August 28, 2023

How often do Q graders need to recertify?


Many coffee professionals choose to become Q graders for a number of reasons. Whether it’s to know more about sourcing green coffee or achieving more defined roast profiles, the Q grader certification programme can be a useful – or even necessary – tool to progress in your specialty coffee career.

In light of this, certifying as a Q grader has become something of an industry standard. But like many other certifications across the coffee supply chain – ranging from carbon neutral to organic – maintaining a Q grader licence requires regular recertification.

So how often do coffee professionals need to retrain as Q graders and why? And more importantly, does regular recertification make the programme more inaccessible than it’s already considered to be?

To find out more, I spoke to three industry experts. Read on for more of their insight into the Q grader programme.

You may also like our article on the Q grader programme and how you can certify.

Q graders assess coffee aroma.

What are Q graders? 

Before we look at how often Q graders need to recertify, let’s break down what the Q grader programme is.

First launched in 2004 by the Coffee Quality Institute (CQI), the Q grading system was created to develop a standardised means of assessing and evaluating green coffee to be used by coffee professionals around the world. It’s estimated there are currently more than 7,000 certified Q graders working in the coffee sector.

Similar to a sommelier in the wine industry, a Q grader is a trained and CQI-licensed cupping professional who can evaluate arabica coffees using the Specialty Coffee Association (SCA) grading system. The CQI also offers a R grader programme to train as a licensed robusta cupper.

As part of the CQI and SCA standards and protocols, Q graders assess arabica coffees based on several sensory attributes. These can be found on the SCA cupping form, which has recently been updated to be more inclusive and mitigate any “intersubjectivity” when evaluating coffee.

The new cupping protocol and guidelines are split into four separate assessment stages. Coffee professionals can either use these separate to one another or collectively:

  • Physical – assesses moisture content, physical appearance, and any visual damage to the beans
  • Extrinsic – factors such as “identity”, certification, and origin
  • Affective – the cupper’s personal opinion on coffee quality based on the 100-point scale
  • Descriptive – an evaluation of a coffee’s flavour and aroma attributes, with no positive or negative implications

Using the SCA’s 100-point scale, any coffee which scores 80 or more points is classified as “specialty”. Arabicas which receive 87 points or above are usually considered to be high-quality specialty coffees.

How to qualify as a Q grader

Cecilia Sanada is a Q grader and coffee consultant.

“To become a licensed Q grader, you must complete the CQI certification course,” she says. “The six-day programme has 19 different exams, including cupping, sensory skill, and triangulation tests.”

The course is split into three days of training and three days of tests. All Q grader programmes take place at SCA-certified facilities and are led by qualified instructors.

“Trainees also need to identify different types of acidity, aroma, and roast profiles, as well as showcasing general knowledge of green coffee grading and the coffee supply chain,” Cecilia adds.

Why do we need Q graders in specialty coffee?

Without the Q grading system, there would be no industry-wide standardised system to evaluate green coffee quality, flavour, and aroma. The CQI’s rigorous training and assessment procedures mean Q graders have the ability to make objective evaluations about a wide range of coffees – including different origins, varieties, and processing methods.

Spencer Turer is the Vice President of Coffee Enterprises, a US coffee consultancy and laboratory testing company.

“Q graders play an important role in green coffee quality control,” he says. “A shared common language to describe coffee quality and sensory profiles is essential so both green coffee buyers and sellers can better align their evaluations and profile descriptors.

“In turn, this helps sellers pick out the best coffees for certain customers,” he adds. “When industry stakeholders evaluate coffee using the same protocols and resources, such as the Q grading system, everyone benefits.”

Moreover, developing more formalised and rigorous quality and sensory analysis systems means licensed professionals can apply their skills to other areas of the coffee industry more accurately and efficiently.

Pedro Lisboa is the Head of Coffee Relations at Nude, a oat milk manufacturer and distributor in Brazil. He explains how becoming a licensed Q grader helped him to develop barista-formulated plant milks.

“I used the Q grader sensory analysis protocol to better understand how the flavours and textures of cow’s milk complement different coffees,” he says. “With these insights, we then tested different plant milks to identify different attributes which don’t overpower the complex flavours in coffee.”

A Q grader tests their sensory skills.

When do Q graders need to recalibrate & recertify?

Cecilia tells me that in order to retain a long-term licence, Q graders must recertify every three years. This is to ensure all certified professionals stay on top of any changes to the CQI’s programme, as well as to make sure they can accurately evaluate coffee quality and sensory attributes.

Our palates and olfactory systems are responsible for identifying flavours and aromas in all food and beverages, including coffee. However, there are many external factors which affect the development of our palates. Some of these include:

  • The types of food and drink (or cuisine) we eat
  • Our age
  • Cultural background and influences

Considering all of these, regular palate calibration is essential for Q graders to correctly assess coffee quality, as well as to identify the full spectrum of flavours and aromas.

“Formalised and standardised calibrations are necessary because it means licence renewals can be objectively verified,” Spencer says.

“The CQI offers courses led by certified instructors to renew Q grader licences, which include cupping tests,” he adds. “To renew their certificates for three years, Q graders must pass two out of three tests.”

However, Spencer explains terms like “calibration” and “recalibration” are not the most accurate to use when talking about Q grading and cupping. He tells me that “alignment” is more reflective of the protocols involved – especially when developing more standardised systems.

For Q graders who don’t pass licence renewal courses, they must take the full CQI course again.

A professional coffee cupping session.

Could the Q grader programme ever become more accessible?

The Q grading system was originally developed for producers so they could understand more about coffee quality. However, it’s safe to say that not all farmers – and even coffee professionals more generally – can afford to take the course. 

Depending on location and the instructor, the price of the CQI programme can vary somewhat. Many coffee professionals, however, can pay up to US $2,000 for the full course and exams. 

What’s more, some trainees may even need to travel to their nearest SCA-certified facility to certify or renew their licence – meaning costs can quickly add up.

“In some cases, employers will consider expensing Q grader courses as part of their educational and professional development programmes,” Spencer says. “However, many trainees need to cover the costs – including travel – themselves.”

But Spencer does believe there are ways to make the certification process more accessible and convenient. 

“The course could be less expensive if coffee professionals could take part at other industry events,” he tells me. “Some examples of local and international events are the Coffee Roasters Guild Retreat, Specialty Coffee Expo, World of Coffee, Sintercafé, Café Show Seoul, World Coffee Producers Forum, and Brazil International Coffee Week (SIC).

“Hosting Q grader courses at these events could provide cost-effective opportunities to both instructors and students who are already in attendance,” he adds.

Not always a necessity

We should acknowledge the important role the Q grader programme plays in specialty coffee. Without it, quality and sensory evaluation of arabica coffees would be far less standardised and formalised.

However, Pedro points out that not all coffee professionals need to qualify as Q graders.

“I don’t need a Q grader licence to do my job,” he says. “And considering the costs, recertifying wasn’t a priority for me.”

A coffee producer performs sensory analysis.

Sharing a common language to objectively assess coffee quality and sensory attributes is essential to the future of specialty coffee. In turn, industry professionals across the supply chain need access to courses like the Q grader programme.

At the same time – especially with recertification required every three years – finding ways to make the programme more accessible is also important. 

Enjoyed this? Then read our article on five key tips when training to be a Q grader.

Perfect Daily Grind

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