Happy Birthday to Q

Coffee is intertwined in so many lives across the globe. From the smallholder producers of Africa to the larger Fazendas and Fincas across Latin America. From the fast-paced espresso life of Australasia to the slow-drips across the United States. In every corner of the globe, you’ll find coffee.

With an industry spanning dozens of distinct cultures and languages, communication was always going to be an Achilles heel. Even more so when you consider that we’re in the thick of the age of information. Meanings can be embellished, words can be misconstrued and ideas can be wholly different than they were in the beginning.

With so many trains of thoughts, how can we move towards a more cohesive and fair industry across all corners?

The Coffee Quality Institute and has spent the last twenty years building a foundation of coffee professionals through their Q grader system – aiming at creating a common language and understanding of coffee in tandem with other industry standards such as the Flavour Wheel and Le Nuz de Café.

What is the Q course?

The Q Course (or Qs) is a week of education sessions and exams focussing on the sensory aspect of coffee and the usage of the current cupping form.

Coffee is, undeniably, subjective which makes the path towards common language that much more difficult. Each person has their own unique palate; certain tolerances or sensitivities towards particular compounds and different biases towards certain attributes. Regardless of how one tries, it is impossible to remove every bias when evaluating coffee.

One of the most important features of the Qs is not in its content, but in its community. By calibrating together, we’re covering for each other’s own personal biases. We’re also familiarising ourselves with each other’s languages which in turn become part of our own.
With over 9000 Q graders across the world, it’s the closest we have to an industry standard.

What’s next?

That’s not to say that it’s a perfect model. The issues our industry face communication –wise are now focused on cultural differences. With the Qs being an in-person course, many of these courses are region-locked. Unless a coffee professional is well-established, it’s likely a New Zealand professional would calibrate with Australasian collegues or a Colombian professional would calibrated with Latin American colleagues.

My first realisation of these flaws was while cupping a Natural Ethiopian which a few of us described as Shrewsbury. For my visiting colleagues, this descriptor was lost on them. Shrewsbury is a popular biscuit across New Zealand with a shortbread biscuit base filled with strawberry jam – while our flavour memory brought us across the line, I wonder why I didn’t bother to break down the descriptor to become a more widely accepted descriptor. Obviously, every corner of the world has their own local dishes and fruits which influence each professional.

The Coffee Quality Institute does well to compensate for these regional differences through rigorous preparation procedures and not being overly fixated on flavour profiles but rather on flavour balance. Generally, flavour descriptors will be drawn from the SCA’s Flavour Wheel and it doesn’t take long for students to calibrate together.

I’ve had two experiences being involved in the Qs; the first being in Wellington and the second being in Sydney. As I mentioned earlier, the value in the Qs is the community and the perspectives that other coffee professionals offer. With information at your fingertips 24/7, it’s easy to get wrapped up in learning without peer-reviewing (in a sense).

Just as a rising tide lifts all boats, your boat also won’t lift without a rising tide.

Happy 20th Birthday Qs 🎂


P.s. If you’ve got this far, thank you for reading! One of the biggest questions that I get is how to practice for the Qs. Be sure to subscribe to our mailing list as we’ve got some things in the works at the moment and we’ll be sure to let you know.

Back to blog

Leave a comment

Please note, comments need to be approved before they are published.