It may be 4 o’clock in the afternoon, but the room is filled with the aromas of freshly brewed coffee. You try to block out the noise of your colleagues slurping brown liquid from spoons dipped over and over again into nondescript white mugs as you struggle to distinguish the variety of flavors and acids in your own cups. You’re nervous, you’re over-caffeinated, and you feel your palate giving out on you. “It's like swimming in a sea of lemon juice—with your mouth open!—which makes it very different to distinguish various acids from each other,” said Kim Westerman, Q grader and founder of Hedonic Terroir-Driven Coffee.
She’s talking about the acid test portion of the Q (quality) grader exam, just one of 22 different tests in an exam designed to assess coffee experts’ palates, skills, and knowledge. During the courses that precede the exam, students learn “how to evaluate coffees objectively while utilizing standardized [and] globally recognized methods,” said Eric Schuman, a Q grader who works as the roaster partnerships manager at Fellow, a company that sells high-end coffee gear. Once a candidate passes the exam, they are known as a Q grader, which indicates that they’re a coffee expert versed in ascertaining coffee quality. The Q graders I spoke with agreed that the qualification affords coffee professionals more influence and prestige in the industry and can help establish increased confidence while cupping, or tasting, coffee. But it’s not as simple as understanding the merits of Blue Bottle over Folgers or refusing oat milk in favor of black coffee—the road to becoming a Q grader is a long and arduous one, full of obstacles that few of us coffee proletariat can truly grasp.