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by Rocky Rhodes

Are you “Q” yet?

Categories: 2011, AugustTags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , Author:

The lat­est craze in cof­fee is not a new fancy drink, sin­gle serve tech­nique, or a newly dis­cov­ered ori­gin. It is a com­mit­ment to qual­ity in cof­fee by get­ting cer– tified as a Q-Grader. So does this cer­ti­fi­ca­tion add value to you and the cof­fee indus­try or is it just the lat­est fad?

The Q-Grader pro­gram is designed to give a com­mon lan­guage to describe qual­ity in cof­fee and is used from the farmer to the con­sumer. It quan­ti­fies cof­fee attrib­utes and gets all par­tic­i­pants to iden­tify taste char­ac­ter­is­tics in the same way. The true pur­pose there­fore is to be able to com­mu­ni­cate qual­ity up and down the sup­ply chain and raise the over­all qual­ity of cof­fee in the process.

Jeremy Raths of The Roastery in Minneapolis, and a Q-Grader Instructor, describes the Q-Certification of cof­fee this way, “For the cof­fee indus­try it is the only cer­ti­fica– tion based on Quality. It is totally blind, inde­pen­dent and adher­ing to a strict pro­to­col. It is all about the cof­fee. No guilt, no shame, just cof­fee qual­ity. It is a way that the whole chain can objec­tively look at a cof­fee using quantification.”

When cof­fee is quan­ti­fied it means that it has been rated on a numeric scale from 1–100. Each of ten attrib­utes of a sin­gle sam­ple of cof­fee is rated from 1–10. Since there are ten attrib­utes they add up to the total score. Grading is done using the SCAA cup– ping form and it looks like this:

It takes an immense amount of train­ing and dis­ci­pline to be able to con­sis­tently give scores that are cal­i­brated with oth­ers. When you can prove that you have the skill to iden­tify both the attrib­utes and defects of cof­fee sam­ples con­sis­tently, then you can become a Q-Grader.

In order to prove your skills, the Coffee Quality Institute devel­oped the Q-Grader Certification Program that con­sists of 22 tests that must be passed. These tests are usu­ally given with lec­tures over an intense five-day period. The classes must take place in labs that have been cer­ti­fied by the SCAA and taught by cer­ti­fied instruc­tors. If you suc­ceed in pass­ing the tests and get cer­ti­fied as a Q-Grader, you have joined an élite group of cof­fee pro­fes­sion­als that have all cal­i­brated in the same way. You now have a com­mon ‘Q-Language’ that you can use to dis­cuss cof­fee quality.

Students come from all facets of the cof­fee sup­ply chain. Farmers and exporters from pro­duc­ing coun­tries get cer­ti­fied because they under­stand first-hand how qual­ity can affect price. They are com­mit­ted to learn­ing all they can to not only improve qual­ity but to com­mu­ni­cate with importers and roast­ers in a mean­ing­ful way.

The importers and roast­ers are get­ting cer­ti­fied for the rec­i­p­ro­cal rea­son as farm­ers and exporters. Roasters will use this skill set to start being more spe­cific on their orders to their importers. A small roaster can describe with con­fi­dence their desired fla­vor char­ac­ter­is­tics and over­all scores. Importers with Q-Graders on staff are apt to see more busi­ness because “they speak” the com­mon lan­guage with their Q-Grader clients. They also add value and cred­i­bil­ity to their cus­tomers, the retail­ers, by being able to describe with con­fi­dence the char­ac­ter­is­tics of the cof­fee which can then be used to mar­ket the end products.

David Griswald, President of Sustainable Harvest shared this suc­cess story of the Q-Coffee sys­tem. “Sustainable Harvest adopted the Q pro­gram to stan­dard­ize our qual­ity con­trol teams not only between our offices in the US, Colombia, Tanzania, Mexico, and Peru, but also with pro­ducer orga­ni­za­tions in 15 dif­fer­ent coun­tries
that sup­ply us spe­cialty cof­fee. Sustainable Harvest made a great com­mit­ment to the Q-grader pro­gram by fund­ing train­ing pro­grams for Q cer­ti­fi­ca­tion for our sup­pli­ers, and nearly half of the staff is cer­ti­fied. Currently we have 15 cer­ti­fied Q-graders and one Q instruc­tor among our staff world­wide. The Chirinos Coöperative sent their cup­per, Eber Tocto, to par­tic­i­pate in a Q Grader course and he passed with fly­ing col­ors. In 2010, Chirinos sold its dif­fer­en­ti­ated qual­ity lots to Sustainable Harvest who paid Chirinos $2.30 a pound for a stan­dard qual­ity lot, while Chirinos’ top qual­ity lot pulled in $2.80 a pound. This addi­tional qual­ity bonus is a direct result of an edu­cated cup­per who is trained to pro­vide his cus­tomers the high qual­ity cof­fee they want at the price it deserves.”

Retailers and even baris­tas are see­ing the value in get­ting cer­ti­fied. It makes it eas­ier to talk to your roaster about their next cus­tom espresso blend and the desired charac– ter­is­tics they are look­ing for to win the WBC. For a barista it also gives ‘street cred’as they stand apart from their peers. Other retail­ers are going one step fur­ther and get­ting the cof­fee Q-Graded.

Q-Grading a cof­fee is done by sub­mit­ting cof­fee to an agency of CQI. They are called In Country Partners, (ICP) and they act as an inde­pen­dent third party to orga­nize a grad­ing of a sin­gle lot of green cof­fee. One of the roles of being cer­ti­fied as a Q-Grader is to grade cof­fee. The process goes like this:

  1. A cof­fee is sub­mit­ted to an ICP.
  2. Three Q-Graders (That have no finan­cial inter­est in the cof­fee) are cho­sen by the ICP to grade the coffee.
  3. One of the Q-Graders grades both the green cof­fee for defects and the roasted cof­fee for cup qual­ity. The other two graders just focus on cup quality.
  4. The three scores are com­bined to get an over­all score. Anything above a score of 80 is con­sid­ered specialty.
  5. A full report is issued to the per­son that sub­mit­ted the coffee.

With that report a retailer can adver­tise the score and high­light taste attrib­utes for their mar­ket­ing pur­poses. There is a ton of cred­i­bil­ity in say­ing the cof­fee was CERTIFIED by a third party. There is also more money in it.

So should you get your Q-Certification? Most cer­tainly! Why? Here are some reasons:

  • By tak­ing the course and the tests you will learn more in a week than you know from your entire career so far.
  • You will improve your stand­ing in the indus­try and in your com­pany as some­one who doesn’t just claim exper­tise but has been cer­ti­fied as an expert.
  • Your abil­ity to com­mu­ni­cate with other mem­bers of the sup­ply chain increases and your abil­ity to influ­ence qual­ity from those you are deal­ing with gets easier.
  • Ego (Well that could just be me…)
  • Raths says, “Personally, the Q-Certification is a state­ment of abil­i­ties. It is an eas­ily rec­og­nized affir­ma­tion of a high skill set. It is a badge of honor with in the cof­fee industry.

Griswald adds, “A fre­quent com­ment I hear from cup­pers at ori­gin is that hav­ing this cer­ti­fi­ca­tion helps them make a case for earn­ing a higher salary.”

The entire cof­fee indus­try is well served when the peo­ple who make it up com­mit to learn­ing. Wine has som­me­liers, trades­men have mas­ters, food has chefs. The cof­fee indus­try has Q-Graders.

Rocky can be reached at

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