Do we still need Q graders?

  • There are over 7,000 Q graders across the world
  • The vast majority of these are based in coffee-consuming countries
  • As the industry strives to be more inclusive, it’s important to ask — how relevant are they?

THE Q grader programme is the only certification in the coffee industry solely dedicated to quality assessment. Established in 2004 by the Coffee Quality Institute (CQI), it teaches participants to score coffees objectively based on their sensory and aromatic attributes.

Once certified, Q graders work in a number of different capacities to assess and grade coffee accordingly – generally using a 100-point scale.

“I remember before I became a Q grader back in 2016, there was this sense of reverence for those who were Q graders at the time,” says Kosta Kallivrousis, US sales manager at Algrano.

Today, the number of Q graders worldwide has reached over 7,000 – a significant increase compared to 10 years ago. As the programme has expanded, some argue it has lost its sense of prestige within the industry.

Furthermore, the ever-changing perceptions of coffee quality pose a challenge to any qualification dedicated to quantifying it. 

This means that there are two main questions for Q graders: Can the programme keep up with these changes, and is it still as essential as it once was?

Cecilia Sanada, Q grader and coffee consultant, emphasises the importance of a common language for quality among coffee farmers, exporters, importers, and roasters. However, she believes that the system falls short of being fully inclusive, and that its intended purpose has become diluted.

“Last year, CQI tried to make an annual calibration, mostly because the Q graders requested it,” says Cecilia. “But it was a tough requirement for those in coffee-producing countries who live from contract to contract, or crop to crop. They simply couldn’t afford it, so the idea was dropped.”

In the past, you became a Q grader for life. But that has changed – Q graders now have to “calibrate” every three years to prove they are knowledgeable about current trends and upholding quality standards. As part of this, they are required to undertake exams (for which a fee must be paid).

These recent U-turns indicate that CQI might be grappling with how to effectively manage evolving quality standards while staying relevant in the industry.

Q graders smelling coffee

Who defines quality?

Despite these challenges, defining and quantifying quality plays an essential role in the coffee industry.

“Scoring a coffee correctly is a big responsibility in the market,” says Cecilia. “It’s a way to negotiate a coffee’s price according to its quality.”

With that said, Q graders are much more prominent in the latter stages of the supply chain – once coffee leaves the farm. The CQI website shows that there are considerably more Q graders in consuming countries than in producing countries, for instance.

This highlights a fundamental problem with the system – as the knowledge gap creates a power imbalance between buyers and producers when they discuss quality.

“A Q grader is an enforcer or gatekeeper for the entity [they’re] representing, through cupping scores and notes,” says Kosta. “But you can’t claim to be objective as the beneficiary of the thing you are grading.

“We thought we could create an impartial, bureaucratic system around taste that everyone could adhere to – fair for both buyers and sellers. But ultimately, who determines quality? Not CQI, not a Q grader – it’s going to be the buyer.”

In an instance where there is a quality dispute between buyer and seller, Kosta argues that it will always be the producer that capitulates. 

“It’s always the producer who’s conceding to the buyer,” he says. “Even if the producer had a Q grader licence and the buyer didn’t, I’d be so bold as to say that would still apply.”

Q graders evaluating coffee

An inclusive approach to defining quality

The industry has come a long way in recent years as far as inclusivity is concerned. Producers are more prominent in conversations than ever before, and we’re increasingly reevaluating trade mechanisms which have historically been skewed in favour of coffee-consuming countries. 

In spite of this, the frameworks for quality and how we measure it have largely remained unchanged.

The SCA’s green coffee grading protocols have been left largely untouched since the early 2000s. Earlier this year, however, the organisation introduced the beta version of its Coffee Value Assessment, aiming to provide industry professionals with a more “complete and high-resolution picture of a specific coffee” while reducing any potential assessment bias.

“But it does nothing in creating something new if you still have a person in the middle determining what’s good and what isn’t,” says Kosta. “It still isn’t a coffee consumer tasting with a coffee producer.”

For some, the problems go beyond how we define coffee quality, but how the entire pricing mechanism functions in relation to it.

“As long as taste is tightly coupled with financial value, and we allow the marketplace to dictate what’s good or what isn’t, there is no way to make this work,” says Kosta. “Taste is so personal and cultural, it shouldn’t be dictated by financial value.” 

In other words, unless the industry can divorce taste from the marketplace, a more holistic approach will be hard to reach. 

In Kosta’s view, there are other ways to move forward. For instance, a third-party, bureaucratic, unbiased system that assesses quality might be preferable to relying on Q graders who work for entities with vested interests.

On the other hand, Cecelia doesn’t see the need to completely dismantle the Q grader certification just yet. She maintains that the best way to create a more equitable conversation about quality and how coffee is priced is to concentrate efforts at the earlier stages of the supply chain.

Essentially, producers should have an active role in defining quality, rather than just adhering to foreign perceptions of it. With their voices more prominent in the industry, farmers can have a comprehensive understanding of what “quality” means as they begin planting.

Coffee Intelligence

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