Becoming a Q Grader: What is the Coffee Sensory Test?

“What do you want to be when you grow up?” is a question everyone has a hard time answering. That may be because there are so many different options: astronaut, pro-athlete, janitor, doctor.  The only thing that really matters is that no matter what you do when you grow up, you enjoy it and do it with passion.

Take, for instance, our Q Grader, Paul Massard.  If you ask Paul if he enjoys what he does, he’s sure to say yes. Although Paul has to put up with early mornings and late nights, all hours of the day are accompanied by a fresh cup of the world’s best coffee. After all, that’s the life of a Bean Hunter with a Q Grader certification.

Did Paul want to be a Q Grader and coffee bean hunter when he was young?  Most likely not.  Many people are unaware that this intense job even exists.  Even fewer understand exactly what a Q Grader is.

The Coffee Quality Institute (CQI) established a quality assurance program called the Q Grader. In short, when a person passes the comprehensive course they are authorized to use the Q logo and the nomenclature “Licensed Q Grader” as a professional accreditation. The program created a baseline of communication to insure quality coffee controls the world over.

Fun Fact: The CQI has two different grading certifications. A Q Grader is someone who is certified to grade Arabica beans, while an R Grader is someone certified to grade Robusta beans. Both must pass rigorous tests comprised of 22 sections to receive their certifications.

The process of becoming a licensed Q Grader requires you to pass a tongue-tiring three day exam (talk about palate fatigue!).  Sound difficult?  It is! The exam consists of 22 sections, each pertaining to coffee.  Q Graders must perfect:

Unfortunately, becoming a Q Grader doesn’t result in a life guaranteed of riches. That is because Q Grader certification only lasts for 3 years. Every 36 months, Q Graders are required to pass a calibration to hold onto their prestigious title.

Fortunately for certified Q Graders, the calibration the second time around isn’t as intense as the original.  A calibration consists of three cuppings. To pass calibration, a Q Grader needs to pass 2 out of the 3 cuppings. If a Q Grader fails the first calibration, they may retake it. If they fail the second time, they must take a recertification course (essentially starting all over again!).

With such a length and intense certification process, it’s near impossible to imagine which part is the most challenging.  So instead of imagining all day, we just asked Paul. In his opinion, the sensory skills test was the hardest. To give you an idea, this is the test:

  • Level 1: Reference Sample Set
    • 9 cups, tell what flavor and its intensity, must get 100% to pass.
  • Level 2: Blind Identification Set
    • Do it again only mixed up, must get 90% to pass.
  • Level 3: Mixture Identification Set
    • Up to 3 different solutions in one cup, 9-12 different cups total. Grader must correctly identify sweet, sour, or salty and its intensity level on a scale of 1-3. Must get 85% correct to pass.
      • For example, cup one contains a salty intensity 1, sweet intensity 3, and a salty intensity.

Needless to say the dream of becoming a Q Grader is not an easy task. To give perspective, there are more professional athletes in the U.S. than there are licensed Q Graders in the world. But if you dream big enough and identify tastes on another level, you might just have what it takes to make it in the big leagues!

Want to see how you stack up against the pros? Take a tour for a chance to cup with the masters!