Q-graders: super heroes who arrive to soon.

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When traveling the world like I do, it is easy to get a global perspective on coffee, the roasters and the quality of both. As more and more consumers reach out for the specialty grade coffee, more and more businesses start roasting specialty coffee as well. Anyone can buy a coffee roaster, open up a shop and start selling the best coffee in the world. But what happens when customers do not end up with the quality that is connected to price of the varietal, producer etc?

Smell and Tell review

I have been traveling the world for over 18 years now and I have seen the growth of the specialty coffee industry gradually expanding. From one or two specialty coffeeshops per city ten years ago, to a multitude of coffeeshops nowadays; specialty coffee is booming and trendy.
City’s like Seoul, New York, Hong Kong and Berlin have so many coffee shops competing for the same customers, that sometimes it’s hard to choose which coffeeshops are the best. Choosing which coffeeshops to visit, oftentimes goes hand in hand with the sort of coffee that is available. 90+ Panama Geisha or an 88 point Ugandan Typica? COE Costa Rica Pacamara or a 85 point Brazil Catuai? Consumers more often that not, will let themselves be seduced by the best of the best. But are they getting the best of the best? This is where we need the Q-graders to step in more often.

What are Q-graders and why do we need them.

Coffeeinstitute.org: Q-graders have become a tool of the trade, bringing specialized skills to coffee professionals around the world. By setting global expectations CQI helps both buyers and sellers benefit through a shared understanding of quality coffee.

A little vague huh? Well let me break it down for you: Q-graders are like the wine-someliers of coffee but even more important, way more important. Q-graders help producers to grade their coffee in terms of quality and thus helping buyers paying a good price for the quality they want. A lot of producers do not know the exact quality-grade of their harvested coffee and they will need a professional to determine the quality/worth for their product. This is where our heroes come in and save the day. With their sensory skills and education, they know exactly what quality-grade the coffee has after tasting it and determining the amount of defects and point reductions. After extensive testing they will put a quality-grade on the coffee and thus, in a way, a price as well. This is a very solid way of protecting the quality of the coffee that hits the markets, making sure farmers are getting paid a reasonable amount and that the buyers do not pay too much. Unfortunately the quality control stops after that; no more Q-grading or quality control once the coffee is bought from the auction/importer/green bean sellers. “So what exactly is the problem? an 88 points coffee will still be 88 points when I buy it, right?” Wrong.

Knowing how to turn on a roasting machine, doesn’t make you a master roaster.


Roasting coffee is probably one of the most underestimated parts of the coffee production chain. Not only does a roaster need to have an understanding of the type of bean and the potential of the bean, they should also know everything about the character of the roasting-machine that he uses. Even then there is still so much that can influence the end result of a roast; temperature, humidity and time are essential aspects of roasting that need to be mastered.
Even though all these aspects are so important, anyone with money can start a coffeeshop and buy a roasting machine. That same person can buy the most expensive and most delicious coffee’s on the market and sell them to you. But would a 90+ coffee still be graded as a 90+ coffee after that mediocre roaster sells it to you? Or would a q-grader rate this coffee as a…88 point coffee sensory wise?

Where is the consumers protection?


Before I go on, I would like to mention that coffee brands sometimes have their own Q-grader in their ranks. But when you think about the fact that the are only 7000+ Q-graders worldwide at the moment (source: coffeeinstitute.org), chances are that your local coffeeshop isn’t hosting one of them.

In a way one could say that consumers are left for dead when it comes to buying their roasted coffee. No one will guarantee you that your coffee will produce brews of the level of quality it was given by the Q-graders. One might argue that your average consumer wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between a 89 point and a 91 point coffee anyway, but that is irrelevant. If you buy a car that is listed with 170 horsepower (HP) but after manufacturing it only has 160 HP, you would probably not notice either…but you still paid for that extra 10 HP, right?
And this is where I would love to see our superheroes appear at the scene: after roasting. To ensure that consumers will pay the right price for the right quality. I would love have a world-wide ‘proof of quality’ mark that will ensure the consumers that the coffee they are buying, is indeed worth the price they paid. In Seoul, for example, I have encountered a lot of coffeeshops selling high graded coffee’s, only to find out that the roaster has ruined the coffee completely. This is not just in Seoul, it is happening world wide as we speak. How many times have you bought a coffee and thought: “nah, this just isn’t it. A waste of money”?

Superman Q-graders, where are you now?

It seems that our Q-grader super heroes arrive too soon, even before the ‘crime’ is committed actually. We, the consumers, need our Q-grader heroes to swoop down into cafe’s and safe the day. We need them to protect us from the degradation of quality of coffee after roasting, protect us from the people like ‘Roaster A’ and protect us from ourselves. Because let’s be honest; we all love to show off the best of the best…but do we ever think about who roasted our coffee? If that person is even sufficiently certified?
In reality the work the Q-graders do at the moment is way more important than checking if the individual roasts or coffeeshops are on par. Our super heroes are protecting the living wages of farmers, making sure that buyers are paying a fair price and protect the quality of coffee on markets. Should we look at the roasters instead? Shouldn’t they start a roasters-union to create a quality benchmark? A gild in which only qualified roasters are permitted? A way for consumers to see that their coffee has been roasted by true artisans? I guess time will tell. For now it’s up to us consumers; dare to ask questions, provide feedback to your roasters and share your experiences with your fellow coffee loving friends on forums and social media.

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