Are you “Q” yet?

BThe 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 elite 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 Cooperative 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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