Better Beans: Q Grading, Acidity and Scoring Quality Part Two

In part one I addressed the difference between trade cupping and production cupping. In this part I will address the SCAA's adoption of the Q Graders Certification.

Q Grader Certification Participants first learn to ignore their own preferences and "calibrate" their palette to the SCAA evaluation form. In this way, cuppers become "objective" to the coffee being evaluated through an established set of criteria. For evaluative purposes, the samples must be "correctly" (light) roasted, this being identified as a trade roast so as to not "color" the sample. The form identifies seven areas of evaluation, and a score is used to rate each area. To be "calibrated" means that all evaluators score a sample within a narrow point range.


The evaluative areas are: Fragrance/Aroma; Flavor; Aftertaste; Acidity; Balance; Body and Overall. An evaluator would score each area as they would taste the samples, noting if any cup was off. Coffee samples would be grouped together by geographical region, so you wouldn't compare an African coffee to an Indonesian or Central American. Like is compared against like. Coffees that score above 80 are considered Specialty Grade, with higher scores adding value. Coffees scoring above 90 are considered quite remarkable. If this seems to be a somewhat arbitrary and confusing set of parameters you would be right. How does one score for body, for example? Does more body in a cup result in a higher score? Or balance? What is the difference between Aroma and Flavor? What, if anything, is the guiding principal?

Given that these coffees are trade roasted, one characteristic stands above all the others: acidity. It doesn't take long for participants to figure out this fact, and the kind of acidity that the instructor deems ideal, usually described as juicy. Participants are encouraged to describe the coffee in a manner that suits this model, if you really want to impress find more obscure names for common fruits: quince for apple or pomelo instead of grapefruit. If you are having trouble coming up with a term, just say stone fruit. This accounts for the peculiar practice of Third Wave roasters to feature coffees that sound more like a fruit salad or a package of Starburst than what would traditionally be thought of as coffee. It also explains the rather scripted narrative parroted by so many of today's self-proclaimed coffee snobs.

The argument made in favor of promoting trade roasted coffees is that it more accurately presents the attributes that traditional roasting styles hide and so is in itself a marker of quality. It would be like a person trained to detect flaws in sheet metal insisting that all cars must remain unpainted; then becoming bored with flawless metal and so begin celebrating flaws as evidence of the steel's unique character. The juicy acids that have become so prized have less to do with terroir than with post harvest fermentation. Hence why natural processed coffees, especially from Africa, score so high (and how Brazil's have become specialty). Also why producers may intentionally manipulate the coffee during processing, such as Honey Processed, to increase fermentation.

Because of the trade roasts being used,the point system developed for the Q Graders can best be understood as an acidity index. Certainly this is not the first time our industry has taken a single concept to its extreme . . . much in the way of if dark roast is good, darker roast is better. I spent the first half of my career always hearing that I didn't roast dark enough. Now its that I over-roast. Certainly there have been many  examples of over-roasted coffees, a certain large chain comes to mind, but the notion that a roaster may choose a darker roast only to hide inferior coffees is a fallacy. Defects do not roast away. For years the American coffee market was dominated by mass-marketed commercial canned coffee notable for its very light roast. Were they promoting high quality coffee? Hardly. They sourced the cheapest coffee they could find and roasted as light as they could to save money. There is no one correct roast, light or dark. The correct roast is the one that brings out the best qualities of a coffee.



Now, if acidity is your thing that is fine but there is at issue the entire concept of objectivity with relation to a product. Coffee is not manufactured, it is grown. How it is grown impacts both the environment and the people who live and work there. While no one would argue we need clear quality standards for a coffee to be considered specialty, focusing exclusively on the product too easily ignores the ecological and sociological issues surrounding its production. Worse, it often green washes that same product. One does not have to look far to notice the origin pictures gracing many third wave roasters web sites are often full-sun coffee plantations. And while many of these same roasters tout their Direct Trade arrangements with said plantations, its important to remember that Folgers buys their coffee direct as well. Even if you paid the owner of said plantation a premium price it does not mean that those premiums are in any way shared by those who work there or benefit the community as a whole.

For years, farmers have been told that if they want higher prices for their coffee they needed to improve quality; quality defined largely as grading standards that required the investment of expensive processing equipment. This isolated small farmers who had little access to such equipment. Many of these farmers have come together, forming cooperatives, collectively investing in processing mills to bring their coffee up to the same standards of wealthier plantations. Now they are told this is not enough if you want to add value. Now you need to creat a "micro-lot," a limited amount of bags, and enter it into a competition. Maybe you take extra care with this lot, make a real effort; only to find that the one that wins is a coffee that had some random ferment happen to it. The evaluators go gaga over it. "Is that Muscadine? Jambul? It's so juicy!"

