Q grading is a common term in the coffee industry but do we actually know what it means? Robert Turp explains more.
The coffee industry is booming in North America and Europe and the Q grading system appears to be embedded in this strong growth.
A brief history
The Q Coffee System was developed in the early 2000s as a program designed to improve the quality of coffee worldwide, by creating a common language for coffee quality evaluation and an independent certifying body for high quality coffee samples. Though originally focused on Arabica coffee, the program recently expanded to include Fine Robusta coffee (R Coffee) in what promises to have an even greater impact on coffee quality worldwide.
Obviously quality can be argued to be very subjective, however, Q grading tries to score coffees based on clear attributes. This helps provide a universal understanding of why coffees taste a certain way.
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. This universal system means that it is easier to compare and grade coffee. This helps everyone from farmers to consumers in understanding the coffee industry better, which in turn helps raise standards.
What this means for coffee
Q grading has created the ability for people all around the world to judge and score coffees on the same attributes, helping to compare every coffee effectively.
The coffees are based on attributes such as acidity, body, flavour, aftertaste, uniformity, balance, sweetness to name but a few. This helps to ensure all participants are identifying flavour characteristics in the same way. Reviewing the coffee happens independently so external factors like reputation of the farm or roaster can’t influence decisions.
How it works
For a detailed review of how coffee roasters use the Q grade system, check out Holly’s amazing blog post about it at North Star Roasters.
The Q grading system focuses on the following aspects:
- Olfactory Skills –This element is focused on identifying different scents and understanding how these add to the flavour of coffee. This involves correctly identifying each scent and matching it to its pair. Example scents include; maple, cooked beef, tea rose, butter, garden peas, and pipe tobacco.
- Cupping Skills – There are 4 tests in this section which are split by region and then process: Milds, Africans, Asias and Naturals. To pass all of the tests, you must Q grade 6 different coffees for each section and give them a score which is backed up by your individual attribute scores. The overall score must also be in line with everyone else assessing the coffees and you must correctly fill out the SCAA cupping form for each coffee.
- Sensory Skills – This element focuses on the participant’s ability to identify varying intensities of different tastes; salt, sweet and sour.
- Triangulations – Again these tests are split into 4 sections by region and then process – Milds, Africans, Asias and Naturals. In each test, you are presented with 6 sets of 3 cups. 2 of the 3 cups will be the same coffee, the aim is to identify the odd one out.
- Organic Acids Matching Pairs – This element makes participants identify which coffee has had an acid added to it, and also put a name to that acid. This involves being able to make a decision and back it up with evidence.
- Sample Roast Identification – This helps demonstrate what the perfect roast should taste like, and identifying coffees that are under-roasted or over-roasted.
It’s an important movement in the coffee industry as it helps to determine quality and value. This will help drive the industry and offer smaller farmers and independent roasters more power. Retailers and even baristas are seeing the value in getting certified. It makes communication between different parts of the supply chain more effective, which is turn helps create an even tastier coffee for our morning brew!
Robert Turp is a keen coffee enthusiast and writer. Working alongside coffee farmers during traveling inspired his love for coffee. He’s now never too far from a latte! Robert can currently be found writing about coffee news and updates, alongside Holly and Krag on North Star Roast.