Creating a Common Language for Quality

By Craig Holt

No system for evaluating coffee quality is perfect. The Q Coffee System, however, has been a great help to me as a specialty coffee importer and, I would guess, to many others in the specialty industry. While the vast majority of our clients today are skilled and thoughtful cuppers, we used to have much more difficulty being clear with each other about coffee quality. There were even times when communication fell apart entirely.

An example:

Eleven years ago a client who had just taken delivery of a box of beautiful, complex Sumatra Grade 1 Lintong TP (sweet and earthy, heavy bodied, hints of dark berry) called me up.

Client: There’s a problem with the Sumatra.

Me: Huh?

Client: A customer complained about it.

Me: What did the customer say?

Client: They said, “It tastes like crap.”

Me: Do you think it tastes like crap?

Client: I haven’t cupped it.

I was, to put it mildly, fairly disappointed in this dialogue. And not just because the customer was voicing a second-hand complaint without having cupped the coffee himself.

What bothered me most was the vagueness of the language used to describe the problem. What kind of crap did the coffee taste like? Was it fresh, pungent crap? Or were we talking about old, dusty crap left on the crumbling wooden steps of some ghost town saloon? Was it from a cow, a pigeon or a llama? Where was the objectivity? What kind of way is that to describe the organoleptic experience of drinking coffee?

At that time, I’d been in coffee since the early nineties, and had been running my own import business for about a year. While the bulk of our transactions were conducted without any quality disagreement, the few problems that came up were costly and frustrating to all parties concerned. As a coffee vendor, I had clients describe crisp, bright Costa Ricas as sour. Others had waxed poetic about the sweetness and (good grief) “richness” of three-year-old coffees I’d put on the table as an example of full blown baggy taint. Even when we seemed to agree on the relative quality of a coffee, the language used to describe the experience was entirely subjective.

As a former English major, I could appreciate the creativity brought to bear on the cupping experience. As a trader selling specialty products for razor thin margins based on subtle flavor nuances, I was distraught. I knew that somehow we needed to come up with a way of talking about coffee that didn’t make us all sound like overly creative people with too much time on our hands: we needed a common language for describing and qualifying the various attributes that make up our coffee-tasting experience.

Enter The Q.

At the Head of the Q

When I first heard about the Coffee Quality Institute’s (CQI) work on creating a protocol for preparing and (just as importantly) qualifying the attributes of coffees, I was eager to learn more.  It seemed to me that having a rigorous protocol used by everyone in the coffee value chain could help minimize disagreements over quality, and make all of our jobs a bit easier.

From early on, the Q Coffee System put an emphasis on consistency and quality, as well as on creating an accountable, regulated system for cupping and evaluating coffee.

On the coffee side, a coffee can be certified, receive a Q Certificate, and become a Q Coffee if three independent Q Graders deem it as specialty quality, and its green aspect meets the specialty standard.

On the cupping side, there are the Licensed Q Graders, professional cuppers accredited by the CQI. In order to earn their certification, Q Graders must pass a rigorous exam on 22 coffee-related subjects, such as green grading, roast identification, coffee cupping, sensory skills and sensory triangulation.

They must also be able to expertly use the SCAA cupping form to give numerical scores to coffees’ various olfactory, tactile, and flavor components. I have to admit that this form was daunting to me at first, since the math section of my brain is a dark and quiet place. However, after using the form in my own lab on a daily basis, I became comfortable with the minutiae of the SCAA cupping system surprisingly quickly. I was ready—or at least hoped I was—to find out if I could actually cup.

So when I learned that the first Q-Grader Course was going to be offered in Long Beach, I signed up immediately. I figured if I was going to lament about the lack of objectivity in cupping, I had to be a part of efforts to move in the direction of clarity.

The course itself was surprisingly well organized and well thought out for what was, ultimately, a shake-down cruise. While the “entry level” assessments of olfactory and taste perception were nerve wracking, I was particularly geeked on the opportunity to cup a range of coffees from single origins and discreet regions. I realized that this experience did more than just tell me whether or not I could taste the difference between a Bing cherry and rotten beef; it helped put the different coffees of the world in perspective. As a group, we were being asked to hold all coffees to a standard of quality, regardless of whether we “liked them” or not.

As one of the first few people to go through the program, I was later asked to assist with Q-Grader courses at origin, and eventually became a Q-Instructor. Since then I’ve taught Q-Grader courses on four continents, working with producers, exporters, other importers, roasters and baristas. I’ve remained closely involved with the Q-Grader process because there are numerous benefits to people along the chain when we all use the same language to talk about quality.

