The Q Experience: The ultimate sensory challenge

Last week I had the opportunity to sit my Q graders certification. I’ve wanted to do it ever since I stepped into the specialty coffee industry. It was held at 5 Senses Training Academy where instructor Rouki Delrue took the class of 24 students on a sensory journey.  

It’s a mentally challenging experience. It’s demanding on your senses, and second guessing yourself is a constant uphill battle. As each day goes on, the constant tasting, evaluating and making decisions gets a lot harder. It doesn’t help that the majority of the tests are conducted in a dark red light room. Decision fatigue sets in quickly, and mental fatigue comes quickly after that. You’ll be looking forward to your lunch break to reset your mind and palate to a certain extent.

 
 

As the week goes on, the intensity raises to another level. The exams come rolling in and the amount of cups you slurp gives you palate fatigue. It becomes harder and harder to taste. Staying calm and trusting your palate, instinct and smell is something you need to commit to. If you start to second guess yourself, you can end up in trouble. For me, the hardest exam was the sensory component. Identifying the intensity of sweet, sour and salt made me second guess myself a few times.

The whole experience was tough, but rewarding. I was so happy that I passed. Now I feel a lot more confident in the way I taste coffee. It was really valuable to learn how to communicate taste and aroma in a coherent manner so that everyone can understand the cup.

 
 

If you’re thinking about sitting the Q, I’ve put together a short list of tips that helped me get through the week.

Tips for sitting your Q Graders certification

  • Stay calm
  • Try not to second guess yourself
  • Trust your nose and confirm on the wet
  • Don’t over cup/taste
  • Go into each exam with an open mind
  • Stay well hydrated throughout the week and don’t drink alcohol
  • Eat healthy and bland (not essential, but I found it useful to avoid sugary foods)
  • Enjoy the experience
  • Take lots of notes
  • Don’t worry about everyone else
  • Stay focused

About the course:

The Q Grader Course is a 6 day mental and sensory battle broken up into theory, practice and examinations. The first couple of days are all theory and calibration. You get a good understanding of what the exams will be like and a base point of the coffees. The course is created and governed by the Coffee Quality Institute. The tests are broken up into the components below:

  • Green Grading

You are given 3 x 350g green coffee samples that have been tainted with a certain number defects. The aim is to identify the defects and then correctly name the type of defect it is.

  • Cupping Skills

The core exams of the Q Grader course. Evaluating 4 flights (Naturals, Milds, Africa, Asia) using the SCAA form. Each flight contains 6 coffees.

  • Olfactory Skills

Olfactory skills tests uses the Le Nez du Cafe scent vial kit. I found that each kit was quite different in intensity. The aim is to recognise all thirty six aromatic scents often found in the fragrance and aroma of coffee.

  • Triangulation Skills

Triangulation tests are designed to increase your sensitivity in the differences of coffee characteristics and also comparing one cup to two others for purposes of quality control.

  • Organic Acids

Firstly you will be introduced to each of the six primary acid components of coffee. However, only four will be present in the test (Citric, Acetic, Phosphoric and Malic) In the exam you are asked to match and name the pairs. There are 8 sets to match.

  • Sensory Skills

Identifying what tastes like salt, sour and sweet, both individually and when combined to what degree/intensity. 

  • Roasted Coffee Grading

Probably one of the easier tests in the course. You must correctly identify the number of quakers which are underdeveloped beans that do not roast properly.

  • Sample Roast Identification

This test you must identify what the ideal roast for coffee cupping, the baked coffee, light coffee and a dark roasting coffee.  

  • General Knowledge

The general knowledge exam is the only completely written test, consisting of 100 multiple choice questions about coffee cultivation, harvesting, processing, cupping, grading, roasting and brewing.

If you pass all 22 components, you become a Q-Grader. The certification gives you the licence to grade green coffee, and assign a numerical grade to coffee based on flavour profiles and other factors.