Royal New York

CQI Q Grader Coffee Certification: All You Need To Know

The CQI Q Grader Coffee Certification class at the Royal New York lab is three weeks away. Thinking about signing up for the class but haven’t yet? For experienced coffee cuppers there is still time to successfully prepare for the Q Grader Coffee certification before our upcoming class. Even better, RNY Guest Instructor Thomas Ameloot has answered all you need to know about the Q Grader coffee class and how to best prepare.

Sign up for the CQI Q Grader Coffee Class today!

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What is a Q Grader?

The Coffee Quality Institute states, “Certified Q Graders are professionals skilled in sensory evaluation of green coffee..”  Here I’m going to specifically discuss Q Graders for arabica (though most of the skills and information is the same or similar).

A Q Grader is an individual who has invested their time and energy in developing their skills in the quality evaluation of coffee. They have proven knowledge in various aspects of coffee. Some examples of that knowledge may include the development of acids in coffee, the classification of green defects, and the protocol for preparing a cupping.

A Q Grader has also been tested and verified to have the skills to evaluate coffees from various locations and processes using the SCA cupping form and protocol and to provide a score that is calibrated with their other Q Graders.

What are the benefits of being a certified Q Grader?

There are many benefits of being a certified Q grader for coffee, here are just a few of the many benefits:


I’ve heard from many individuals how they have been doing the work of evaluating coffees, roasting, sourcing, etc. either alone or in an echo chamber. They come in with many of the skills but also with much self-doubt. Each test they pass can lift up their self-image and validate their months or years spent working on these skills.


When a person becomes a Q Grader, they can include this certificate on their resume.  Many companies look for this certification as proof of a persons skill level in the coffee industry. My first position as a Sensory Specialist came to me only after becoming a certified Q Grader. The company that hired me viewed this as a specific requirement for the position.


A Q Grader becomes able to adjust their scoring to reach some consensus with a group of sensory evaluators. Once this skill is learned, it can be applied in many different ways. You can more easily be involved in other areas of the coffee industry. Like judging for the US Coffee Championships. I specifically have gone on to judge Brewer’s Cup and Coffee In Good Spirits, both of which involve different forms but still use the skill of calibration. Cup of Excellence would be another place to use this skill.


After learning about the skills in Q and completing each of the tests, an individual can gain insight into how to share this knowledge with colleagues and coworkers. After completing their first calibration, a Q Grader can move into the role of Assistant Instructor, if accepted. You can read more about that process, here.    


My colleague Steven Pivalsky often compares the Q to going to the gym and working out. You exercise all these muscles. It’s hard work. Sometimes you find muscles you didn’t even know you had.  When you are done, you are stronger.

Can you breakdown what takes place each day of the Q course?

The schedule may vary from below.  Each course has individuals with different questions, backgrounds, and experiences. We may have a deeper focus on one section while another section may need less attention. If there are changes, we post the updated schedule each day. 

Can you talk in depth about each section of the course – what will be reviewed and how students can prepare for each in advance?

Sure! Below we will group the course by test type with a brief description of the test(s) followed by ways you can prepare.


Gustatory (Taste)

Tastes, or modalities as referred to in the course, include sweet, sour, salty, and bitter. We don’t currently use umami in this course. 

In the first part of this test, you will have 12 samples. You will identify each of these individual tastes at a low, medium, and high intensity level.

You will also be presented with 9 samples of mixtures containing two tastes at one of the three intensity levels each, i.e. sweet medium intensity and sour low intensity. Finally, you will need to identify which two modalities are in each mixture and the intensity level of each modality present in each sample.

TO PRACTICE – Use white sugar, table salt, citric acid, and caffeine to represent sweet, salty, sour, and bitter respectively. You will need a scale and if you are using citric acid you may need the scale to go to the hundredth decimal – 0.00. If you don’t have this, you can prepare a stronger solution of citric acid and water and use this to add to the water.

When I prepared for this section, I purchased a case of quart Ball jars.

Coincidently, citric acid is usually located with the Ball jars at your local hardware store. 

 Fill the ball jar or some other vessel with a set amount of water. For ball jars I used 1/2 liter. Slowly weigh and add an amount of a single taste, stir, and taste –   until that taste is recognizable by you. Once you can recognize a taste, that amount is your level 1 or low amount. Now double that weight for medium and triple it for high intensity levels.

Once you can recognize and recall each modality at each intensity, move on to mixtures. Randomly add two modalities of the same or different intensities to a single ball jar. Mix these up and practice recalling the tastes. tastes affect each other in your perception.

Olfactory (Aroma)

For this test we use the scents from a tool called the nose of coffee or Le Nez du Café Revelation kit. The kit is further arranged into four categories: enzymatic, sugar browning, dry distillation, and aromatic taints.

Develop aromatic recognition by matching two bottles of the same aroma from a specific aromatic group.

Develop aromatic recall by naming individual aromatics.

TO PRACTICE- you can review which aromatics belong to each category. A google search of “le nez du café categories” or “the art of aroma perception in coffee” will give you the information. You don’t need a kit to do this.

If you have access to a kit, maybe borrowed from a friend , work to identify the smells with your eyes closed.

Another suggestion is to eat the items on the le Nez du Café list that you are not familiar with and don’t often eat. Close your eyes and breath in exhale through your nose as you chew the item.