All Along the Coffee Chain

As I mentioned earlier one of the advantages of the Q Coffee System is that it provides a consistent, calculable set of terms and standards that can be used by everyone, no matter where they fall on the coffee chain.


First of all, the program has the potential to empower producers. In the past when I visited coffee producers, it could be difficult to talk about the quality of the coffee because many of them had never really tried their own product. Those few who had tasted the fruit of their labors used different roasting and cupping protocols, leaving us talking about very different coffee experiences. Things became even more awkward when trying to discuss any given coffee in the context of other origins. How can you explain the lemon and bergamot notes of a great Yirgacheffe to a Honduran coffee producer who has never had coffee from outside his own country—or for that matter has never consumed earl grey tea?

With the advent of the Q-Grader courses at origin, we now have exporters and producers around the world who cup their own coffees according to a clear protocol, and have tasted the coffees with which they are competing for specialty coffee dollars. These Q-Grader cuppers are an invaluable resource to me as a buyer, because I can succinctly explain how I want the coffee to perform, and they can cup to that profile and send me only samples which have a reasonable shot at being approved.


Traders can also benefit from using the Q protocols. One way that I’ve used the Q to make my job as a buyer more efficient is to work with Q-Graders at origin to determine the premiums we pay for micro lot coffees. When we agree to purchase coffee from a producer group at an exceptional premium, we are compelled to make sure that our buyers are being rewarded for supporting that producer by receiving a truly great cup of coffee.

In the past, the analysis of such coffees opened the door for debate. If my cuppers rejected the coffee based on its failure to reach a certain cup quality, growers were left wondering if we had a problem with the coffee, or with our cash flow. Now, we have our relationship coffees, Q-Graded by in-country cuppers, and the premium we pay is determined by the score the coffee achieves. We feel comfortable paying the premium based on this analysis because we know that Q-Graders are well calibrated. The growers feel confident in the results because third party cuppers have evaluated the shipment using standards we all understand. Our clients also enjoy the additional assurance that it’s not just our salespeople using their Jedi mind control on them, (“This is the coffee you’re looking for.”) because someone not employed by us has cupped and graded the coffee.

Booking Q-Certified coffees also benefits importers and roasters because it allows us to book coffees based on very specific profiles, and sign a contract based on clearly defined attributes. Historically, importers of specialty coffee have found themselves buying coffees according to one set of very detailed flavor criteria, and then signing contracts that only specify that the coffee must be “clean and sound.”

Many importers pay a premium for coffees to hit a clearly defined profile. When coffees show up lacking something in the cup—maybe the acidity isn’t as focused as it should be. Maybe the coffee lacks sweetness—we are not in a position to simply take a discount on the delivery. Our clients don’t want two cents off the price of the coffee. They want it to taste a certain way. This puts everyone in an awkward position, because the vendors have technically delivered a clean and sound coffee that specialty roasters can’t use.

Prior to the advent of Q-Grading my team and I tried to address the issue by sending samples of the unacceptable coffee back to origin for cupping. Usually, the response was “Tastes fine to us.” Buying Q Coffees helps eliminate that risk and confusion in two ways:

• First of all, the coffees are purchased based on more detailed criteria than in the past. As mentioned earlier, most of the exporters we work with now have Q-Graders on staff, who can cross-reference our descriptions of what we need with their own database of cupping results. They then send samples of coffees most likely to fit our profile.

• The second benefit of the system comes when we receive a questionable sample. Rather than simply argue the point with our vendors, we can have the coffee sent to Q Graders for analysis. Both the exporter and the buyer can have confidence in the results of that third party cupping, rendering it much easier to agree on the next step.

I’m not saying that the Q-Grader certification is a universal solution for the coffee industry. We will not, overnight, transmogrify the art of cupping into a hard science carried out by chemical analysis. We will not eliminate all debate about where exactly the line between lush acidity and ferment rests. Sadly, there will always be the occasional call from a disgruntled buyer claiming “the coffee tastes like a donkey’s butt.”

However, Q-Grading coffees allows us to all speak a common language that empowers producers by giving them a stronger sense of their buyer’s needs and their coffee’s value. It allows the system to operate more efficiently by allowing buyers to communicate their tastes more clearly, to vendors who use the same criteria to talk about quality. Finally, it offers a market mechanism that allows us to create specialty contracts based on very specific attributes, secure in the knowledge that debates about the value of the product can be mediated by third party cuppers who understand the system.

Craig Holt is a specialty coffee importer from Seattle who is easily annoyed. He is slightly ashamed of his affinity for Pop Tarts.