So, does this make the Q Grade score useless? By itself, I'm afraid so, at least from a consumer's perspective. It is useful to those of us in the coffee trade as one part of an evaluative criteria. It becomes problematic beyond the cupping table. A stand out coffee on the cupping table does not necessarily make for a great cup of coffee, as I have said before.  Not only does it favor acidic light roasts over other flavor possibilities, it excludes externalities in its evaluation and so is devoid of values, absent of ethics.

If you had two Central American coffees, one grown in traditional polyculture shade, from a cooperative who invests in their community, versus one from a large, high-density, full-sun plantation that heavily uses agrochemicals to prop up soil depletion, whose owner is absentee; if the former scored an 84 and the latter an 86, which one could truly be said to be the better beans?  How many points would you give for ecological stewardship if such a box existed on the form; what value would you place on democratically run community institutions? Is it a value to you? It is to me. This is not to say that a cooperative coffee is necessarily going to score lower than an estate coffee, our new crop of Peru Andes Gold just scored an 87.5 thank you very much.

There is, of course, a certain attraction to attaching a score to a bag of coffee, not least is the not so subtle connection to coffee's more admired beverage industry: wine. But, unlike wine, coffee's flavor is far more volatile. How many points do we take off for perishability? Is one point a week too little, five points a week too much? How long has that coffee been sitting on the grocery store shelf? Or worse, sitting on an Airport souvenir shelf (seriously, I saw that)? Then again, some of these coffees are so acidic that it takes a week or two from roasting before one can stomach them anyway.

That score is beginning to look about as relevant as the Blue Riboon awarded to Pabst Beer.


23 comments:

Robert Hunt said...

Mark, your critique is one of the most erudite pieces I have ever read on the current coffee culture. You managed to pack more into these two articles than in all the reading I've done in the last year. In essence, you've nailed the problem with the "third wave" as being a thoroughly myopic viewpoint based on the cupping table, not the cuppa that is warming the hands of the customer. I "cup" my roasts by pulling a shot on my aging E91 Diplomat and sipping it hot, warm, and cold. If the swill in the cup is still good after 4 hours, it passes. Anyway, thanks very much. I'm proud to say I'm a Second Waver.

san-ia-soone said...

Mark, thanks for the articles. Brilliant, as always.
I am quite impressed by your cupping videos. Look, if I'd like to reproduce your roast, in one post you said it was more like Vienesse; so it should be approx. the middle of 2nd crack with some oils on the surface? More like Central-Italian roast (in Schomer's terminology)?

san-ia-soone said...

In addition to the above, I live in Russia; that's why I'm asking, because there were no "2nd wave", every "specialty" cafe serves acidic single origin cra... I mean espresso.

Mark Overly said...

Yes, exactly san-ia-soone. You are aiming for the middle of second crack, or about 18% weight loss on average. The challenge is guessing the cooling rate of the roaster you are using. If your cooling rate is quick you can roast just to the point of seeing oils "winking" on the surface. What you are trying to achieve is a balance of flavors, with aroma being the identifying characteristic rather than acid. Too far into the roast the bean structure degrades and then you will have excessive bitterness. Challenging but worth it!

Zach Thalman said...

I honestly didn't know that people were that into their coffee. I don't drink coffee, but I can say that I enjoy the smell a lot. I grew up smelling it almost every morning before going to school. I think smell has a lot to do with the taste because if a coffee has a funny taste, chances are that the coffee will taste funny. I think it is great that they are trying to get the best coffee formula because it is important to get your daily fix. http://fivestarbottledwater.com/coffee.html

Coffeevines said...

That is a nice piece on the robusta culture. Great stuff. I'll share this with my coffee K-Cups in Chicago staff.

Mark Overly said...

Q Grading applies only to Arabica coffee, Coffeevines, there is a separate cupping criteria for Robusta known as R Grading.

Kaypun said...

Yeah, i agree where the coffee grown its affect the coffee acidity.Thanks for this helpful information.

Patrick Booth said...

