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Becoming a Q Grader

June 13, 2023

Becoming a Q Grader

For many years, Q Graders seemed to be mythical beings, a tiny group of coffee professionals with absurd sensory skills.

Whilst I dreamt of having the title, I never thought I would actually achieve it. I assumed my palate wasn't much chop, though I had never tested it.

So, after many years around coffee and a decade after starting Beck + Call, I thought it was time to challenge myself. I enrolled in the iconic Q Arabica Course and booked my flight to Melbourne.

I treated it as a week of professional development and had no real expectations, having heard from others in the industry that the course was very intense and super hard.  

On day one I was warmly greeted by Q Instructor and coffee guru Ben Bicknell. We actually crossed paths some 20 years earlier when I volunteered at one of Perth's first barista competitions.

Six other coffee nuts joined me for Q Week, including baristas, a coffee shop owner, a national cupping champion and even a Queensland coffee farmer.

Over the first three days we delved into the science of our senses and then put them to work across a series of practice sensory sessions. We cupped a lot of coffee, closely followed protocols and then cupped some more, with a focus on comparing quality.

On day four things got real with the first of twenty exams. Some green coffee grading for starters to identify defects, not too daunting. Then four cupping sessions, each with six coffees on the table to be evaluated. Time to concentrate, slurp with purpose and pay attention to detail on the score sheet.

And then there were the triangulatons, omg, tough! The blind tasting (under red lights) of sets of three coffees, where two are the same and the different cup must be identified. Sometimes they were different origins, sometimes the same origin but different processing, or even the same coffee just roasted differently.

The hours and days passed quickly, one exam after the next, broken by some evening study and a few hours sleep. It was clear that there would be no down time to explore Melbourne's coffee culture beyond the Q lab.

By day six my palate was just about exhausted, and I was shocked to learn that I had passed all the cuppings and triangulations, leaving just some aroma exams to re-take. I managed to knock them over in the final hours of the course.

To fly home a licenced Q Grader was mind blowing. The years of tasting and sniffing as a roaster had paid off and I had clearly underestimated my own sensory skills.

Q Graders operate in Coffee Quality Institute's Q System where farmers submit their coffee for independent grading. Three Q Graders evaluate these coffees and their quality scores are averaged for a final Q score that can be used by the farmer to achieve the best price at market. There are less than 150 Q Graders in Australia.

Q Week was an incredible experience, challenging and unforgettable. And it proved that in coffee you never stop learning. I'm now looking forward to what life as Q Grader looks like and what doors it might open to challenge me even further.

Image: Ben Bicknell


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