I know enough about specialty coffee that if we were to cup together and you asked me something like, “Which of these is sourced from Ethiopia?” I could likely tell you. It functions like a cocktail party trick, a more esoteric name-that-tune for someone like me who’s never known enough about pop culture to ever successfully name that tune. As you might imagine, it doesn’t come in handy too often, and when it does, I mostly sound like a blowhard.
Then there are people like Paul Schlader, a co-founder of New York City-based Birch Coffee. He co-founded the operation with Jeremy Lyman in 2009. Schlader is one of roughly 360 people in the US—and only 4,377 worldwide as of June 2016—with Q Grader certification. Simply put, a Q Grader is the closest thing there is to a coffee sommelier. Becoming a Q Grader allows one to assess with authority the quality of coffee within either the Arabica or Robusta markets (you pick a lane when certifying). The title is earned through a rigorous program established by the California-based Coffee Quality Institute (CQI). The system was established to create a universal standard and shared vocabulary for coffee so everyone is looking for the same characteristics and using consistent terms to describe it.
But Q certification isn’t only a badge of honor for coffee experts. Tracy Allen, CEO of Kansas City-based Brewed Behavior and the Q Trainer who prepped Schlader, says it does much more. “The idea behind the Q is to create a common language and to move producers first and foremost away from risk,” he says. “The problem was that the producers were getting feedback like, ‘Wow, we love your coffee!’ and then next year the same roaster would not even buy it. The producer thinks they’re doing everything great and getting great feedback ... and all of a sudden they don’t hear from [the roasters]. And it’s like the worst date ever. We moved toward creating a common language so we can give feedback to these producers even when we’re not going to buy their coffee.”
Q Graders can have a hand in influencing commerce patterns in the coffee industry. The grades allow farmers to market their coffee based on objective quality, thus determining the prices they receive for their product—and, subsequently, how much you pay for your beloved specialty pour-over. Although anyone can technically score coffees with the Specialty Coffee Association of America’s 100-point scale, only Q Graders’ scores are accepted as “academically qualified” to evaluate the beans, Allen says.
To become a Q Grader, you have to pass the toughest test in coffee. In some ways, the Q exam is like the standardized tests you labored over throughout the first 18 years of your academic life, as it requires lots of prep and has multiple sections. According to those who’ve suffered through it, the Q exam also requires you to sacrifice tons of time and several thousand bucks for registration—not to mention all the self-scrutiny, ego-deflation, and existential dread. OK, maybe it’s a bit more like the bar exam than the SATs.
The Q exam is globally standardized and comprises 22 tests in eight sections—all of which you must pass—including general coffee knowledge, sensory perception, olfactory skills, cupping, and coffee grading. For example, one section tasks you with correctly identify varying intensities of salty, sweet, and sour tastes in water solutions. In another, you need to pick out every single defect in four boxes of green (a.k.a. unroasted) coffee, such as quakers, partial blacks, or partial sours, while the clock is ticking. You also have to match similar coffees while standing in a dark, silent room. And that’s far from the end of it. The exam lasts six days, and the first three are essentially for pre-test prep sessions, which teach you how to take the thing. According to Trish Rothgeb, CQI’s Director of Q and Educational Services, the failure rate for the Q hovers around 50 percent in the States. (Schlader says these futile attempts to pass are referred to as “donations.”)
I meet Schlader a couple of times at the Birch headquarters and roasting facility on 23rd Street in Long Island City, Queens. Each time, we sit in a glass-enclosed room with two long, wooden tables with rows of both green and roasted coffee beans. On an easel there’s a chart from the Specialty Coffee Association of America, just updated in April with a redesigned flavor wheel to guide cuppings; there are four SCAA posters on the wall listing different aroma characteristics that most people likely wouldn’t know were in their daily cup: enzymatic, sugar browning, dry distillation, aromatic taints. These are all facets of coffee nuance that Schlader needed to know inside and out in order to pass the olfactory portion of his exam.
Now that he’s a certified Q Grader, this sort of granularity shapes Schlader’s universe. It's changed how he looks at coffee every day. The year-long transformation began a year and a half ago when Schlader became Allen's student.