This was insanely good. Here in New York I can't find a single coffee shop that has coffee roasted to at least Full City. There are coffee shops on every corner, but they all sell cups of vinegar and worse they are pulling light roasted single origin shots of espresso and claiming it the end-all-be-all of coffee. I am sick of it, and have been actually been buying the Starbucks Reserve coffees, which I find much better. I think it was Kevin Knox who was quoting somebody in his blog, but it is so spot on, "Coffee everywhere, but nothing fit to drink."

James Connolly said...

Hi,

Great Blog you'e share very informative information about coffee beans .Keep Sharing..

Patrick Booth said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Patrick Booth said...

I recently watched your cupping videos, which were all incredibly awesome. I learned a lot. Your passion, storytelling, and articulation of all of the aspects were very inspiring. One thing that I noticed that I hope you can speak to for a moment is how imprecise cupping seems to be. No weighing of water, precision of temperature, and furthermore repeated tastings of coffee that has been in contact with grounds for an extended time. Do you worry about over extraction muddling how you taste coffee? Or am I just brainwashed by modern third wave geeks that have sold me on the idea that coffee is endlessly fickle? Thanks a bunch.

saniasoone said...

Mark, what do you think about the new flavor wheel by SCAA?

Mark Overly said...

Patrick: Over extraction results from too much water used through the grounds, not necessarily the contact time. All cupping techniques end up with coffee at the bottom of the cup. Using a coarser grind only floats some of the coffee, not all. If the coffee is fickle, that is a problem with the coffee and this method should expose such defects.

Mark Overly said...

Saniasoone: The new flavor wheel reflects the current infatuation with acidity and blurs the characteristics of taste and aromas. The old wheel separated these two, and explicitly detailed taste faults that can occur. The new wheel overlooks taste faults.

Jr. Williams said...

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Olivia Alexander said...

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roney shaheen said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
roney shaheen said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
mercer854 said...


"Coffee, Coffee everywhere, but not a drop to drink...or why I started roasting my own!

Wonderful article. Thanks Mark for explaining how we got to this point in coffee roasting.

I've been a dedicated coffee devotee ever since 1970 when my brother changed my attitude about coffee as a caffeine delivery system, and awakened me to coffee's potential. So I was excited to read about that 3rd wave about to break here in SW Virginia. How disappointing in reality.

The ultimate expression of this movement here is the 'coffee lab'. This is a 'coffee outreach' educational arm of a local roaster. Run by earnest folks dedicated to converting ordinary coffee drinkers into amateur 'tasters' of 3rd wave roasts. The lineup of coffees they are introduced to are uniformly underroasted coffees. Those 'Trade Roasts'...all varieties get the same treatment. The customers are taught to detect and name the elusive fruity flavor nuances that are faintly present. One gets the impression that good coffee is supposed to be a watery slightly sour herbal tea. Unfortunately, the one flavor that completely eludes our taste and olfactory receptors: Coffee!

It seems that well-meaning neophytes to the coffee process are passing on an arbitrary set of roasting & brewing standards used in SCAA competitions in an effort to distinguish themselves rather than their coffee. And, in so doing, have missed the entire purpose of coffee roasting itself. Which is the sensory pleasure of the coffee drinker. The actual flavor of coffee is the one thing missing! That complex taste we associate with the aroma of freshly ground beans...the taste one gets by chewing the roasted bean itself.

Of course, the solution is to neither arbitrarily roast beans darker and destroy the varietal flavors, or to arbitrarily underroast the bean to challenge the taster to identify its terroir, but to match the roast to a given batch to optimize its potential.

Visiting coffee shops in Italy, Japan, New Zealand and even the U.K. has always been a treat in the past, but I can state w/o reservation that I've yet to have a satisfying cup of coffee at a 3rd wave shop, regardless of brewing method. The exception is Starbucks' nod to 3rd wave. One of their single origin coffees in a ceramic mug is a very nice cup of coffee, but $4.50 for a cup buys me about 12oz of green beans including shipping if I buy in bulk.

So, both my disappointment with the warm lemony tea that the 3rd wave has produced, and the cost to buy a decent cup has had an upside: it motivated me to start roasting my own beans. It's been immensely satisfying. 4th Wave?

Stephen Cassar said...

Thanks for the great article. So many exciting bean options out there. It makes me sad to see friends drink blends. My personal hunt led me to the side of an active volcano in Guatemala tracking down what is still my favorite. I had to figure out a way to help these farmers earn a decent living. Volcandefuego.com. Thanks, and please keep your insight on fair trade (and why it's not really fair) coming.

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