What is Q Grading? What Every Coffee Enthusiast Needs to Know
This highly specialized designation is elevating the craft coffee industry from farm to cup.
Not all coffee is created equal. In fact, there are infinite combinations of possible aromas and flavors in any given cup—and even differences in mouthfeel and aftertaste if you want to get technical. Just like a sommelier can identify the nuance in a fine glass of wine, Q Graders can discern subtle differences in specialty coffees. Q Grading plays a crucial role in our industry, and the designation is not an easy one to achieve. Below, we explain exactly what this coveted distinction is, and how Q Graders around the world are standardizing and elevating craft coffee.
What Is Q Grading?
The coffee industry literally spans the globe—encompassing numerous languages and cultures. While this gives us a wonderful variety of flavors to enjoy, it also poses problems when it comes to establishing a standard way to assess a given cup. Back in 2003, the Coffee Quality Institute created the Q Grading designation, giving us a standard language for coffee, and a way to maintain and increase quality around the world—no small feat. The Q creates international standards, using the Cupping Form of the Specialty Coffee Association of America as a common language for describing and grading coffee. This numerically based scale is now the industry standard for describing coffee. Whether you’re in São Paulo, Brazil or San Antonio, Texas, an 8.25 in acidity means the same thing.
What Do Q Graders Learn?
The Q Grading program is intense. Before even embarking on the journey, aspiring Q Graders need to be industry experts. Specifically, the need to know “cupping” like the back of their hand. This is the process of identifying the physical and sensory qualities of specialty coffee, and it’s similar to wine tasting. Cupping assesses the body, sweetness, acidity, flavor and aftertaste of a cup of coffee. Through a process of smelling and slurping, accomplished cuppers can identify the key characteristics that set each particular coffee apart.
Q Grading training is taken over five days and includes a series of 22 lectures or sessions followed by an exam. Yes, that’s a total of 22 exams—and you need to pass all of them to pass the program. Those who have been through the process describe it like this: imagine taking a five-day crash course on the law, and then sitting down to write the bar exam. Thank goodness the whole thing involves a lot of caffeine.
What Do Q Graders Do?
It’s only an elite few who achieve the coveted status of Q Grader; there are around 108 in the US, and 5,000 worldwide. They are licensed to grade green coffees—which are unroasted coffee beans—and assign a standardized grade to coffees based on origin, flavor profiles, balance and other factors. Many Q Graders are already working in the specialty coffee industry as green buyers, roastery operators and senior traders, but the intention behind the Q is to elevate the quality of coffee all along the supply chain. So now that Q Grading is the international standard, anyone (determined enough) along the supply chain can join the ranks from farmers, to producers, to retailers. If you want to develop your coffee tasting chops and experience the different tasting notes of your favorite coffee, try our Tasting Cups and see what you discover.
We had the privilege of hosting Edmond Keung, Q Grader and Moving Coffee’s owner, at our office in Vancouver. He has been in the coffee world for 10 years and placed 2nd in the 2019 National Brewers Cup competition. In his coffee workshop, he teaches about identifying flavors present in coffee, and the importance of standardizing coffee grading across the industry. The ESPRO team got to try four different coffees, brewed many different ways, and see coffee through the perspective of a Q Grader. You can find Edmond’s work on Instagram @movingcoffee