Flavor (Taste+Aroma)

Flavor is a combination of taste and aroma, among other things.

Recall specific flavor standards from FlavorActiV

This is still in the development phase and is currently only participatory, not tested. PRACTICE NOT NECESSARY

Green Quality

Green Defect Identification – Identifying Primary and Secondary Green Coffee Defects using the SCAA Arabica Green Coffee Handbook  

TO PRACTICE – read the handbook.

Set a timer for 10 minutes and remove all the defects from a 350 gram sample of green coffee.

Use the book to name and categorize the defects.

Use this form to add up the number of each defect found then do the conversions. For example, 10 slight insect damaged beans = 1 category 2 defect. 

Roast Defect Identification – Detect any “quakers” in a sample (100 grams of roasted coffee). A quaker is a coffee bean that has much less browning in the roast process resulting in a lighter color. PRACTICE NOT NECESSARY


In the Q, we cup four total tables of coffees, each table from one of four categories: milds (washed), natural/honey processed, Africa, and Asia following the SCA Cupping Protocols.  Each table features six coffees. We spend extensive time explaining and reviewing each attribute on the cupping form.

In the Q, we cup four total tables of coffees, each table from one of four categories: milds (washed), natural/honey processed, Africa, and Asia following the SCA Cupping Protocols.  Each table features six coffees. We spend extensive time explaining and reviewing each attribute on the cupping form.

TO PRACTICE – Read and study the Protocol and use it to prepare and practice cuppings with coffees from different processes and locations. Ideally this would be done with one or more experienced coffee cuppers. You may find public cuppings local to you or find services online.


A Triangle is a sensory test that establishes if two items are different, in this case two coffees. In the Q, there are four triangle tests, one for each table category, i.e. Africa. Each test has 6 “triads” or sets of 3 cups. Two cups are the same, one is different. The test takes place in a room with red lights to minimize visual differences.

TO PRACTICE – Find two coffees that are similar but have something different about them. Mark the bottom of the cupping bowl that contains the different cup and mix up the cups. Identify which is different and repeat. You will prepare the cups similar to the cupping protocol but make sure the coffee is not visibly different. If it is, try turning the light off or doing the exercise in a dark place. 

Acids in Coffee

There are many acids in coffee. In the Q we explore four; citric, malic, acetic, and phosphoric.  We use an exercise called “matching pairs” to test for the ability to differentiate, recognize, and recall the acids. Eight sets with four cups each is set. Each set has two cups of plain coffee and two cups of coffee spiked to the same intensity level with one acid type.

TO PRACTICE – If you purchased the citric acid you can use that to spike cups. If you’d like to explore the other acids you can purchase those online or at beer brewing supply stores.

Brew a coffee that has low acidity and brew it at weak strength.

Pour four cupping bowls, mark the bottom of two of the bowls and add a small amount of acid to those. Just enough that you can taste a difference between the other two bowl which contain just plain coffee. Move the bowls around and work to differentiate the two bowls with acid.

If you have purchased all the acids, you can practice spiking the coffee with each and identifying them from each other.

Sample Roast ID

We follow the protocol to roast coffee to SCA sample roast specifications. We then compare coffees that have been roasted incorrectly – over roasted, under roasted, and baked (roasted at a lower time and/or slower temperature but to the same roast color).

TO PRACTICE – If you have access to green and a roaster, roast a coffee to specification and then over, under, and baked. 

Prepare two cups of the sample roast and each incorrect roast using the protocol.

Use the prepared cups to make triangles and practice finding the different cup and identifying which roast the different cup is.    

General Knowledge

This test reviews various aspects of general knowledge including the SCA cupping protocol and triangle preparation, coffee acids, green grading, roasting, brewing, the cupping form, the basics of how taste and smell work, coffee processing, and global production, etc.

TO PRACTICE just read up on the basics of these things. Most of them will be reviewed in the course.

We’re 3 weeks out from the Q Grader Certification class, can you provide a recommendation preparation timeline?  What should attendees do each day leading up to the course to best prepare?

Try cupping with experienced cuppers using the SCA Cupping Form at least a few times. Practice with different quality levels of coffee and coffee from different regions of the world – especially coffees you may not be familiar with.

How long have you been teaching Q Grader courses and why should students be excited about signing up for your class?

I started as an Assistant Instructor of the Q in March of 2020 in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. I became a Q Instructor in August of 2021. Since then, I have led 13 Q Courses and a total of 31 CQI courses in many locations including USA, Thailand, Laos, England, and the Philippines. My journey as an Instructor started back in 2010 when I was promoted to a training role with Green Mountain Coffee Roasters and fell in love with adult learning theory and communication. From then I started volunteering with the SCA and taught my first course on Organic Acids at my first Roaster’s Guild Retreat in 2013. Shortly after that I became the Vice Chair and then the Chair of the SCAA Sensory Education Committee and an AST with the SCAA. I’ve loved bringing education to people ever since.

My commitment is to ensuring each participant in each course leaves the course with a deeper understanding of their senses as they relate to coffee.  Even if they don’t pass the Q on their first try, they all leave with the skills needed to do so and just need a bit more practice.   

Are you ready?

Sign up for the CQI Q Grader Coffee Class today!