May 24, 2017

What Is The Q Grader Program & Should You Do It?


Certified Q graders have almost mythical status in the specialty coffee industry – but there’s no reason why you can’t become one too.

The certification is useful for purchasing coffee, selecting roast profiles and production/processing methods, understanding coffee origins, and more. It allows us to communicate objectively about quality throughout the entire coffee supply chain.

We spoke to several Q graders to find out more about this program. Read on to learn what a Q grader actually is and whether you should get Q grader certification.

English Version: ¿Qué es el Programa Q Grader?  ¿Deberías Considerarlo?

Rachel Eubanks, a certified Q-grader and green coffee salesperson, break the crust to release aromatics. Credit: Melissa Toms.

What Is The Q-Grader Program?

First of all, let’s look at what a Q grader is. They are a person certified by the Coffee Quality Institute (CQI) as capable of analyzing Arabica coffee through smell and taste – something normally called “cupping”. (For Robusta coffee, you’d want to become an R Grader.)

A cupper first scores coffee on several attributes, such as aroma and sweetness. Then, they add those up to create a final score out of 100 – and it’s this that decides the value of any particular coffee. 80+ is classed as specialty, but some specialty roasters will only accept 84+ in single origins.

The Q grader program was first launched in 2004, and it’s not an easy undertaking. It’s six full days of intense training in a SCA-certified laboratory.

Participants learn olfactory (smelling analysis) and sensory analysis skills, as well as cupping protocols, how to triangulate coffees (find the “odd one out” in 3 coffees), how to match organic acids, and how to identify sample roasts.

q grader course

Part of the “Le Nez du Café” kit used for the olfactory exam. Credit: Balzac Brothers

Why Become a Q Grader?

I wanted to know why people become Q graders, so I decided to speak with Danner Friedman of Balzac Brothers, a US American importer that offers Q grader certification. For him, the program is valuable because it allows everyone to speak the same language. It enables you, he tells me, to confidently give an objective and standardized opinion.

He believes it’s useful all the way along the supply chain, since it provides a way to pinpoint areas for improvement – and ways to do so – in coffees. As an importer, he can then communicate these to the farmer and/or exporter. However, if those farmers and exporters were also Q graders, they could do it themselves.

It’s also useful for roasters – and not just those who make buying decisions. A Q grader gains meaningful insight into how a particular roast was executed, and whether it was the right choice of profile.

Sam Keane, green coffee buyer, and certified Q-grader, leads a cupping at the Balzac Brothers lab. Credit: Melissa Toms.

Who Is The Q Grader Program For?

Jodi Dowell Wieser, Co-Founder of Gather Coffee Co, a Q grader training and examination centre in Fort Worth, Texas, believes the Q grader program has great educational benefits. She tells me that in just six days it can help anyone to progress – regardless of how long they’ve been in the industry – thanks to the exposure to different coffees.

“This program allows everyone to try coffees from many different countries, and calibrate them by learning the same vocabulary to evaluate coffee.”

That being said, she particularly encourages business owners and other coffee professionals to become Q graders. For her, knowing how to accurately taste and score coffee is the foundation of any role in the industry.

A variety of green coffee samples seen at the Balzac Brothers lab. Credit: Melissa Toms

SEE ALSO: How to Cup Coffee & Improve Your Palate

Is Q Grader Certification Really Necessary?

It’s clear that becoming a Q grader offers significant benefits for coffee professionals across the supply chain – but is it necessary?

Jeremias Paul, Co-Founder and Roaster at Broom Wagon Coffee, USA, participated in the Q grader program right after entering the specialty coffee industry. Looking back, he tells me that this isn’t really necessary. Yet neither is it always a bad idea.

“It helps you to avoid, from the beginning,” Jeremias says, “misleading habits or misconceptions about certain coffees.”

He sees becoming a Q grader as an investment for a company. And this means it’s all about what you want to do with it. What are your business and/or career goals? Is becoming a Q grader going to help you achieve that? And will it be worth the investment?

Gloria Long, a certified Q-grader and finance specialist, aspirates a coffee sample at the Balzac Brothers lab. Credit: Melissa Toms.

Accessibility: The Problem With Q Grader Programs

Jodi tells me that the Q grader program was originally designed for farmers and producers. Its founding purpose was empower them to understand the quality of their coffee. And today, it’s the industry standard.

Yet we still see many producers who don’t know exactly what’s in their coffee, what it’s worth, or how to improve it. While some do have access to Q grader classes, not all can afford them.

Brendan tells me that one thing he would like to see is a more accessible Q grader certification program for producers and small roasters. From making them available in producing regions to subsidies for producers and even more online modules, he believes there are many ways to improve.

The staff at Balzac Brothers conducts a cupping at its CQI-certified lab in Charleston, South Carolina. Credit: Melissa Toms.

The specialty coffee industry needs to speak the same language – one that will allow professionals to objectively understand and explain quality.

And you don’t need to already be an expert to invest in your knowledge. So if you want to learn more about evaluating coffee, why not consider becoming a Q grader?

Please note: Balzac Brothers is a sponsor of Perfect Daily Grind and was consulted in the creation of this article. They have received a courtesy copy of the article prior to publication but have exerted no editorial control over the final copy.  To find out when Balzac Brothers will be hosting the next Q-grader course, please click here.

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