Q-Graders Guide


Roaster/Quality Control Specialist Alex Cole recounts his tips on passing the Q Grade exam

After recently completing my Q-Graders, it was really clear that good solid industry experience, preparation and an understanding and appreciation of the process was key to passing.  

A few general tips: 

Realistically, you shouldn't even be here if you're not already an experienced coffee professional. If you are doing this course just to make your CV a bit shinier with the aim of one day working in a coffee roastery/import operation, you’re doing it the wrong way around. These skills aren’t learned in three days of classroom prep.

You need to cup A LOT of coffee, before you even think about this course. You need to cup with experienced people to assist your learning, and you need to become a pro at using a scoresheet. The best way to achieve all of this, and to gain the depth of knowledge required is to work in a roastery, where you will cup coffee on a daily or weekly basis. 

If this is not achievable, get yourself to every available public cupping that you can. They are regularly advertised with roasteries, and are a great chance to try amazing and unique coffees and cup with experienced, knowledgeable industry professionals and peers. 

Stay calm. And practise. Learn what you will be tested on, learn what answers you are expected to give, and learn what score you need to attain in each test to pass. 

The Stages


You must pass every cupping on your first attempt. You will evaluate four separate tables of coffees over three days. You will cup Naturals, Washed milds, Africans and Asians. 

Each table is laid out with six different coffees. There will be five cups of each coffee, so 30 cups to a table. Some of these cups will contain a defect. This is a coffee bean that has developed a fault through improper picking/processing/handling/storage which will taint the smell and taste of the cup. 

You must score each coffee out of 100 points on its fragrance/aroma, flavour, aftertaste, acidity, body, and balance using an SCAA scoresheet. Be sure to identify and correctly penalise any tainted cups. 

Tips to pass cuppings: 

1: Do a lot of them. 

2: Calibrate with your class. Learn where your scores sit in the bell curve distribution of your classes scores. If you’re not in the middle, you’re being too critical or too generous, and need to adjust your scores to sit closer to the median. 

3: Don’t mess with 0.25 or 0.75 scores unless you have to differentiate between two very similar coffees. These scores make fast addition too error prone, and if you’re not able to quickly add up your final scores you’ll go over your time limit.

4: Be calm, be confident. Trust your first impressions, look for faults in the cup, but check them 4 or 5 times to be sure.

5: Use all of your available time. Go around the table 4 or 5 times.


You will have six sets of coffees on the table, preground. Each set will comprise three cups. Two of those cups are the same coffee, one is different. You must determine which one is the odd one out. Some of these will be obvious from the fragrance of the ground coffee, some will take you the entire 45 minutes. 

You will cup each table of coffees before you triangulate them, so you’ll be familiar with the coffee already, but all six coffees may not be present on the triangulation table. 

When I completed the Q Graders, our washed milds triangulation was the hardest. When we cupped these coffees the first time, there were two that were easily identified. The instructor removed both of these coffees from the triangulation table, so there were four very similar coffees. A lot of people had to resit this triangulation. 

Tips to pass triangulations: 
  1. A strategy for passing this test is to choose experienced table mates. At the course I attended, one of the less experienced students sat at the hardest station and cupped most of the coffee while trying to figure it out. It left his tablemates high and dry. 
  2. If you can’t ‘get’ the coffee in a couple of tries, move on. It’s bad etiquette to drink it all, and repeated cupping won’t help. It’s better to go back to it. 
  3. Look at the ground coffee as you go around smelling the fragrance. Sometimes you can tell the difference by the amount and colour of chaff in the cup.

Olfactory tests:

We used the Nez De Cafe kit to study for and sit this test. This kit contains 36 numbered vials that contain a liquid representing 4 categories of odours present in coffee. Some of these smells are desirable, some represent defects from improper processing/storage/handling of coffee. 

It takes quite a few hours of practise to familiarise yourself with the kit, so if you don’t have access to one, it would be useful to purchase one. 

In the test you will have 9 numbered vials and 9 lettered vials in two sets, all from the same category. You must match the number to the letter. You will be asked to identify three specific vials by name. You will be tested on each of the 4 categories. 

The four categories of scents are Enzymatic, Sugar browning, Dry distillation, and Aromatic taints. Helpful study tool posters here: http://www.coffeebooks.com/scaa_posters.php

Tips to pass the scents tests:
  1. Learn each category individually. Trying to learn all 36 at once takes too long. Do the study in short sessions. Your nose fatigues fast. 
  2. Study the kits that you’ll be tested on. They may not smell the same. Check the numbers in each kit against each other, and teach yourself shortcuts to remember the ones that smell different. In the kits we were tested on, number 30 smelled like walnut in one, butter chicken in the other. Number 10 was vanilla/tin of spanish olives. 

Matched pairs:

Organic acids play a huge role in defining the overall cup profile. In the right quantity, acidity adds layers of complexity and depth. Growing conditions, processing and roasting all have an impact on the formation and breakdown of acids. 

In this test, we study four of the more common acids: Citric, Malic, Phosphoric and Acetic. The examination occurs under a red light so that differences in the colour of the cups in front of you cannot be detected. 

