The Lab

The Q Certification is Back at The Lab

What is the Q?

Simply put, the Q Coffee System “identifies quality coffees and brings them to market through a credible and verifiable system.”*  It is a way to standardize the way that coffee professionals evaluate and grade coffee.

The SCA defines specialty arabica coffee as “coffee that is free of primary defects or unclean odors and scores 80 or above on the SCAA cupping form.” But what if one person scores a coffee a 78 while another scores a coffee an 83?  Who is right?  Why does it matter?  Can’t we just average the scores together and call it a day?

No, we cannot. There are many reasons why scoring a coffee correctly and accurately matters.

It matters because that score reflects the price that a producer can receive for their green coffee. A coffee that scores a 78 vs an 83 represents a big difference in perceived value and therefore, it’s price.

It also matters because these scores tell us something about the quality of the coffee and what to expect.  Therefore, they need to be standardized in some way to create a common language that can be used throughout the supply chain.  This is what the Q program aims to do.

Coffees can taste differently based on where it is from and how it was processed.  Coffees from Sumatra will most likely not have the same acidity as coffee from Kenya.  It’s just not what you expect from a Sumatra coffee. That being the case, you shouldn’t fault a great coffee from Sumatra because it didn’t have the same acidity as that Kenya coffee you had one time. Part of being calibrated as a Q grader is being familiar with coffees regional attributes and scoring the coffees based on those attributes alone; not based on what coffees from other regions taste like, and definitely not based on what you personally like to taste in coffees.

Q graders are trained to give attributes such as acidity, body, balance, sweetness, uniformity, and aftertaste a quantifiable number score, which when added together would give the coffee its overall score.  Q graders must pass a rigorous test in order to prove they are calibrated and receive a Q grader license. In theory, Q graders from all over the world could cup the same coffee and all score it within a +/- 0.75 difference.

 The SCA Arabica Cupping Form used to evaluate and grade coffees.  Image from The SCA Arabica Cupping Form used to evaluate and grade coffees.  Image from

The Q Calibration Exam

The Q Exam is legendary in the coffee industry The Q calibration course lasts 6 days with a mix of calibrating as a group and then testing.  Students must pass all 22 individual tests in order to receive their Q Grader license.

Some of the tests are:

Cupping Skills: students must perform 4 cuppings (Washed Milds, African, Asian, Naturals) and use the SCA cupping form to grade 6 coffees in each cupping.  Students must use the form correctly and be calibrated to the instructor and the group scores to receive a passing grade.

Triangulations: There will be 6 sets of 3 cups.  In these 3 cups, 2 of the coffees are the same and one is different.  The triangulations mimic the cuppings: 4 total triangulations representing Washed Milds, African, Asian, and Natural coffees.  This test is given in red lighting, so students can not see differences in color between the cups.  That, along with the coffees already being similar based on region, make these tests pretty difficult.

Roast Identification: Students have to identify whether the sample is: too dark, baked, underdeveloped, or roasted to protocol, without tasting or calibrating to a control sample beforehand.

Organic Acids Matching Pairs: correctly identifying 4 organic acids commonly found in coffee. The acids used could be citric, malic, acetic, phosphoric, quinic, or lactic.  Students are faced with 6 sets of 4 cups, two of which have been spiked. They need to correctly identify which cups have been spiked and name the acid. Some of the acids will appear twice.

Sensory Skills: tests students ability to identify basic tastes. Students taste different solutions starting off ‘easy’ by identifying varying intensity levels of salt, sour, and sweet, but growing harder, as solutions become mixes of sugar, sour, and sweet at different intensity levels.  For example, a solution could be one part sweet, two parts sour.  Or two parts sweet, one part salt. Palate fatigue mixed with stress makes this test difficult for most students.

Students also need to pass a general knowledge exam, green and roasted coffee grading, and 4 olfactory tests using the Le Nez du Cafe kit.

 Students practicing triangulations under red lighting

Students practicing triangulations under red lighting.

