Tasting Like A Pro: Q-Grading and the Flavor Wheel
Not a lot of people have been in the coffee game as long as I have. But last year, I returned to Northern California, where my obsession with the stuff all began, to become a certified master taster. (You read that right. A master coffee taster is a thing).
After dropping off our brilliant daughter, Cali, at University of California, Berkeley, I'll be heading across the Bay to San Raphael. There, I'll begin my own course of study at the Boot Coffee Campus, a training program that leads coffee fiends like me to the ultimate goal: The Q Grader Certification.
Q-grading, or quality grading, is the process of smelling, tasting, and assessing coffee in order to assign it a specific grade. As outlined by the SCA (that's the Specialty Coffee Association), all coffees are assigned a grade between 1 and 100. Any score above 80 is considered high-quality, specialty coffee. You know, like we sell at San Fran.
But becoming a certified Q-grader takes more than an interest in roasting. At the end of the week, the trainers will put me to the test, and I'll have to smell, taste, and describe coffee in the highly-specific vocabulary of the SCA, as outlined by the Flavor Wheel.
As you can see, there are too many distinct flavors to count. But the job of the Q-grader is to detect with specificity three to four different notes in any given sample.
Of course, flavor is just one aspect of assessing the quality of joe. Q-graders also have to be aware of aroma, body, and acidity, all of which are integral ingredients in a perfect batch. The process in which we examine all of these facets is called cupping.
Here the Q-grader first assesses aroma by examining the green coffee—that is, the beans before they've been roasted. Next is the smell once beans have gone through the roaster, and finally is the brewed liquid. Note that testing aroma is about more than sniffing. You really have to inhale the coffee, and let it pervade your entire palate. That takes a lot of practice.
Body, meanwhile, is all about mouthfeel. Is it light on the palate? Is it heavy or robust? A master taster needs to know the difference, and understand the best body for various types of coffee.
And finally, acidity is all about how much life the coffee has. Is there zing or boldness? Or does it fall flat on the tongue? Acidity plays a major role in defining the quality of a cup.
Maybe you're familiar with the concept of a sommelier, those studious wine professionals who can smell and sip a wine, then describe five or six separate tasting notes. (You might even make fun of them when you pour yourself a glass of merlot). But the truth is, coffee, and its many profiles, can be just as complex as wine. And while I never take myself too seriously, I think of the Q-grading course as my way of proving my coffee tasting acumen. That way, our customers can always be assured that their San Francisco Coffee has been thoroughly reviewed by a set of expertly trained tastebuds.
Still, coffee tasting is not a precise science. It's more like a nuanced art form that's developed through years of experience, which I have, and through some focused study.
There is no perfect equation for determining which coffees are of highest quality, because coffee is so diverse! There are so many ways a cup of coffee can thrill you, and that's what's fun about exploring the flavor wheel and the endless combination of traits. But one thing you can be sure of is that however you like your coffee, whatever combination of factors it has, when you buy from San Francisco Coffee Roasting, it will always be of highest quality. That's because we never stop working to get better at what we do.