15 Nov 2016

How to Prepare for Taking the Q Arabica Coffee Grading Exam

Me (front row in the brown apron) and my fellow Q graders
When I started working at a green coffee sourcing company as their cupper, they requested I take the Q grader's exam for Arabica coffee. I had heard of it before, but had never really looked into it. Al I had heard was that it was an exam to test your sensory skills in coffee tasting and that it was quite difficult to pass.

The Q grader's exam is part of the Coffee Quality Institute and it meant to create a universally shared language for coffee tasters. It is an internationally recognised certification grading and cupping calibration. Meaning that all people that passed the Q grading exam will give a calibrated score for the same coffee. 

I read up a little on the test that would be taken, but mistakenly saw it as a course, not necessarily an exam. So when I walked into the cafe in Paris during a cold February day, I was surprised to find everybody there had been practising at home for weeks. I had read up a little bit, but I hadn't created my own training program beforehand. I also quite quickly learnt that the 'course' part of the exam mostly existed of practising the exam. Not an actual educational training session. So if you failed a practise exam, there really was no time to understand why you failed and to really learn how to improve yourself before the actual exam will take place.

This freaked me out quite a bit, especially as the course is quite expensive. I did not want to fail and let my boss, who paid for everything, down. So the first three days in which we practised the courses I tried to learn as much as I could. At night I would practise in my Airbnb and think of strategic ways to pass the exams that I had trouble with during the day.

I have to say, going through all the exams in the following days, must have been some of the most nerve recking days in my life.

And...it paid off. I passed with flying colours. So what did I do to pass the infamous sensory exam, or the sample roast identification exam? In this blog you can read the tips I wished I had had before I took the Q grading exam per exam category.

What does the Q grading exam consist of?

The exam for Arabica coffee consists of 22 different tests, where the participants are tested on their skills to objectively assess coffee quality, identify, quantify and articulate coffee characteristics, detect coffee defects and communicate coffee characteristics using common industry terminology.

Strategies for passing the Q/what helped me pass the Q?

Of course there are some more general things to think about. Like, make sure you get your rest. Even though I spent a lot of time thinking out a strategy, I did make sure I got enough sleep. You are going to have to cup a lot and you are going to be stressed. If you are not used to cupping a lot of coffees at a time, your tongue might get fatigued. It happens. Try to relax.
Also, don't change your flow. If you are used to drinking or eating certain stuff, don't stop doing it, just because of this test. If you are used to tasting after eating garlic the night before, you should be fine. But those are general tips, what exams can you expect and how can you prepare?

1 - General Knowledge Exam

The general knowledge exam is the only real written test in the Q certification exam. It consists of 100 multiple choice tests. The biggest thing to remember here is that the questions are on a broad array of topics within green coffee; harvest, cultivation, processing, cupping, grading, roasting, brewing, but also trade. So, make sure you have some background information that is industry wide.

2 - Sensory Skills Exam

This is the test that everybody fears and where most stumble. The test is split in to different levels. The first parts are quite easy. You have to identify three intensities of salt, sour and sweet and categorise those. This is easy. But you also have to identify eight mixes of different modalities. Which means you get eight cups and you have to taste what tastes are in them and in what intensity. 

This is extremely difficult. Because tastes change when you add another taste. A sweet intensity 2, will taste different when it is mixed with a sour intensity 1. What makes it even more difficult is that you will have taste transfer problems. Meaning, if you taste one cup that is high in acidity, the next cup you taste will automatically taste more sweet, because of the acidity you had in the first cup. Basically, if unprepared and unstrategised, it is a nightmare of a test. 

During the practise round I failed miserably. And so this is the test on which I strategised the most that evening. In the end I passed with more than 80% correct! You can find some different strategies online on other blogs. For example, the mathematical method. As I mentioned, you get eight samples; four with two components and four with three components. Meaning that there will be four blank intensities on your answer sheet. However, the markdown for incorrectly noting 'not present' is four points. But the markdown for noting the lowest intensity, while there is in reality nothing present is only two points. So unless absolutely sure, never leave a blank.

I did use that strategy. I did have more than four cups with three mixes. But what I did that helped me more is that I went against the other tips online. Everywhere you look online you read that you should not use the easy part one and two of the test as a reference of calibration for the relation between various tastes and strengths. Because the strengths of intensities are different in the mixed test. But I did use the first tests to calibrate myself. 

You get about 20 minutes for the first easy test. Let me tell you, you don't need it. You will be done in five. I used my extra 15 minutes to feel my tongue react to the different tastes. Where did I feel the sweet? Where did I feel the sour? The salt? Did it tingle, or not? Then I mixed the cups I got and calibrated myself on those. What does a sweet intensity 3 and salt intensity 2 taste like? What does a sour 2 and salt 1 taste like? And so on. 

After that I went into the exam from hell. First I tasted all solutions. Between each cup I rinsed my mouth with sparkling water to get a somewhat clean pallet. I tried to identify the strongest component. And then asked myself if I found two or thee tastes. I split the cups in two categories, two tastes and three tastes. If I was not sure, I would put the cup into the three taste category. And within those I categorised into strongest taste.

When I had done that I tried to identify the two component cups first. The ones that tasted the strongest of one thing, will probably be an intensity 3 taste. So that became a new good reference, which can help you try to translate that to lower intensities. I then also took how my tongue felt into consideration. Again, where did I feel the taste the most? On the sides, back or front? Did it tingle or not? What was the mouthfeel like? Referencing that back to my calibration time during the first part of the test. Then I did the same for the thee part solutions. 

