guaranteed 100% pass mark unless you are not listening. There are 9 cups on the table and the assessor will let you know what is inside each cup. Three of the cups will consist of a 'sour' mixture, which range from intensity level 1 to 3. Three cups will consist of a 'sweet' mixture, which also range from intensity level 1 to 3. The third group of three cups consists of a 'salt' mixture which range from intensity level 1 to 3. These 3 mixtures represent 3 of the areas of your palate, although it doesn't cover bitter, its quite hard to assess what flavours you are getting at the lower levels of intensity. You will fail Part B & C automatically if you do not pass Part A (this is logical as Part B & C are much harder).

Part B is exactly the same test but you have to work out the intensity levels and mixtures yourself. The low level intensities are hardly identifiable, you usually need to try multiple times to pick up the mixture type and intensity levels 2 and 3 are very close so its easy to get things mixed up with 9 cups on the table.

Part C is generally known as the second hardest test in the whole exam. You will be provided with 9 cups on the table and there will be a concoction of 2 - 3 mixtures in each cup with varying intensity levels. For some students, this test is unbelievably hard. This test used to be the hardest of the whole exam until they stopped diluting the concoctions. For example if you take a level 1 intensity salt and mix it with 2 other solutions, you will end up diluting the level 1 intensity salt twice, making the salt mixture pretty much undetectable. Luckily CQI took this into consideration and now the test actually reflects the intensity level regardless of how many solutions are mixed together, and that's why this test is now the second hardest.

Olfactory - this is to test your sense of smell. The Olfactory test is made up of 4 tests, Part A, B, C & D. This test uses the Le Nez du Cafe aroma kit which is made up of 36 common aromas that are found in coffee. Each test consists of 9 vials and you need to be able to match 6 of them and recall the name of 3 of the matched pairs. The four tests (A, B ,C & D) are divided into 4 categories: Sugar Browning, Aromatic Taints, Enzymatic & Dry Distillation. Sugar Browning is by far the hardest!

Triangulations - are tests to identify the odd cup out during cupping. For example, you may have 3 - 5 cups of one type of coffee on the table at any given cupping session and the ability to identify an 'odd' cup will definitely help in your assessment of that particular coffee. In the Q Grader triangulation test, there will be 6 groups of coffees on the table, each group will consist of 3 cupping bowls and you will be asked to identify the odd cup out of each group. There are 4 triangulation tests and the hardest is the washed milds.

Matching Pairs - currently the hardest test of the whole Q Grader exam. There are 8 groups of coffee on the table and each group consists of 4 cupping bowls meaning there are 32 bowls of coffee on the table. Each group will have 2 cupping bowls that have an organic acid added to the coffee, part of the test is to identify which cups have the acid added. This is obviously difficult because the concentration of acid's added is very weak and because some coffee naturally is very acidic, it can be tough to identify which cups have the additional drops of acid. The other part of the test is to identify which acid has in fact been added to the cup! You may be able to single out the 2 cups in the group that contain the acid, but if you can't identify that acid then you will loose points and you need to be able to name the acids to pass. In the old version of Q Grader, it was not compulsory to name the acids but now it is compulsory so therefore it has now been deemed the hardest test in the whole Q Grader exam. If you are not familiar with acids, there are 5 that are commonly found in coffee, so you have a 1 in 5 chance in picking the right acid but remember that an acid will not appear in more than 2 groups of the 8!

Roast Standard Identification - is a lot harder than it sounds. There are 5 cupping bowls on the table and you need to identify each bowl. The options to pick from are: light roast, perfect roast, baked roast & dark roast. One of the roast profiles will also be repeated in order to make up 5 bowls. As both a commercial & sample roaster myself of 5 years I thought this would be the easiest test of them all, but this was very tricky indeed ;).

Green Grading - can also be very hard if you are not familiar with green beans. The trick here is not to over grade the coffee. I know this sounds easy but the truth is even if you look at green beans all day, you probably don't know what is a category 1 defect or a category 2 defect. Also learn how many defects of each category that you are allowed before the coffee is deemed NS (not specialty).

Roasted Grading - the easiest test in the whole Q Grader exam. Just find the quakers in the roasted sample.

Cupping Flights - these are the heart of the Q Grader exam. A fail of any 1 of these tests and you cannot pass the exam. With the other tests, there are retakes and you could still pass the exam but if you fail this then you will not be going home at the end of the 6 days with a Q Grader certificate. This can be quite demoralising if you fail the first cupping and know that you have to continue the rest of the week but not walk away with certification. If you are not sure how to fill out a SCAA cupping score sheet then make sure to learn and practice. Adding up your scores is also part of the time and considering that you have to evaluate the dry fragrance and then heat the water for the rest of the cupping to continue, you may want to speed up your cupping evaluation times. There should be enough time for you if you are an experienced cupper otherwise you may want to practice more.

At the end of the day you will learn something new in this exam. The assessor will play a large part in your certification and so will your class mates. Unfortunately there is not a lot of information online regarding help for the Q Grader exam but there is only so much you can read. The rest is up to your taste buds! Good luck!

Cupping at Nossa Coffee
Cupping at Nossa Coffee | Source

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