What is a Q-Grader

If you buy specialty coffee you’ve probably seen scores of 84 or 87.25 for example either on websites or packaging and you may have heard the term Q-grader or q-score too. Its certainly a term that you hear a lot in specialty coffee circles and with good reason.  But what are these score and what is a q-grader? What does it all mean?

The Q grader program started in 2004. The point was to objectively examine coffees and give them a score based on the various quality levels of their different attributes. 

The key idea behind the q program and really what drives it on is the creation of a broader body of coffee tasters or cuppers across the world who can all evaluate using the same criterion. They have all passed a series of very difficult exams to achieve a high level of understanding of the acidity, body, flavour, aftertaste, uniformity, balance, sweetness and aroma of coffee and to make sure they are identifying flavour characteristics in the same way as one another. This enables coffee pros to communicate quality through the supply chain from farmer to roaster. By giving a coffee a score, everyone involved is on the same page about a coffee, inherently understanding the quality of any given coffee.

Q-graders are licensed and qualified to award a coffee an SCA score out of 100 and by extension are able to classify it as speciality grade or non-speciality.  Coffees above 80 are classed as specialty. The program is totally independent and is run completely blind so there is no external influence. 

To become a q-grader takes a lot of training, experience, passion and dedication to and about coffee. You must be able to consistently score coffees in line with other Q graders, but you must also be able to identify defects. You need to taste lots of coffee! By tasting lots of coffees over time cuppers are able to build up a bank of sensory coffee experiences to draw on when evaluating new coffees. It really is not easy to pass either with only around 5000 Q Graders in the world at the moment in an industry that employs millions and millions of people. 

The course takes 6 days and is made up of lectures, presentations and practical exercises with 22 exams at the end – all of which must be passed in 3 days.  It is incredibly demanding on candidates both physically and mentally. The tests are designed to assess every aspect of your sensory analysis and cover off the following:

Olfactory Skills 

This test is all about your nose – there are 36 scents to identify. To pass you must correctly identify and match up every scent; tea rose, butter, blackcurrant, maple …… among many more. 

Cupping Skills 

The bread and butter. Slurping, tasting and evaluating the coffees. 

4 tables of 6 coffees split by region and/or process Milds (Central and South American origins), Africans, Asian Coffees and Naturally processed coffees from across the world. To pass these tests, you must Q grade all 6 coffees for each section and give them a score which is backed up by your individual attribute scores. The overall score must also be in accordance with the instructors and other candidates assessing the coffees, something determined by an algorithm which is not widely known, and lastly, you must correctly fill out the SCA form with no mistakes.  

Sensory Skills 

This test focuses on the participant’s ability to identify the intensities of different tastes; salt, sweet, sour and bitter .The first part of the test is fairly easy, you just have to put the tastes in order from weak to strong. Then you do the same again but this time its blind. Then it gets interesting…! You are presented with 8 glasses of colourless liquid, you have to identify which tastes are present aw well as the intensity of those tastes. It is incredibly difficult to pass and is usually the one that trips most people up.


An odd one out test by any other name. Like the cupping tables themselves, these tests are split into 4 sections by region and then process – Milds, Africans, Asias and Naturals. In each test, you are presented with 6 sets of 3 cups. 2 of the 3 cups will be the same coffee but one will be different and you have to identify the odd one out. This sounds simple enough, but again is completely reliant on your ability to detect the slightest differences between coffees, be that in the body or a very discreet dip in the acidity for example.

Organic Acids Matching Pairs 

For this test, there are 6 sets of 3 coffees on the table. 1 of the 3 cups has been altered with either malic, phosphoric,  citric, or acetic acid. You have to identify which one has had an acid added to it, and also put a name to that acid. You have to move quickly with this test as your ability to detect acidity diminishes the more you do it….arrrrrgh.

Sample Roast ID 

In order to successfully pass this test, you are presented with 4 cups of coffee and have to identify which one has been baked in the roast, which has been over roasted, which is too light and which is correctly roasted or roasted to protocol with balanced sweetness, acidity and body. Again, easy enough in principle but no so easy when the differences can be very slight. 

Finally there’s a green coffee grading test, a roasted coffee grading test and a lengthy multiple choice general knowledge exam too.

Our in house q-grader Adam says that he found the Organic acids matching pairs to be the most challenging of all the exams but that having the mental and physical stamina to maintain such a high level of concentration throughout the week is probably the key to success. He passed in 2022. 

If you pass your Q you really have earned your coffee Jedi status! 

May the Q be with you…….


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Customer Reviews

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Very good quality beans, lovely staff and got a little tour of the roastery while I was there. Highly recommend!
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I tried several roasters but the one that came through streaks ahead of all the others was Coffee Central. The service is as good as if I was their best customer.
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Great experience buying coffee here. Really helpful and personal experience, even when just buying home quantities.
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Just received this coffee (Guatemala La Nueva Era) through the post and have to say it tastes amazing! Highly recommend.