Coffee is everywhere. It is ingrained in our culture, and our daily lives. From fast-food drive-through to your kitchen, chances are that you aren’t far from it. As part of Coffee Props, our main focus is on that small percentage of coffee that is considered “Specialty Coffee.”
Specialty coffee is defined as the best of the best in the coffee world. That doesn’t mean much without a way of quantifying, or grading coffee. Thankfully, the Specialty Coffee Association of America has stepped in to help create a standard so that the coffee industry can define Specialty Coffee exactly.
Let’s get nerdy.
The SCAA developed a system called “Q-Grading.” This is a series of metrics that will help the industry to grade different coffee against each other, to discover what makes the cut to be considered Specialty Coffee. Q-grading combines both objective and real measurements with subjective sensory traits. There is a very rigorous training program for those who wish to become Q-graders, and it is an ongoing training once that certificate has been earned. Graders must ‘recalibrate’ to each other frequently, to make sure that they are all in agreement on the results of a coffee even while they are in different countries.
This program is actually so well managed, that Q-graders are able to get results +/- 1 point of each other. This is over a system of 1-100, so the margin of error from one q-grader to another is 1%. That is a tremendous feat.
So what does Q-grading do for the coffee industry?
Coffee isn’t grown in most regions that are consuming the beverage, so it is important that a system is in place to buy, import and roast coffee from around the world. If a buyer in Brazil is grading a coffee, they can relay that information to an end user in the US, and they can decide if they should purchase that coffee, or look for another. When the coffee is received stateside, we can feel confident that we have made an educated purchase.
Great, Q-grading is for buyers, and roasters. What can it do for YOU?
Q-grading does not end with industry professionals. There are resources for roasters to submit their roasted samples to a company, who will blindly taste the coffee and give it a grade. These are called sensory evaluations, and they are a great way to convey to consumers what they can expect prior to buying a product. The largest and most respected resource is Coffee Review. Coffee Review regularly does grading for roasters around the world, and they publish the results for their consumer base. This assures buyers that they are getting a high quality product, and it can even help you find some great coffee that you may not otherwise have known about.
By the Numbers
Can we get a frame of reference for these numbers? Any coffee that is rated by 80 or above defines Specialty Coffee. This rating is assigned at the point of purchase, by Q-graders. This doesn’t mean that your roaster will take a 90 point green coffee and roast a 90 point final product. In fact, it is quite possible that they won’t even come close. Many factors in the roasting process can affect the final product, and this could cause a much lower grade. It is also possible that a lower-graded green coffee can be treated perfectly by the roaster and surprise us all with a great grade.
It is a huge accomplishment to have a coffee achieve a 90+ rating, and you can see some examples of that by checking out some of the ratings on coffeereview.com.
At Branch Street Coffee Roasters, we recently decided to send our first sample of coffee to be professionally graded. We did this to gauge our roasting, and to ensure that our product was standing up to the quality that we are consistently trying to achieve. We were more than satisfied with the results, and it has given us a metric to strive for with all of our coffee. We can promote that coffee to our clientele, and they now have an expectation by seeing that number. It also encourages us to keep striving for the high ratings, and continue sending samples to ensure that we are always earning that mark.