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What is a Q-Grader?

What is a Q-Grader?

Ever wonder if all the “flowery” language describing your steaming cup of coffee is, well, full of hot air?

Whether you’re someone who’s satisfied with a reliable, consistent daily cup-of-joe, or you’re a more adventurous soul looking to broaden your brewing horizons, understanding a bit about what those descriptions mean might come in handy. So, we’ve asked Cambio’s resident coffee master to tell us about what exactly she does and why Cambio drinkers should care. Meet Lindsey Bolger, a nationally recognized expert and one of the world’s very first Q-Graders.

An Interview with Lindsey Bolger, One of the World's First Q-Graders.

What exactly is a Q-Grader?

Lindsey Bolger: A Q-Grader, short for "Quality Grader," is a coffee industry professional who has successfully mastered an array of skills required to thoroughly and objectively evaluate coffee for its physical and sensory characteristics and qualities. The Q-Grader protocol was established by the Coffee Quality Institute in 2003 with the purpose of creating a global methodology for assessing coffee quality, and now there are thousands of Q-Graders all over the world.

An important aspect of the Q-Grading system is the standardization of the terms and language we use to describe coffee’s flavor attributes–from the worst to the very best. Through our training, we learn to establish sensory “benchmarks” that we can later recall to identify a particular aromatic or flavor component. We’ve accumulated a sensory library, of sorts, that enables us to distinguish subtle differences that make one coffee more distinctive than another, or a flaw or off-note that indicates a potential quality issue. Many people consider us the sommeliers of the coffee world. We love exploring and giving language to coffee so we can all better understand and appreciate what makes it so special.

The work of becoming a Q-Grader isn’t for the occasional coffee sipper. Certification is only achieved after passing over 20 specially designed tests, including a general knowledge exam, a roast identification test, and several tests involving organic acid detection. This battery of tests is administered over a 5 day period. It’s an intense and even exhausting process and many candidates fail their first time through.

What does a Q-Grader do?

Lindsey: Because Q-Graders are highly skilled in sensory evaluation of green coffee, they are employed throughout the industry. In coffee producing countries, Q-Graders help farmers identify which of their coffees might be truly exceptional and therefore worthy of higher prices. We can also work with them to improve overall coffee quality through the evaluation of different coffee varieties or coffee processing methods to determine which are best suited to their farm and climate.

Q-Graders work with coffee roasters to select coffees that meet the expectations of their customers. The taste preferences of consumers in Italy may be different from those in Japan and Q-Graders help pair the right coffee for specific clients, regions or brewing methods, such as filter coffee or espresso. Q-Graders can also identify truly remarkable coffees to keep a roaster’s line of coffees fresh and unique.

Finally, we help consumers explore the wide array of coffee flavor choices with language that describes what they might experience in the cup. Whether you’re seeking something with a citrus note, or ripe berries, dark chocolate or toasted nuts, together you’ll find the coffee that’s right for you.

Coffee Flavor Wheel
Coffee Flavor Wheel - Credit: NPR Coffee Club

How unique are Q-Graders?

Lindsey: Great question! Q-Graders are actually quite rare. Achieving Q-Grader certification is no small feat, as I mentioned. Because the training is so demanding and intense; only those with exceptional sensory skills and a deep passion for coffee make it through this process. The Q grading certification pass rate is less than 50%. There are about 400 Q-Graders in the U.S.

Why is having a Q-Grader available important to me, the consumer?

Lindsey: The first thing I’d mention is Quality Assurance. The presence of a Q-Grader ensures that every cup of coffee you enjoy meets the highest standards of quality. They’re like the gatekeepers of flavor, identifying the unique characteristics and nuances that make each coffee exceptional and perfect.

Equally important is consistency. Coffee is a complex and dynamic beverage, influenced by factors like origin, climate, processing methods, and roast profiles. Q-Graders help establish the flavor profiles that make each product special and ensure it stays that way. When you fall in love with a particular Cambio variety, you can trust that it will taste the same, batch after batch and cup after delicious cup.

And then there’s refinement: Q-Graders work tirelessly to refine coffee profiles. They use their expertise to provide feedback to roasting and sourcing teams, guiding them towards making coffee even more enjoyable, whether through subtle adjustments in roast levels or sourcing decisions that uncover new flavor experiences.

If this all sounds a bit too technical for you, the only thing you need to remember is that Cambio does all this work for you to ensure that all you have to do is sit back and enjoy some of the very best coffee in the world.

Cambio's Coffee Expertise

At Cambio, our passion is to bring coffee drinkers the finest coffee experience possible in the most recyclable pod. Adding Lindsey has been invaluable, creating a superior taste in a coffee pod, delivering our promise of Rich Taste, Less Waste. Her experience and depth in the coffee industry, along with her discerning palate, ensures a coffee experience you won’t forget. Lindsey also adds incredible value promoting and expanding sustainable sourcing practices as a Board Member for Food4Farmers, Cambio’s non-profit partner that helps allocate 20% of our profits to support coffee-farming families.