In the Heart of the Bean: Unveiling the Secrets of Coffee Evaluation

In the Heart of the Bean: Unveiling the Secrets of Coffee Evaluation

Apple or Pineapple? Pea pod or potato? Things took a sharp turn when we moved from relaxed, casual and interesting lessons into the formal exams. I’m in Charleston, South Carolina, for a week-long training/certification combo to become a professional Arabica Q Grader. It’s the pinnacle of the specialty coffee journey. And it’s no joke. Traci, our instructor, comes into the room and before showing the results, she reminds us that F is for Fail, but we’ll still have retake chances. She tries to ease the tension, but it doesn’t work. We’re all suddenly silent, serious and anxious. I see an F in front of my name. FAIL.

Somewhere within the past 10 years, at some point along my journey down the coffee rabbit hole, I learned about the role of the Q Grader, and it instantly became a goal of mine. Learning how to professionally assess, compare and communicate using a universal coffee language was now a necessity. Of course there’s also the title and the prestige that comes with it, but more than that, I knew it would open doors and add an immense depth to my role in the coffee world.

The Heart of the Training

It's a 6-day intense slew of training and exams, challenging students to demonstrate their proficiency in coffee quality assessment. Led by certified instructors, participants engage in hands-on exercises to develop expertise in evaluating aroma, flavor, acidity, body, and aftertaste. Successful completion of the tests certifies students as Q Graders, validating their expertise in objectively assessing coffee quality and providing them with opportunities to contribute confidently to the global coffee industry.


Q Grader Students in a Triangulation test


Speaking of the students, what truly stood out was the invaluable opportunity to interact with individuals from diverse backgrounds and aspirations. From producers seeking to refine their practices to specialty coffee entrepreneurs, coffee buyers, and industry professionals overseeing operations management, quality control, and roaster operations for large roasters, this was a unique convergence of perspectives, underscoring the collaborative spirit that defines the specialty coffee industry. As we dived into the training and exams, the group interactions served as a reminder of the interconnectedness of our shared passion for coffee.

In the olfactory module, we explored the Le Nez du Café kit, where we immersed ourselves in the four distinct categories of coffee aromas: enzymatics, sugar browning, dry distillation, and aromatic taints. From the sweet and spicy scent of coriander seeds to the rich aroma of hazelnuts, and from the warm notes of pipe tobacco to the unpleasant smell of rubber, we trained our noses to discern and identify these aromas in blind tests.

With organic acids, we learned to identify four primary acids commonly found in coffee: citric, malic, phosphoric, and acetic. Through techniques like triangulation and matching pairs, we honed our ability to differentiate between the bright acidity of citric acid, the mellow tartness of malic acid, the effervescence of phosphoric acid, and lingering bitterness of acetic acid. We also learned the origins of these acids within the coffee lifecycle, and how their presence changes through the roasting process.

We also learned gustatory skills, and how to assess the presence and intensity of sweet, sour and salt, flavor standards, green coffee grading and defects identification, assessment of roasted coffee (dark, light and baked), and in the center of it all, we learned how to professionally cup and score specialty arabica coffee in a rhythmic symphony of slurping and spoons clinking.

Insights and Transformations

Returning to our roastery after completing the training, I find myself viewing coffee through a new lens. The intensive exploration I’ve been through has not only deepened my understanding of coffee but also heightened my appreciation for the intricacies of the farm-to-cup journey. With each step, from cultivation to roasting, I now recognize the profound impact that decisions made along the way have on the final cup. Armed with this knowledge, I feel empowered to contribute meaningfully to the coffee industry. This transformative experience has not only enhanced my skills but also instilled a sense of responsibility to ensure that every cup of coffee reflects the incredible work of those who bring it to life.

Bringing It Back

So what to do with this knowledge and expertise? Through engaging tastings and informative workshops, we will provide our community with the opportunity to deepen their appreciation for coffee and expand their palate. We’ll keep looking for ways to support initiatives that promote fair wages and improved working conditions for coffee farmers, ensuring that our sourcing practices align with our values of sustainability and ethical responsibility. Additionally, we plan to collaborate with other local businesses to foster community engagement and support, creating partnerships that enhance the vibrancy and interconnectedness here in Alexandria, VA. By integrating these initiatives into our operations, Hypergoat Coffee Roasters will not only deliver exceptional coffee but also contribute positively to the wider coffee community and society overall.

Moving Forward

Reflecting on my journey from Alexandria to Charleston, I'm reminded that success isn't always linear. After failing one out of the twenty-one tests, I did not take my certification, which I see as an opportunity to return to Charleston in a few months for a retake. This time, with family to enjoy the summertime charm of this beautiful city. I'm grateful for the lessons learned and the chance to grow.


Who owns the Q Grader Program?

The Q Grader Program is owned and managed by the Coffee Quality Institute (CQI), a non-profit organization dedicated to improving coffee quality and the lives of the people who produce it. The CQI established the Q Grader Program as part of its mission to provide training and certification to individuals in the coffee industry, ensuring a standardized and objective approach to coffee quality assessment worldwide.

Why does the Q Grader Program exist?

The Q Grader Program exists to create a standardized system for evaluating coffee quality. Its purpose is to ensure that coffee professionals have a shared language and set of standards when assessing coffee beans. This uniformity is crucial for maintaining quality across the industry, helping producers, buyers, and roasters communicate effectively and ensure the best possible product reaches consumers.

What are the attributes listed in the official Specialty Coffee Association (SCA) Cupping Form?

The official Specialty Coffee Association (SCA) Cupping Form is used to evaluate and score coffee quality based on several key attributes. These include: Fragrance/Aroma: This assesses the smell of the coffee grounds (fragrance) and the smell of the brewed coffee (aroma). Flavor: The overall perception of the coffee in the mouth, considering taste and aromatic aspects. Aftertaste: The lingering taste and sensation in the mouth after swallowing the coffee. Acidity: Often described as the brightness or liveliness of the coffee on the palate. Body: The physical mouthfeel of the coffee, including its weight and texture. Uniformity: How consistent the flavor is across different cups of the same coffee. Balance: How well the various elements of the coffee work together and complement each other. Clean Cup: The clarity of the coffee and absence of any off-flavors. Sweetness: The presence of sweet flavors and the absence of harsh or sour notes. Overall: A score reflecting the taster's professional assessment of the coffee.

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