The Q Grader Coffee Course is BACK at the RNY Lab!

Are you looking to become a Q Grader? The Q Grader Coffee Course is back at the Royal NY Lab! If you’re searching for more information before signing up, keep reading. We’re breaking down the basics of being a Q Grader and what the exam entails. Plus, coffee trader Mike Ward shares his experience with the exam and becoming a certified Q Grader!

Ready to sign up? Use the link below!


What is the Q Coffee System?

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 how 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 SCA cupping form.” But, what if one person scores a coffee a 78 while another scores it 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 scoring a coffee correctly and accurately matters.

The Importance of the Q Coffee System

The Q Grading system 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, its price.

It also matters because these scores tell us something about the quality of the coffee and what to expect. Because of that, they need to be standardized 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 they are from and their processing methods.  A coffee from Sumatra will most likely not have the same acidity as a coffee from Kenya.  It’s just not what you expect from a Sumatran coffee. That being said, you shouldn’t fault a great coffee from Sumatra because it didn’t have the same acidity as that Kenyan coffee you had once. Part of being calibrated as a Q grader is being familiar with the regional attributes of coffees and scoring them solely on those attributes. They’re not scored based on what coffees from other regions taste like, and definitely not based on what you like to taste in coffees.

Q graders are trained to give a quantifiable, numerical score to a coffee’s attributes, such as acidity, body, balance, sweetness, uniformity, and aftertaste. They then add these numbers together to give a coffee its overall score.  Q graders must pass a rigorous test in order to prove calibration 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 +/- 0.5 difference!

What is the Q Grader Coffee Exam?

In the coffee industry, the Q Exam is legendary. The Q calibration course lasts 6 days, with a combination of calibrating as a group followed by testing.  Students must pass all 20 individual tests in order to receive their Q Grader license. Some tests include:

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 group scores to receive a passing grade.


Students practicing triangulations under red lighting

There will be 6 sets of 3 cups.  In these 3 cups, 2 of the coffees are the same, and 1 is different.  The triangulations mimic the cuppings: 4 total triangulations represent Washed Milds, African, Asian, and Natural coffees.  This test is given in red lighting so students cannot see differences in color between the cups.  When combined with the fact that the coffees are already similar based on region, that makes these tests pretty difficult.

Roast Identification:

Without prior tasting or calibrating to a control sample, students have to identify whether the sample is: too dark, baked, underdeveloped, or roasted to protocol.

Organic Acids Matching Pairs:

Students must correctly identify 4 organic acids commonly found in coffee. The acids used could be citric, malic, acetic, phosphoric, quinic, or lactic.  Students face 6 sets of 4 cups, 2 of which have been spiked. They need to correctly identify which cups have been spiked and name the acid. Furthermore, some of the acids will appear twice.

Sensory Skills:

This tests students’ ability to identify basic tastes by having them taste different solutions. It starts off ‘easy’ by having them identify intensity levels of salt, sour, and sweet. However, it then grows 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, it could be 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.

Why such an intense test?

As mentioned earlier, a Q grader’s score directly affects have a producer can price and sell their coffee. This is not something to be taken lightly. Put yourself in a producer’s shoes and imagine having a third party grading your product and determining your income. Grading needs to be objective, justified, and accurate.

Advice from a Q Grader Coffee Trader

Mike Ward

Having undergone the Q Exam, I want to talk about why taking the Q was important for me and share some tips that helped me pass. I hope these suggestions can help those of you that are thinking about putting your palates to the ultimate test!

Taking the Q was a transformative experience for me, and I really can’t suggest it highly enough to anyone that wants to take their coffee game to the next level. While the test is really intense, the people that you take it with make you feel like you’re in a small, tight-knit family, and the support from your peers is unmatched. Preparing for the test is key, and cupping a lot of coffee really helps to prepare your palate for the multiple exams. Overall, it was a fun and challenging time that I would do again in a heartbeat.

Ready to sign up? Use the link below, and good luck!


* referenced from the Coffee Quality Institute