The test is comprised of  eight stations. Each station has four cups of ready brewed neutral coffee low in natural acidity. Two of the four have been spiked with one of the four acids. It will be the same acid in both cups. 

To pass, you must identify the spiked cup, and identify the acid. Identifying the spiked cup is easy. Naming the acid is not. 

Tips to pass the matched pairs test: 
  1. I found Citric the easiest to identify. It’s the most familiar, causing an intense watering on the sides of the tongue, and seems almost sweet; think vitamin C tablets. 
  2. Phosphoric acid has more of a blackcurrant taste, causing a fizzzing sensation. 
  3. Malic is the acid present in apples, and Acetic is vinegar. I found these the hardest to identify, but acetic acid can sometimes be detected in the smell of the brew. 

Sensory skills test: 

Salt/Sweet/Sour: Salt/Sugar/Citric acid. This test sets a baseline standard for taste acuity. There is no smell to these solutions, you are only tested on flavour recognition. There are three parts to this test:

  • Part 1: You will be given three samples of each taste modality (Salt, Sweet, Sour) One low intensity, one medium, one high. So you will have nine different samples in front of you. You must taste them, and rank them in their categories in order of intensity. Record your answers. Your instructor will lead a discussion. This section is for credit. You cannot fail it unless you do not record your answers.
  • Part 2: A recreation of part one, blind. No discussion.
  • Part 3: This is where the fun begins. You will be given combined mixtures of the same base solutions. You will have eight cups in front of you. Four of those cups will contain two different modalities, four of them will contain three different modalities. You must identify the modalities present, as well as their intensity. If this wasn’t hard enough, different modalities influence the perception of the intensity of other modalities. 
Tips for passing the sensory skills test:
  1. Practice, practice, practice. It is vital to run this test at home. Eight or nine times minimum! Make up litre bottles of each of the nine solutions, and add them to each other. Record what you taste, and you’ll see some interesting patterns emerging. My practise notes look something like this:
    1. SO2 SW1 is obvious.
    2. SO3 SW1 is very sour, almost no sweet.
    3. SW3 SA1 is obviously sweet, salt body.
    4. SW3 SA2 less sweet, heavy body.
    5. SO1 SW2 sour only noticeable in watering of tongue.

    1. *Adding salt reduces perception of sweet
    2. *Sour + Salt reduces perception of sour
    3. *Sour + Sweet in equal quantities -> Sour is less noticeable
  1. The tactile sensations can help you to determine the concentrations. Salt in low concentrations is detectable as a heaviness on the tongue, or a perception of ‘body’. Sugar seems light on the tongue and a little slippery. Sour will cause your tongue to water slightly. All three together is enjoyable, if only two are present, the taste will seem a little flatter, not as rounded. Trust your instincts, you’re usually right first time because your palate will fatigue quickly. I revised some of my answers however, so don’t be afraid to re-examine an early answer.

Roast ID:

There are a few different ways that a roast can be butchered. This unit tests your recognition of bad roasts. 

Five different roasts of the same coffee have been provided. One sample will be the model ‘good’ one, roasted to SCA standards. One will be underdeveloped, one will be baked, one will be over roasted. 

There will be six sets of two cups, pre-ground on the table. One of the samples will be repeated. 

Tips to pass the Roast ID test: 
  1. Make good use of your practise session. Take notes on what each coffee tastes like, and use this information to identify them in the exam. Both the baked and the over roasted coffee tasted flat, but the over roasted one was also slightly ashy. 
  2. Follow your palate. Having done a lot of practise on this type of exercise, I went into the practise session confident that I would easily pass. I got everything wrong. For the real thing, I decided to follow my palate and memory rather than theory of what each coffee tasted like, and I passed. 

General Knowledge:

The test covers a very broad spread of coffee knowledge, covering cultivation, development of acids, coffee processing, roasting/cupping procedure, flavour perception. It is multichoice. 

As with many tests of this type, there are four possible answers to each question. Two of them will often be obviously inaccurate, the other two fairly similar. You are given all of the information needed to pass this test in the classroom sessions. 

Pay attention, write down anything you didn’t know before. With a little wider reading; especially the Coffee Cuppers Handbook, it should be straightforward:

Green grading and roast grading:

For these two tests, you don’t have to stay up late for weeks practising, but don’t be fooled.  It can still be surprisingly difficult. This is the only test that I failed on my first attempt.

For Roast Grading, you’ll be given a roasted sample from which you must pick every light coloured quaker. The green sample comprises 350g of green coffee. You have 15 minutes to sort the coffee, removing and categorising any defects, then classing the coffee as ‘specialty’ or ‘not specialty’.

You will have a handbook that you can reference in the test with pictures and descriptions of the defects. Because this test is easy to mark and doesn’t require much time to set up, you may be able to resit it several times. 

Tips for passing Green and Roast Grading:

Pay close attention to what constitutes a sour, partial sour, and immature/unripes. Each sample will have a guide sheet specifying what defects should be present.