The qualification to become a professional grader of coffee quality is known as Q Grading. Why is this a valuable position in the coffee world and how does it affect the consumer? We asked Q Grading Instructor Mbula Musua to break it down for us.
Words by Mbula Musua
What is the Q Grading System?
The Q Grading System is an internationally recognized protocol for evaluating coffee quality. Developed by the Coffee Quality Institute (CQI), the program implements industry-recognized standards for quality, both cup and grade, and is a highly effective method for identifying coffees that sell for premiums in the marketplace. The standards, developed by the Specialty Coffee Association (SCA), define speciality coffee as having a minimum cup score of 80 points out of a possible 100 and no primary defects. These include green coffee defects that have a big negative impact on the cup quality as well as roasted defects (quakers).
Goals of the CQI Q Grader Program
One of the goals of the CQI Q Grader Program is to create a skilled and credible body of speciality coffee cuppers to consistently and accurately assess coffee quality, both cup and grade. Those coffees that meet the minimum requirements of a Q Coffee receive a Q certificate that can travel with the coffee as it is sold through the channel, verifying the quality for subsequent buyers and allowing end-users to know where the coffee originated. Regardless of the quality, a technical report is issued so the farmer will receive feedback that can be used for future quality improvements. This allows the seller to maximize his sale price, better identify customer targets, and offer a differentiated set of coffees. The seller also has a tangible measure of quality with which to identify the most appropriate markets and buyers.
What can I do with a Q certificate?
The process of generating Q Certificates and Technical reports for coffee samples involves working with certified Q Graders. These are cuppers who are trained and certified by CQI to identify quality levels of coffee lots and classify them into non-exportable and exportable lots. The exportable coffee lots are further classified into speciality and non-speciality, based on cup quality, green bean quality and roasted bean quality. Speciality coffees potentially fetch price premiums. The process involves identifying attributes of basic flavours, detection of defects, awarding points objectively and understanding how to describe the cup profile of a coffee. In addition to identification and analysis of coffee qualities, Q Graders are trained to speak the common language of coffee with buyers by using SCA standards, and to be in calibration with like-trained Q Grader buyers.
The ability to grade a coffee accurately assists the supply chain through providing feedback to the farmer to identify where quality improvements could be made and advising management about lot separation and/or blending which leads to higher average prices.
The Q Grading Services requires 3 Licensed Q Graders to evaluate the Green and Roasted Samples and log defects onto a standardized form, evaluate the Cup using the standardized SCA form and protocols through a process known as “cupping” and finally document and deliver reports and results to CQI’s In-Country Partner.
The biggest advantage the Q Grading System provides is the ability to identify quality coffees and to make that quality known throughout the value chain. This is where one of the main values of cupper training lies; by utilizing skilled cuppers, a producer has a better chance of identifying these coffees. By training cuppers at the farm and mill level, quality coffees can be identified before they are blended. Instead of earning flat rates for cherries, a producer will have the knowledge to know which coffees should be tendered to the C-market and which coffees may be held back for Q Grading. It does not stop there, at each link in the chain, there is an opportunity to use quality as a tool to achieve greater value, because of a deeper understanding of coffee from farm to cup.
The other key role a Licensed Q Grader plays is supporting the Q Grading System, ensuring that integrity is maintained and it continues as value-added service for buyers.
A licensed Q Grader also contributes significantly to market linkages. Because the Q is an internationally recognized and respected standard, there is growing demand from buyers for Q Coffees. The Q Grading System provides an opportunity to reach new customers who are seeking higher value differentiated coffees. While there are some customers who may want commodity coffees at commodity prices, more and more coffee roasters are seeking differentiated coffees and are willing to pay significant premiums for those coffees.
Specialty Grades are Special
The supply of Specialty Grades is likely to be insufficient to meet the demand in the coming days, judging by the growth of the specialty coffee sector and progression from the first, second and third waves of coffee around the world. The Q enables the identification of specialty lots that may have otherwise been blended into premium or commercial grades. Additionally, many premium grades can be brought into the specialty realm if there is constructive feedback on a regular basis from Q graders. Defect and taint can be eliminated, and the nuance that can fetch a greater differential can be fostered/created/explored as a real option for a farmer or mill.
There are currently around 5,560 Q Arabica graders and 223 Q Robusta Graders in the world. Majority of these are found in the consuming end of the value chain, the roasters, importers and wholesaler / retailers. Given the importance of realizing quality along the entire value chain, there is a need to increase the numbers at countries of coffee production, from farm level, processing and exporter level to ensure the goal of identifying and rewarding high quality coffees is achieved.
Who is Utake Coffee Ltd?
Utake Coffee Limited is the first SCA certified Premier Teaching Campus with a licensed Q Grader Instructor in Africa. Our vision is to impact the face of the coffee sector, one expert at a time. We specialize in Coffee Quality Training, Marketing, Research Consultancy and Development Management. We are based in Africa, and travel around the world delivering world class services and participating in strategic coffee sector development agenda for the region. We do this through collaborating with organizations and institutions around the world that work in related areas, including the Coffee Quality Institute, (CQI) – USA.
Wishing to become an international licensed Q Grader in South Africa?
This 6-day training and exam will be held at Sevenoaks Lab in Randburg,
South Africa, by certified Q grader instructor Mbula Musau. The first three days are dedicated to intensive training and the last three days are reserved for taking the exams. There is a limited number of students so the instructor has the opportunity to focus on every individual. For more information, click here.