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The Q Grader Gauntlet

Five Senses CoffeeChris Jackson 13 April 2016

In March this year I was fortunate enough to attend “The Q” at our training facility in West Melbourne. To those unaware, The Arabica Q Certification is a certificate managed by the Coffee Quality Institute (The CQI).

It was developed so that communication between green coffee buyers and farms/mills could be tangible and beneficial, so that farms had clear expectations on what exactly quality coffee is. A farm might submit its coffee to the CQI for a report, and if scoring above 80 points in a 100 point scale, along with meeting other quality requirements, can be granted the official Q certification. This initiative has been a strong voice in the ongoing discussion of what quality is, and in turn, specialty coffee.

To put things in context, while I’d been exploring coffee for a while at home, just over a year ago marked my first foray into the specialty coffee industry full time. At that point, the Q Grader course seemed like an insurmountable mountain and those who had conquered it, superhuman. It was incredible to me that people could develop their palate to the point where they were so tightly calibrated to one another. I set my sights on gaining my Q certification as a future, lofty goal but when the opportunity to partake in our next course came up only a year later, I decided to jump at it!

 

Here’s the thing. The course is hard. It’s meant to be. The pass rate falls somewhere between 20-30%. Combine this with an entry fee of over $2,000 and it’s little wonder why only 3,700 people world-wide are certified. While the group was introducing themselves I felt the butterflies in my stomach turn. The room was full of experienced coffee professionals. Roasters, green buyers, cupping champions: truly competitive and knowledgeable people. Knowing that I’d thrown myself in the deep end when I signed up for the course, I dedicated myself to weeks of concentrated preparation in the lead up — I certainly wasn’t taking this lightly. With 20 individual tests, and the need to pass each and every one of them, the level of focus required makes for a long and intense week. The pressure to achieve results in this environment was one of the biggest challenges to overcome. For example, in the triangulation tests, where you had to pick the odd cup out of a group of three, across 6 sets, the pass mark was 5 out of 6. If you miscalculated 2 of those sets, it was all over. One cup was all it takes for you to fall off the horse. For a more specialised look at what tests are undertaken head over to Matty De Angelis‘ write-up. When I mentioned coffee professionals earlier, he is one of the best!

Fortunately I wasn’t alone. Adrian Dart (VIC Account Manager), Shaun Gionis (VIC Roaster) and David Christie (NSW Head Trainer) were all in the trenches alongside me. Thankfully Five Senses Coffee has invested in their staff over the years so there were many open ears, and many-a shoulder to cry on when I needed support. Adrian Dart proved that the Account Management team have got the skills, walking away with his Q Certification, while David Christie was one dreaded Triangle short, and Shaun Gionis was also a tantalising 2 tests away from completion. With only 5 of 24 students attaining the hard fought final certification, these were some great results!

If you’re thinking of attending the Q, here’s a few words of advice:
Be humble. Even the most experienced can stumble in such an intense situation.
Stay calm, and listen. It’s not every day you’re able to have a conversation with someone as esteemed as Roukiat Delrue. You’ve got The National Bodies Manager of World Coffee Events and the CQI Q Services Manager in front of you, all the way from Guatemala. You’d be crazy not to spark up a conversation!
Listen to your peers! It’s rare to have 6 full days to chat with the Head Barista at Pillar of Salt, Christine Brown, or the current Vic Cupping Champ of Top Paddock, Tom Bomford. You’re surrounded by a room rich with coffee experience that can be a valuable learning experience in itself.

Also, a shout out needs to go to Rich Austin (our QC guru), Brydon Price (VIC Account Manager) and Andy Kent (NSW Manager), who all successfully completed a re-calibration which saw them refresh their existing Q Certification for a further 3 years.

Without a doubt those 6 days were the toughest I had faced in the coffee industry, but they were also the best. I learned so much, and walked away with a huge spread of experiences that I wouldn’t have had otherwise. I also have a newfound respect for all the work that goes into my morning brew. Finally I’ve found what I’m good at with coffee, because it certainly isn’t latte art!

© Photos (1, 4-6) provided with permission by Emily Bartlett. All rights reserved by photographer

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