“I was picturing this guy who was like a Coffee Jesus, and he was so mellow and so unassuming,” Schlader says. “His training style was very interesting, because I love direction, and Tracy’s teaching style is, Here you go, and now find out. It was a lot on my own being given information and having to do the work.” Speaking to me from Kansas City, Allen assures me that there’s no magic formula for passing—just a lot of practice, cupping, and learning to cut the B.S. words (yes to “chocolatey,” “caramely,” “fruity”; no to “sugar-dropped rainbows,” Schlader says).
Sometimes, however, the process was agonizing. “Every day I felt like, I am failing. There is no point. I probably should just leave coffee altogether because there’s no chance that I am passing this. This is not fun. This is just killing my ego. I thought I was good at this, and I’m not,” Schlader says. He also found the work creeping into his home life with his young family, sorting and grading bags as his wife and 4-year-old looked on.
“The test is like golf,” he says. “You are completely competing against yourself the whole time.”
Which is exactly what he found out the day he took the Q in January.
“I got sick the day before the test from the anxiety—you have to remember that it’s a $2,000 investment, and if I don’t pass, I have to pay to retake it—and I threw up minutes before I did the triangulation section, which, as you can imagine, screws with your palate just a little bit.”He is, somehow, laughing as he recounts the story. “I came into the washed milds section and said to my instructor, ‘Ben, I’m not feeling well, and I was just in the restroom and I’m most likely going to fail this.’”
Schlader only got one question wrong in the section and passed the exam.
His neurotic handling of the exam is par for the course. Bevin Proehl, a coffee specialist for Boyd’s in Portland, Oregon, earned her Q Grader certification this past February. Despite cupping every day during work and studying under Randy Layton, the 39-year roastmaster at Boyd’s, Proehl still managed to find a moment to panic during the test.
“The first time I went through the sensory skills part, I said to myself, Oh jeez,” she tells me over the phone. Proehl put together the ultimate Q hack: a grocery-store supply grab that allowed her to self-administer a practice run.
“I made up my own version of the citric acid water, sweet water, and salt water. I had my sweet, salt, and sour mixtures, and I was mixing different concentrations of that at home. I would have my husband hand me a random cup and I would try calling out what intensity level I thought it was and what combination I thought I had,” she says. “Practicing that the night before was what helped me get through that part of the exam.” It worked.
Proehl, who started out as a barista to spend less money on coffee, calls the exam “very unknown.” It's true that you’ll have to enlist someone like Allen, or at least take to Reddit, if you want some degree of transparency. But Proehl feels as though passing is attainable if you cup daily and take good notes. And, if you’re serious about working in coffee, both Proehl and Schlader agree that the designation opens up doors. “Now that I have the Q certification, it more easily communicates my skill level,” Proehl says. “Working with our suppliers has become a little bit easier because we’re speaking that same language together, and, really, from a company perspective, it helps identify for consumers that we take a lot of care and put a lot of effort into ensuring that our coffee is specialty.”
Although the Q Grader system has helped standardize the conversation around coffee quality, Allen says that there’s a lot more work to do, since the Q isn’t intended for the general public. “What we need next is something that anyone off the street can engage in. Something that can help them realize when they go read labels on store shelves what’s bullshit. Until we get there, the Q’s great.”
Still, if all this Q talk has done the opposite of scaring you away, you masochist, you better make sure you’re in it for the long haul. Unlike taking Italian in college and never using it again, Q Graders have to keep their senses sharp by re-certifying every three years. Even instructors have to re-up every two.
“Don’t invest in this until you’re ready to get on the path and stay on the path,” Allen says. “It’s just a start. It’s just a stepping stone.”
Schlader agrees. “My relationship to coffee is much more honest now. I have much less to prove. There was definitely some ego involved in the early stages. The stuff that I know, I know. The stuff that I don’t know, I’m learning, and I’m fine with that,” he says. “The thing that is most important with the Q certification is that it is by no means a diploma. I’m not done. I’m just getting started.”