Why such an intense test?  Like we mentioned above, Q graders are giving a coffee a score that will reflect how much a producer can sell their coffee for.  This is not something to be taken lightly.  Put yourself in a producers shoes, having a third party grade your product and determining your income.  Grading needs to be objective, justified, and accurate.

Three people at Royal NY have taken the Q Exam.  We decided to talk about why taking the Q was important to us and some tips that helped us pass for those who are thinking of putting their palates to the ultimate test!

Ana Mallozzi, Education and Quality Specialist

My opportunity to take the Q happened when I was newly into coffee, so I went into it convinced I would not be able to pass.  Instead, I saw it as a fantastic opportunity to improve my cupping and sensory skills. I paid very close attention during the calibrations, looking very analytically at why the instructor scored a coffee the way they did vs how I scored it.  I focused on each test as professional development and tried to get the most out of it I could for myself and not just to pass.

And wouldn’t you know, I ended up passing!

So my advice is much easier said than done, but I always suggest taking each test at a time, try not to focus on the daunting overall task of passing the entire course. Also, don’t get down if you feel like you aren’t doing a good job, or if you don’t pass a few tests. Having a negative mood WILL affect how you do on the other tests. Try to stay positive and give each individual test your all. Use the breaks in between the tests to mentally re-coop. Remember, you have 2 chances to retake tests, so don’t let not passing one on the first try ruin your chances on passing the others.

Lastly, don’t eat anything spicy, sour, salty, sweet days leading up and during the exam. You can last 10 days eating bland food, then reward yourself at the Whole Foods hot buffet when it’s all over (take it from me- that’s still one of my fondest food memories.)  Eating bland foods will help your tongue pick up on more during testing.

Brittany Amell, Trader

Taking the Q was important to me because I wanted to see how my cupping abilities compared with others who weren’t involved in my daily cupping sessions. When you cup with the same group of people every day you become calibrated with them, but when you cup with others outside of your immediate group you begin to question where you stand. I really enjoyed taking the Q because it allowed me to cup coffees from different regions with producers, exporters and roasters. It’s amazing to see different positions throughout the specialty coffee industry join together for a common purpose: to improve their cupping skills and determine the appropriate value for green beans. Although we all contribute something different and unique to this industry, one thing we all have in common is sampling beans and determining if it’s considered specialty and what an appropriate selling/buying price would be. I was in this industry for two years before taking the Q, which I thought was a perfect amount of time to have enough experience and exposure to be able to successfully move through all of the exams! Some helpful hints to remember:

  • Smoking makes it tough on you to taste properly, and the smell might bother your neighbors cupping as well!
  • Also, any intense colognes and perfumes should not be worn throughout this course, even though you smell good, it still impairs the scores for fragrance and aroma.
  • Use nasal saline spray to help with any allergies/stuffy noses.
  • Hydrate!

Joe Borg, Trader

22 tests in 3 days! Who’s ready for a palate roller coaster ride? Deciding to take the Q the week before the exam isn’t exactly the best scenario to put yourself in but, why not right? In all honesty, don’t do that! I did, but I regretted it after as I could’ve tested myself on a few of the exams to prepare a bit better. All of the information is out there and you have 3 people at Royal to talk to regarding what to expect and to discuss the exam in more detail.

I highly suggest any coffee person who’s interested in heightening their knowledge on coffee, cupping and of course, challenging yourself, to sign up! If you are a coffee buyer, cupper, business owner, or just curious than the Q is for U. The Q course will allow you to grade and score coffees as specialty grade or not specialty grade. These grades and notes are meant to be communicated throughout the supply chain from the roaster, importer, exporter and producer. Everyone’s goal should be to increase the amount of specialty coffee being produced throughout the world, so being able to accurately grade and cup coffees will hopefully allow a producer to understand why their coffee may not be specialty and how and what they could do to increase their score to grant them a higher premium for their coffee in the future.

We are hosting another Q Certification at The Lab on Feb 5-10th.  Please click here for more information or to sign up.

We will also be hosting a Q prep class the Friday before the Q for anyone who signed up and wants some extra practice.

Please feel free to email with any additional questions.

*quoted from the Coffee Quality Institute website