Let me describe a manifesto of sorts regarding speciality coffee; a statement of intent.
- To bring together peoples involved in speciality coffee, from across different cultural, economic and experiential backgrounds and to unite them with a common language of communication as well as more united reference points for quality and grading. Achieving and improving these aspects of world wide coffee, from producers to consumers, has the potential to benefit all of those involved -
This statement is of my own hand, yet it is, I believe representative of the epic and admirable ambitions of the Q program.
The Q graders course is a qualification offered and run by the CQI (Coffee Quality Institute). I was recently able to participate in the first Q grading course held in the UK. It was headed up by Tracy Allen with the collaboration of Lynsey Harley and Falcon coffee. The courses are held regularly all around the world, with those wishing to take part making their way to the nearest destination holding the course.
The Q course assesses a student’s knowledge and understanding of speciality coffee (along with commercial coffee references) as well as their ability to assess the sensory qualities and attributes of individual coffees. This naturally also includes a focus on the language and tools needed to communicate about coffees’ quality effectively as well as agreeing on points of reference for coffees’ quality in the first place.
The course is essentially half training and half examination. However, I don’t think it would be at all possible to turn up with no experience and pass. It consists of a total of 22 tests / assessed tasks over a 5 to 6 day period with time allocated for retakes. There is only one written exam in the form of a general knowledge test. The others are all practical and sensory based tasks.
The intent is to assess and provide a student with a holistic understanding of the industry which works towards qualifying them as a coffee professional, with the natural emphasis being that of sensory perception and explanation.
One of the main goals of the Q is to work towards standardising cupping procedure in order to make scoring and assessment more useful across a broader area.
I had done a fair bit of cupping previously, but rarely using an in depth score sheet. The advantages of using a score sheet are plentiful and this is something I definitely took away from the course. By breaking up the scoring into multiple sections, it pushes a more considered and rounded view of each particular coffee. There is an overall section that notes how you feel about the coffee (whether or not you liked it) but the breaking down of the other aspects of the coffee such as acidity, body and fragrance do force you to assess why you may like it and how much of your marking is preference, hopefully helping to develop the most objective and accurate assessments possible.
It’s a great way to log what you thought of a coffee, which then allows you to go back and and remember in substantial depth the assessment you made. It also serves to help people discuss coffees with each other, allowing you to pin-point the discussions. The usual things apply, that the judgments are relative to the origin of the coffee and the company the coffee is a part of, i.e. that the characteristics of one coffee (a big natural) will impact on the next coffee you assess on the table.
In fact a big deal is made of considering each section of the cupping score sheet as something that is relative to origin. For example, coffees’ wont be as evenly uniform and will have a bigger body if from Indonesia. This relativity goes further than origin, into considerations of variety etc. It’s a big, experienced-based conversation that although touched on by the Q, is rooted in a wider experience of speciality coffee.
It’s useful to pit stop on the relativity vs objectivity aspects in assessing coffee. The Q couldn’t exist if coffees’ quality was purely subjective and random. There has to be an objective structure. In fact there is one, it exists, thats how grading exists at all. I’ve touched on this in other posts, but I see the structure of speciality coffee as an objective structure built out of collections of subjective experiences, creating a field which means something objectively in terms of taste and flavour. This was quickly pointed out on the first day of lectures, with one of the aims of the Q being to prove that quality in coffee is not subjective, and that defined standards can especially empower coffee growers.
For the various triangulation tests (picking the odd cup out of tree cups) Tracy offered us the chance to assess all of the ground coffees using smell alone to see if we could pick the odd cup out, without actually cupping them at all. The aim of this was to put an emphasis on the power of the nose as an assessment tool. The pass rate was very high in this test which certainly verifies the ability of our noses even if we weren’t so sure ourselves, with no one having to re take and cup the triangulation coffees in the group.
The hardest test, was as everybody anticipated, the sensory evaluation test. This exam used various strengths of acid, sugar and salt. We first assessed 3 solutions of each(with the acid being citric), consisting of a weak medium and strong version. So far so good, However things get tricky with the main part of the test, which is a collection of solutions that each contain more than one component but not necessarily all three. The task being, to pick out which were in each solution and at what strengths. What makes this test harder than other sensory tests, is not only that the differences are subtle (as when a weak solution is mixed with another weak solution that means each component is then twice as weak) but that knowledge of how they interact with each other is also paramount. For example sour will make sweet appear stronger and salt will make sour appear less strong. These elements need to be considered when deciding how to mark each solution.
Other sensory tests included aroma detection and correlation using the le nez du cafe, as well as acid detection. In the acid detection test various cups of the same coffee are spiked with a low concentrations of different acids. Each spiked cup will only contain one acid at a time. With the task requiring the student to identify which cups have been altered and with which acid.
