Roaster/Quality Control Specialist Alex Cole recounts his recent Q Grade exam
About a month ago I spent a week in the classroom at Five Senses Coffee studying for, sitting, and passing the Q-Grade exam. After a suitable calm down, cool off period, It is now time to write a bit about it, sharing my experience and how I got there.
I have been at least halfway submerged in coffee since I finished university, where I studied Geography and Ecology. When my father’s engineering company morphed itself into an arthouse cinema with a small cafe, locally roasted coffee and a La Marzocco, I taught myself to make coffee. I made free coffee for whoever would give me feedback, not really knowing anything about what it should taste like, honing my skills by crowdsource.
I moved to Melbourne in 2007, where I met Rumble’s Joe Molloy, working for several years as a barista in his cafe, Octane. The travel bug bit, and after a two year stint in South Korea teaching English I was left with a taste for filter coffee, a dislike of cheap beer and a yearning for a return to Melbourne’s coffee culture.
Through connections in the industry I landed a job at SILO, a young green coffee import company bringing in some of the best microlots then available in Australia. Under the guidance of Heath Cater and Hannah Hoffman (Coffee Supreme), along with Mark Dundon (Seven Seeds), I learned sample roasting, cupping, forklift driving, and some of the (many) links in the specialty coffee supply chain.
6000 sample roasts, and a one year roasting apprenticeship at Coffee Supreme later, I made my way back to my first Melbourne family - Rumble Coffee Roasters. A lean, well tuned roastery focused on down to earth service, transparency, and a roasting philosophy that is all about development. At Rumble, we don’t fixate about light or dark roasts, we treat each coffee individually and roast each to its optimum level. After roasting at Rumble for two years, and having run the gauntlet of the coffee experience, it was time for me to front up, and sit the Q Grade exams.
The Q Grader course was designed by the Coffee Quality Institute (CQI), an international non-profit whose mission is to improve the quality of coffee and the lives of the people who produce it. 125 million people rely on coffee for their livelihoods. Many of them struggle to earn enough to support their families. By focusing on improving coffee quality as the most important variable affecting coffee price, the CQI aims to improve the economic stability of coffee producers. This in turn, would have the benefit of improving the volume and sustainability of high quality coffee production.
By running the Q course, they have created an international body of trained and calibrated coffee cuppers who are able to give an objective and standardised opinion on coffee quality from production through to roasting.
For producers it can help them to reduce the incidence of defects in their coffee, garnering a better price. It can be used by importers/exporters to communicate with farmers. And for roasteries, it can be used to work out how much is a fair price to pay for a certain coffee and to assist in decision making regarding roast execution or roast profile.
The course itself consists of 19 different examinations, taking in the breadth of sensory analysis of coffee. It is notoriously difficult to pass, and many people understand before they even walk in the door that they won’t make it through on their first attempt. There are four cuppings, four triangulations, four olfactory tests, two salt/sweet/sour sensory tests, matched pairs of organic acids, roast ID, general knowledge, green grading, and roast grading. Yep, it’s a lot.
You must pass all four cuppings on your first attempt, but some resits are allowed of the other components because a passing mark in each of these other tests is between 75 to 80%. It is incredibly difficult, and without the possibility of resitting some tests, almost no one would make it through. As it stands, the pass rate globally is around 25%. Out of my class of 20, only three people passed, of which thankfully, I was one.
How did I do it?
My approach was a combination of an assumption of failure, a good understanding of what was required of me, a lot of preparation, and a desire to get everything out of it that I could, using it as a learning experience.
In the end, I am stoked I was able to achieve a pass, but the most useful aspect of the course overall was that I am now more confident in my sensory ability. It has made what were subjective opinions on how i think a coffee tastes more objective.
Check back in a couple of weeks and I’ll share a few insights about each stage of the course as well as some tips for passing.