Anna Vänskä

The Story How I Became a Q Grader

Becoming a Q Grader is a dream come true for many coffee enthusiast. Here’s the best practical tips for those thinking about taking the Q Grader test. And also for those who didn’t past the test on the first run. 

What is a Q Grader?

First things first - what is Q Grader? Q Grader is a trained and Coffee Quality Institute (CQI) licensed coffee cupper that can evaluate coffees based on the Specialty Coffee Association (SCA) practices. Q Grader is a bit like a sommelier of coffee world and there are more than 4000 Q Graders worldwide.

The reason Q Grading System was created is because most of the coffee origins have their own way of evaluating and classifying green coffee. Hence there was a need for common way to grade coffee globally. Also common system enables coffee professionals in both origin and consuming countries to discuss about the coffee quality in a common language. A common language makes it easier to solve the quality challenges of the coffee chain and to improve the quality of coffee.

Q grader Anna Vänskä doing cupping

3 Days of Training and 3 Days of Testing 

To qualify for a license, a cupper has to currently pass 19 tests. Cupper’s palate is tested with cupping tests, sensory skill tests and triangulation tests. The students also need to match and identify some acids (citric, malic, acetic and phosphoric) that are found in coffee as well as identify different roast levels and scents found in roasted coffee. There is also a test for green coffee grading and a general knowledge test. Below picture by the Coffee Quality Institute sums up the test well.  

How to Prepare for THE Test?

In my opinion, the key for success in the Q Grader tests is cupping, cupping and more cupping. The more you have cupped coffees from different origins and of different qualities, the better. Therefore I wouldn’t recommend to take the course if you have only just started cupping coffees – unless you just want to learn and are not stressed about licensing.

You can prepare yourself to some parts of the test beforehand. Olfactory tests are based on the Le Nez du Café scent kits which can be bought online. For the sensory skills test you can prepare and mix sweet, sour and salty liquids in your own kitchen. It´s also good to familiarize yourself with the SCA protocols and handbooks for cupping, brewing and classifying defects in green coffee. Knowing how to use the SCA Cupping Form helps too, then you can concentrate on evaluating the coffees and not in the form itself. I was somewhat familiar with the Le Nez du Café and the SCA protocols before the course but I didn’t prepare in any other specific way – so again, cupping experience is the key for success.

Q grader Anna Vänskä doing cupping big time

Tough Week of Testing

I took my course in Austin, Texas in January 2018. We had a great, fairly small group of students and a great instructor, Jodi Wieser from Gather Coffee. In all honesty, the week is very stressful due to time pressure and constant testing, especially since you know that only a certain small percentage usually pass the tests on the first try. I felt extremely lucky passing but it´s good to know that if you don´t pass all the tests, you can retake them during the next 18 months. I learnt a lot during the intense week and I feel that the licensing helps me in communicating about coffee quality with producers,    coffee sellers and other colleagues in the coffee chain. 

Wrap Up: 

·    Do as much cupping possible! Try different origins and qualities
·    Order a olfactory  test kit online
·    Make mixes of sweet, sour and salty liquids 
·    Learn the SCA cupping protocol by heart
·    Check out the SCA form for cupping, brewing and defects

The writer is a Sourcing Manager at Paulig