Ever since the "third wave" crashed on the shores of the coffee industry at the turn of the 21st century and specialty coffee roasters proliferated around the world, the "Q" has become a common term lobbed around in conversation among coffee experts. It's short for CQI Q Arabica Course & Examination, and those who pass it earn the most prestigious credential for coffee cuppers: the Q Grader license.
Developed by the Coffee Quality Institute, the Q is an eight-section coffee-grading course that ends with a 22-test exam. It's an intense, arduous week of sensory exertion, only attempted by advanced coffee professionals. Like the bar or the Certified Sommelier exam, it often inspires existential dread and sickness-inducing anxiety. Some people practice the sensory identification test with homemade solutions for weeks prior. Some will only eat plain foods the entire week of the Q to avoid polluting their palates. There are only roughly 4000 licensed Q Graders worldwide, and not only is it extremely difficult, it's extremely rare to pass after only taking the course once.
Specialty coffee is a young industry, so the Q certification process is still somewhat shrouded in mystery and spoken about with an air of fear and respect. Since our very own roastmaster Clyde Miller recently passed the Q on his first try, we sat down and picked his brain about it.
First, could you just talk a little bit about how you became our roastmaster?
I didn’t know anything about roasting when I started working for the company. A job opened up at the Irving Farm café in town, so I was doing sandwiches, soups, stuff like that. Then I started working at the Roastery part-time, taking care of the lawn, and I quit my construction job. That progressed into also roasting part-time, and I learned more and eventually became the full-time roaster.
How did you get interested in the science and craft of roasting?
For the first five years of working for the company, I didn’t drink coffee. Right before Dan [Streetman, Irving Farm’s green coffee buyer] was hired, in 2010, we started doing small-batch roasting and more in-depth roast profiles. And then I quit smoking and started drinking coffee. At that time, I didn’t know what cupping was—I had none of that knowledge. My version of “cupping” was brewing a pot of the profile roast and comparing it against the two or three others that I had. Everything I did was trial and error. If it worked it worked, if it didn’t it didn’t.
So you were teaching yourself?
Basically yes. I didn’t have any classes. Just trial and error, and memory.
When and how did you actually become interested in testing to become a Q grader?
This year. I thought of it as just another notch. Once the Irving Farm lab was SCAA-certified, and I knew that the Q course was coming up, I asked Dan if there was anything I needed to do to prepare and he said to take the Taster’s Pathway. So I did that.
Could you explain how the Q works?
This Q course was for Arabica coffee; they have a separate course for Robusta. It’s a couple of days of classes, with general quizzes at the end of each day, and then an exam at the end of the course. If you pass the exam, you get your license to grade coffee. The exam goes through cuppings of washed-milds, naturals, etc. and it really attunes you to what can be found in the coffee: what to look for when you cup coffee, how to spot defects, and how to use your scoresheets without being biased to certain coffees. They also teach you how to grade a 350-gram sample of green beans and pull out the defects within a short timeframe.
Did you do anything to prepare before you take the course?
The Taster’s Pathway really helped out because the knowledge was fresh from that course. But that was it really.
How did you feel during the Q?
I felt okay. At one point, Candice [Madison, Q Instructor & Grader] told me to calm down, but that was during the general knowledge section. Everything else was fine. I cup more coffee doing quality control than I did at the Q.
To pass, do you have to have a perfect score?
No. I don’t know if anybody’s ever gotten one! Not everybody passes it in their first week either.
Most people don’t right?
90% of people don’t.
Now that you’re a Q grader, are there certain responsibilities?
I’m just licensed to grade coffee now. I have a three-year license, and then after three years I have to do a recall. It’s not as extreme as the actual test, it’s just to make sure your senses are still on point, basically.
Why was it important for you to take and pass the Q?
It helped me out with quality control, and it taught me how to look closely at the green bean. Now I’m able to spot more defects. You don’t need to have taken the Q to do a cupping and grade coffee, but it helps. It helped me.
Did you think you were going to pass in the first week?