In between cups I made sure to always cleans my pallet the best I could with some sparkling water. Or if I was unsure about certain tastes I would taste the most salty cup I had on the table, because salt makes other tastes come out better, making it a little easier to recognise a sweet or sour intensity 1 in another cup.

3 - Cupping Skills Exams

This is one of the most important tests. There are five different cupping flights. Each flight, or table, consists of six coffee samples. You have to fill in the SCAA cupping form in the correct way, give appropriate scores calibrated to your trainer and be able to recognise cups spiked with defects. 

This test really is not that difficult if you have worked with the SCAA cupping form before. So if you practise with that, you will be fine. 

I will advise you to discuss the cupping protocol you use with your other participants. If they like to cup very hot and you like it cold, make sure to tell them to not slurp it all away in the first 15 minutes.

4 - Olfactory Skills Exams

The olfactory skills exam uses the Lenoir Le Nez du Cafe scent kit. The objective is to recognise 36 aromas that can be found in coffee. 

Almost everybody present at my exam had tried to memories the different aromas. And that is very, very useful. However what was extremely useful for me was to memorise what aromas where in the kit, and memorise what aromas in what categories.

In the exam the 36 aromas are divided into four different categories, enzymatic (cultivation and processing), sugar browning (earlier stages of roasting), dry distillation (later stages of roasting) and aromatic taints (storage, handling and processing errors). If you are in the middle of the enzymatic category, knowing what aromas to look for and which you can neglect, really, really, really help.

5 - Triangulation Skills Exams

This test is what you think it is. Three cups on the table, one cup is different. Which one is it? The biggest problem here is taste bud fatigue. You are cupping so much coffee during the Q grading exam, that sometimes at the end of a long day your tongue says: "Meh, it all tastes the same to me".

What helped me was to not only look for flavour differences, but body and mouthfeel differences. In my case the coffees used for the triangulation test, where the same coffees used for the cupping skills test. So ask if this is the case and use the cupping skills test as a calibration session.

Again, same as the cupping skills test, talk to your co-participators. Differences between cups are often easier to detect when the coffee is a little colder. So make sure nobody is finishing the cups while there are still scorching hot. 

6 - Organic Acids Matching Pairs Exam

During this exam you will be asked to match two out of four weakly brewed cups of coffee containing different acids in eight sets. So you are asked to recognise the acid and match the two cups with the same acid together. 

Most important thing to do here is use your calibration test to really analyse what the acid is doing to the coffee and your tongue. Memorise some key phrases that best describe what you are tasting per acid. 

For example, my notes contained the following:
Malic acid tastes like green apple. It's mostly present in the front of my mouth. It is the most sweet of all the acids and it has a softer mouthfeel than acetic acidity.
Acetic acid tastes of vinegar. It is mostly present in the back of the mouth. It pinches your cheeks and has some bitterness to it.
Phosphoric acid was the most flavourless. The mouthfeel is quite different, soft and round. It has similarities to coca cola and I taste it mostly in the front of my mouth.
Citric acid tastes of lemon. It's vibrant and present in the front and sides of my mouth. It can be sharp. Compared to malic, the malic acidity will fall flat if I taste it after tasting the citric acid.

7 - Arabica Green Grading Test

In the green grading exam you have to green grade three samples of green coffee, tainted with a certain number and type of defect. You need to pass two of the three in order to pass the exam. The biggest hurdle with this test is time. You only get 20 minutes for grading and filling out your form correctly, which includes math work. This is very, very short. The best tip is to make a time schedule for yourself. Spend 10 minutes on the grading. Spend 5 on determining the categories of the defects you found. Spend 5 minutes on the form. And stick to your schedule. If you spend too much time on grading, you will not finish completing the form and you will fail.

8 - Arabica Roasted Coffee Grading Test

This is the easiest test you will have. Enjoy it. You must correctly identify the number of quackers (light brown roasted beans) in a sample of 100 grams. Then mark the sample as specialty, premium or commercial coffee. 

9 - Sample Roast Identification Test

A lot of people found this test really, really hard. And a lot of people fail on it. During this exam you have to identify the ideal roast for coffee cupping. There is a perfect roast, a baked roast, a roast that is too light and a roast that is too dark. You will have to do that through a cupping exercise. 

Like the acid test, it is very important to use your calibration test to really try to capture how these roasts taste. Write done notes on flavour, taste and mouthfeel and memorise them. 
Most people had the biggest problem with baked, some thought it was the perfect roast. Others kept mixing it up with the roast that was too light. Make sure you know how you recognise these roasts. Ask others about their notes, and see if you can use those too or not. 

To close off...is it worth it?

A lot of people ask me is it worth it? And it unmistakeably is. Although it isn't really a training program, but a week long exam, I did learn a lot in between the lines. I also got to know a lot of interesting coffee professionals, taking the exam with me. A network I still use today. 
But, what is perhaps the most valuable for me, is the validation. Coffee is an industry where a lot of people kind of muck about. Most of us coffee professionals roll into coffee through a part time barista job and keep climbing the coffee ladder without any 'official' education. This is what happened to me. And somewhere in the back of my mind I was never quite sure of my skills, as they were never tested. To pass the Q grading exam, gave me validation and self assurance that I am actually really good at my job as a coffee cupper. And that made the exam worth every penny.

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