What It Takes to Become a Coffee ‘Sommelier’

What It Takes to Become a Coffee ‘Sommelier’

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.

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Most coffee professionals who become Q graders work in the industry for years as producers, exporters, importers, coffee buyers, or baristas before they decide to take the exam. Ideally, they work in a role in which they’re already cupping coffee with other experts on a regular basis to compare notes. Nick Terzulli, VP of research and development at Fellow, said, “Before I thought about taking the Q, I had been working in specialty [coffee] as a barista, roaster, and technician for almost 7 years. Even working…for that long, I didn’t know if I was ready.”

Officially, the Coffee Quality Institute, the certifying body of the Q grader exam, doesn’t publish pass rates, though some unofficial numbers online suggest that fewer than 50 percent of students pass the test. Regardless of the exact numbers, though, most Q graders will attest to the fact that the Q exam is far from easy. “It is a difficult test. Most people have to come back and do retakes,” said Emma Sage, the director of education resources at the Coffee Quality Institute.

The test includes a general knowledge exam, a roast identification test, four separate tests involving organic acid detection, and even a portion that involves determining the quality of green, unroasted coffee, among other tests. Jodi Wieser, a Q instructor, said, “The most difficult aspect to the Q course is tasting so many coffees in such a short amount of time. It can be sensory overload for some people.” Terzulli agrees: “You have to train your palate to not give out on you. It’s a combination of mental and physical endurance.” Many Q grader candidates start studying for the exam months in advance, spending hours a week cupping coffee with other professionals and training themselves to recognize certain scents in the Le Nez du Café kit, which helps coffee professionals detect isolated aromatic notes in cups of coffee.

Of course, Q graders aren’t the only drinks industry professionals who must undergo challenging tests to obtain certification. Many of the most respected exams for wine professionals are also notoriously difficult, which is perhaps why Q graders are often compared to sommeliers, the highly trained restaurant employees who help you pick the perfect bottle of wine to pair with your entrée. But although coffee and wine professionals share some of the same skills, they ultimately fill different roles within their respective industries. “While many describe the Q grader exam as ‘like somm for coffee,’ [being a Q grader is] more akin to working as a technician at a winery,” said Christopher Feran, a coffee industry consultant, green buyer, roaster, and lapsed Q grader. “It’s a technical exam focusing on detection and discrimination primarily and description secondarily.” While a somm sells wine to guests by describing its texture and tasting notes, Q graders aren’t visiting you tableside while you sip your coffee—rather, they’re ensuring that the brew at your favorite local coffee shop meets certain quality standards before it even reaches your cup. They’re less interested in discussing the tasting notes of certain roasts with non-coffee professionals and instead assign numerical grades to large batches of coffee.

Many of the Q graders I spoke with agreed that the work they do contributes to better coffee quality, which means a more delicious brew in your cup. But rising quality standards aren’t just about meeting consumers’ desires for tastier lattes; they can also help growers and producers earn more money for their product—higher Q grader scores correlated to higher coffee prices in 2022, in large part because most buyers are willing to pay more for coffee with higher scores. While, yes, this may mean higher prices for consumers, it also suggests a more sustainable and equitable coffee industry in which growers and producers receive fair prices for their crops. The Coffee Quality Institute even claims in their mission statement that their objective is to “improve coffee quality and the lives of people who produce it.”

Not everyone agrees that higher quality standards lead to better outcomes for farmers, though, despite the fact that some growers may be able to charge more for highly scored coffee. Feran told me, “I don’t believe that we can solve the fundamental pressures faced by coffee growers by improving quality. While quality is one part of the puzzle—affording producers an opportunity to earn a better price for the coffee they grow and process—the risks that are, for us, downstream, such as climate change, cost of capital, political unrest, and migration, are perils faced by coffee growers every day. We’re attempting to solve an existential crisis with a neoliberal bandaid.”

Q graders are the people who set the standard for the coffee we all drink, and thanks to them, many of us are drinking much better coffee than what was available on the market in decades past. More important than the coffee itself, however, are the people who provide the world its caffeine fix: the producers. “A better coffee industry is a more equitable one—not just in terms of profits, but in terms of human dignity and social, environmental, and economic sustainability,” said Feran. Whether higher-quality coffee can get us there or not remains to be seen.

How do you judge a cup of coffee? Share your thoughts in the comments!

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