The Path to Becoming a Q Grader

Anna Kerwick @ 2023-02-22 12:02:36 +1000

Simon Brooks is Merlo’s Head of Roasting and Distribution and manages the entire bean purchasing, roasting and distribution process. He has been employed by the company for 16 years and has a wealth of knowledge on all things coffee! Read on to find out more about how he achieved the outstanding achievement of becoming a Q Grader – the highest certification within the coffee industry.



Before I began working in the industry I found coffee to be a dark bitter drink that I had no taste for. Over the last 16 years I’ve learned to love and appreciate the bean in all its glory. Coffee has now become a passion of mine and something that gets me out of bed in the morning (not just for the caffeine!).

Working with different coffee flavours, countries of origin, processing and brewing methods and the unique workers in the industry from farm to cup, there is never a dull moment!

Just over a year ago I decided to put my experience and knowledge to the test by attending a Q Grader training and assessment in Melbourne. Q Graders are accredited coffee specialists who undergo intense training and assessment to be able to rate coffee in line with protocols outlined by the Coffee Quality Institute (CQI).

The accreditation curriculum is designed for professionals who are involved in the tasting and evaluation process of coffee as part of their profession. The process to become an accredited Q Grader is challenging and difficult, so much so that the average pass rate is only around 25%.

Throughout the world there are approximately 5000 Q Graders in 58 countries, with only 87 based in Australia.

During the week, there were 22 examinations which included cuppings through to general knowledge.



The cupping exams were to test our evaluation and scoring of coffees from similar origins using the correct cupping/scoring method whilst making sure we remained calibrated with the rest of the group.

An olfactory test where we used the 36 aromas in the Le Nuz du Café kit broken down into enzymatic, sugar browning, dry distillation and aromatic taints to match sets blind and identify 3 aromas from each set.

The Sensory Skills Test, where we had 3 different exams in which we had to identify different levels of sweet, sour and salt in a solution of water.

The hardest being Exam 3 where sweet, sour and salt are added to solutions with varying intensities and we needed to pick which elements were added and their intensity (low, medium, high).

A fun fact to note is that adding sour to a sweet solution will make it taste sweeter and adding salt to a sour solution will make it taste less sour.

Triangulation Tests, which involved identifying the odd cup out of a group of three which might sound easy but when you have two coffees from the same origin, similar elevations and processing methods, it can be quite difficult.



The Matching Pairs test, where weak brewed cups of coffee were spiked with different acids and we needed to pick which cups were spiked and what the acid was. The acids we were looking for in the coffees included acetic, citric, lactic, malic and phosphoric.

In addition to the sensory and identification tests, there were examinations on Green Bean and Roasted Bean grading, general knowledge and roasted sample ID.

The week consisted of three days training followed by a barrage of 22 exams over the last three days. Every three years Q Graders are required to attend a calibration course so that the skills and knowledge of the Q Grader is up-to-date.

At the end of the week it was agreed, pass or fail, it was one of the most intense, interesting and worthwhile weeks we’ve been involved in and palate fatigue is definitely a real thing!