All students were able to pick the cups out that bore the addition of an acid. But there was far more trouble specifying what each acid was. Acetic acid proved the most easy to identify, displaying the pungency so familiar and distinct. Acetic acid is most commonly tasted in the from of vinegar. Citric (which lends it name to the citrus fruit family, interestingly this is probably the softest acid and is in all coffee) and Malic acid (typical of the sour note in green apples) were both relatively easy to discern at lower concentrations but were confused at higher concentrations. Phosphoric acid was also confused at higher strengths. This acid is unique in that it was the only acid commonly found in coffee that the plant is not capable of producing itself. It must instead be picked up from the soil in which the plant is growing. This acid also presents a sourness at high concentrations but is mostly recognised through the tingling sensation it presents on the tongue. It is common in East African coffees and will be found in abundance in coca cola. Chemically, phosphoric is also a particularly strong acid.
There are other common acids in coffee which were not part of the test such as lactic and Quinic. Quinic is cited as being one of the most common forms of bitterness in coffee, In high concentrations, this acid has proved dangerous to health, and its for this reason that its currently excluded form the course.
The aim of all the sensory tests in the Q is to help each student understand their own strengths and weakness, taste bias if you will. Through this more self aware tasting is achieved, resulting in more informed and useful dialogues between people when considering coffees. Theres also no reason that these tests should not be embarked upon outside of the Q. In the lead up to the course we got a hold of a lot of the materials in order to practice and prepare for the course. Just like the super taster test which was the basis for this perception post, each of the sensory tests proved insightful. They were each, great processes for staff learning and exploration and more often than not customers would take part in various aspects of the tests as well.
Improved understanding of how we each taste and the language we use to communicate to each other can only be beneficial for a field like speciality coffee. Considered tasting and informed discussions about it results in leaps and bounds of not only understanding but also rewarding and fun tasting experiences. This achieves so much more than, the notional “we taste, sense and process flavour differently, which means its all subjective so you can’t talk about it”.
There were also a few tasks that focussed more on visual assessment such as green bean grading and roasted coffee assessment. Green bean classification starts with a 350g sample of a particular coffee. Defects with the beans are broken into primary and secondary categories. In nearly all cases one primary fault, such as a black bean (there are various causes, such as lack of water during cherry development or over fermentation) will disqualify a coffee from being classified as speciality coffee and then be labelled as commodity coffee. There is then a secondary defects conversion chart, so that for example 5 broken/chipped/cut beans equal a full secondary defect and a total of five of these creates one primary defect which disqualifies the coffee again. Obviously this is just a visual assessment and the coffee would still need to pass sensory evaluation.
The roasted coffee assessment was interesting as it displayed the limitations of visual assessment when determining roast degree along with the need to taste. The Agtron scale was one of the assessment tools available to the students, we had the SCAA colour tiles as a reference. The more expensive and accurate instrument for this task is the M-basic scale, it uses a colour analyser and assesses how much light bounces back from something and then correlates this to a number. For a coffee to be within the colour range that the Q defines as an acceptable colour within which to judge and grade a coffee is 58 for whole bean and 63 for ground coffee, or 55-60 for the colour tiles. However, the colour scale is not a complete assessment of a roasted coffees state. During the test, one coffee was darkly roasted and fell below the specified colour spectrum, another was quick and light and sat above the accepted Agtron number. Two of the sample however displayed a similar Agtron colour but were roasted in very different ways, One was a baked coffee, roasted slowly over a longer period of time and displayed its baked, yeasty, smooth but flat flavour profile once cupped. Roasters will of course be familiar with how varied the flavour results can be even with a familiar roasted appearance. All the same, the practical exam is a nice exploration of this premise, and an indicator of how an Agtron meter accompanied with other measurements can be useful.
Much like the cup of excellence protocol, the cupping scores that each student provides during the Q are processed in order to see wether the student is marking too safe(basically marking everything down the middle) whilst also not being all over the place and out of calibration. Each student was aware as we moved through the week, wether or not we had passed or failed a section. The cupping scores require a longer input process, meaning that it takes a couple of weeks post course to determine wether or not you may have passed.
Popping back to my blog, when is speciality coffee not speciality coffee, this course, by its nature is focused on looking at this question. From the Qs point of view, the line for speciality is located at a score of 80, with those falling under slipping to commercial grade. Tracy is all too aware of the issues with classification, and that a speciality coffee can very easily through various hands fail to be representative of when it was originally graded. The Q program works with many coffee organisations and they are currently looking to pass a packaging regulation. One that would mean for a coffee to be labelled as speciality it would have to display its authenticated grading score as endorsed by the Q program. In fact as a qualified Q grader you are eligible to act as an expert witness in court cases that focus on mis labelling etc. You would be sent an unmarked sample and be asked to grade the coffee under Q regulations – quite a responsibility.
They are very much aware that this is one step in a classification process, with the intent to look at roast and crop freshness to also be a part of a classification system for speciality coffees’ on sale to the public.
The Q is also something that is always being developed and updated, with this being Version four of the program. The emphasis is evidently on providing a valuable learning experience for the students whom take part, whilst keeping the qualification itself as valuable as possible to the industry. The tutors are also constantly undergoing rigorous testing and training, with there currently being only four qualified instructors worldwide.
Overall, what makes the Q (in my opinion) even more valuable and useful is the way in which it is taught, and the ethos behind it. There was always a readiness to emphasise when a topic was not simple or black and white. With the emphasis being on valuable learning and processes that stem from considered teaching rather than a simple paint by numbers learning.