Food job diaries: A day in the life of a Q Grader
Eyeing up a career in coffee? You might want to consider taking a Q Grader course. We chatted to qualified Q Grader and coffee buyer Becky Mundy – at Taylors of Harrogate – to find out what a normal day (if there is one!) looks like to her.
So, what is a Q Grader?
A Coffee Q Grader is a highly-qualified and highly-skilled coffee taster. At Taylors of Harrogate, all our coffee buyers train to qualify as Q Graders because a large part of our job involves tasting hundreds of cups of coffee every single day.
As a Q Grader, you’re taught how to grade coffees according to the SCA (which stands for Speciality Coffee Association) scoring system. This system is respected within the global coffee industry, so as a Q Grader, others within the industry really trust your tasting ability.
What does a Q Grader course involve?
It can take up to two years to train for the 18 exams which take place over six days. The exams predominantly involve tasting coffee, but you also have to taste sweet, salt and acid solutions, smell and name a whole host of different aromas present in coffee, take a coffee knowledge test, and physically examine and grade coffee beans.
The course costs a few thousand pounds and is ideal for people working in the coffee industry, who taste on a regular basis. All Q Graders also need to do a recalibration every three years, to make sure their level of tasting is always maintained.
So I’ve got my Q Grader qualification, now what?
I started at Taylors as a trainee and worked here for two years before I took my Q Grader exams. This is how it works for all trainee buyers at Taylors, as you can’t really take the exams without having done long periods of regular tasting beforehand – and we taste coffees every single day.
Becoming a Q Grader is like learning a specific language that the whole coffee industry speaks. In the UK, both coffee buyers and those responsible for coffee quality control are usually Q Graders – you could also become one if your focus of work is in coffee roasting. Also, when we travel to origin to meet suppliers, their Quality Managers are usually Q Graders; this helps us when we’re tasting coffees with them, as we’re both using the exact same scoring system.
What does an average day look like for a Q Grader?
No two days are ever the same as a Q Grader, which is one of the things I love most about my job! We travel around the world to meet suppliers but we’re also sometimes at our desks looking at spreadsheets or in the tasting room.
If I was in the office, my usual day would start at around 8.30am, like most people’s working days…with a coffee, checking emails etc. But the coffee doesn’t stop there. At around 9am, I’ll taste yesterday’s production of coffees, then I’ll meet with the rest of the coffee team to discuss any ongoing projects (we’re currently working on a Limited Edition coffee from Uganda).
Mid-morning, I might call one of my suppliers to discuss how the season is progressing and our upcoming shipments. At 12pm I would usually taste deliveries of coffees arriving to be roasted in the factory tomorrow to make our products, then the rest of the afternoon would probably include more tastings and checking stock levels and upcoming deliveries.
Do you get to travel much as a Q Grader?
On average, each member of the coffee team visits origin (the countries we source our coffee from) two to three times a year for coffee buying trips to meet suppliers, develop relationships with coffee farmers and do lots of tasting.
I’ve previously travelled to Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Mexico, Peru, Nicaragua and Honduras. My last trip was to Rwanda in March during which time I carried out annual reviews of last year’s season with some of our suppliers and did a lot of tasting calibration with Q Graders over there. Ethiopia is one of my favourite places to visit due to its amazing culture, fantastic tasting coffees (with heirloom varieties) and friendly people.
As a trainee, I was lucky enough to spend the most part of six months overseas, spending time on farms, in factories and tasting rooms, immersing myself in coffee and learning so much about the industry, the supply chain and our suppliers themselves.
What’s the best and worst thing about your job as a Q Grader?
My favourite part of my job is the tasting and the incredibly sensory element of it, plus getting to experience this with the whole coffee team and discussing coffees together. I also love travelling to meet our producers at origin and seeing the impact of the work we do out there.
As a lot of my job relies on tasting, I often have to be careful about what I eat if I have an important tasting the next day – anything spicy or very flavoursome is off limits. I’m such a foodie, so this is really hard for me! I remember before my recalibration Q Grader exam, all I could eat was very bland toast.
How many cups of coffee do you drink a day?
I can taste up to 250 cups of coffee a day! The technical term for the tasting process is known as ‘cupping’. It’s similar to wine tasting, because you slurp the coffee then spit it out into a spittoon which prevents us from over caffeinating.
As Q Graders, when we taste, we grade all Arabica coffees with a score between 0 and 100. Taylors of Harrogate only buys coffees with an SCA score of over 80 which makes it speciality coffee. I feel really lucky that I get to taste such high-quality coffees from all over the world every day!
What do you look for in the perfect cup of coffee?
The most important thing is the quality of the beans – they need to be speciality grade and well-roasted. Of course, it’s down to personal preference, but for me, the perfect cup of coffee should have a good complexity with identifiable flavours (it could be chocolate and caramel or citrus fruits) balanced with acidity and sweetness.
Sustainable sourcing is also very important to me. At Taylors we have strong, direct relationships with the producers of our coffee and source in a way that supports them, their communities and the environment.