Making the grade: Tony Sleiman from Circa examines beans for defects.
Making the grade: Tony Sleiman from Circa examines beans for defects. Photo: Simon Schluter

Matt Holden

Think of it as Survivor with coffee: a six-day course, including 22 tests - and you have to pass them all to earn the coffee world's coveted Q Grader certification.

There are 84 Q Graders in Australia and 2700 in the world: that's out of 5700 who have taken the course since it was created by the Coffee Quality Institute, an offshoot of the Specialty Coffee Association of America, 12 years ago.

The original motivation in developing the course, says the Coffee Quality Institute's Craig Holt, was to improve the lot of coffee farmers.

''The idea was that if growers knew how good their coffee was they could capture more of its value rather than seeing that flow to someone else down the supply chain.''

The course is now taken by people working throughout the coffee industry.

Holt, from Seattle, was in Melbourne to take 15 Australians through the course, including baristas, coffee roasters and cafe owners.

They were subjected to olfactory calibration using the Nez du Cafe kit - 36 small bottles of standard aromas ranging from leather to steak and hay as well as fruits, vegetables and coffee defects - and spiked beans to identify taints such as ferment caused by over-ripe cherries and phenolic flavours caused by mould.

There's visual grading of green beans to identify defects including insect damage, hollowed and broken beans, and one of the most serious, black bean, caused by over-ripe and rotten cherries: one black bean (easy to spot - they're black) can affect a whole 60-kilogram sack.

''They're called stinkers,'' says Holt. If even one gets in the grinder - ''Phew!''

Tony Sleiman of Circa Espresso in Parramatta was one of those attempting the course. ''It's about developing a sensory memory, and allowing you to label things that you taste and smell in a common language, and put those things together.''

The toughest part, say Ricardo Martinez, of Marrickville's Cafe 2204, and Callum Oliver, of Collingwood's Proud Mary, was the sour-sweet-salty sensory test.

''Particularly when you have the three flavours in the same cup and have to identify the different degrees of each,'' says Oliver.

Jen Murray, a Q Grader and green bean buyer for 5 Senses who helped run the course, says the triangulation is also difficult: students are presented with six sets of three coffees and have to identify the odd one out. ''It's challenging because many of the coffees are very similar,'' she says.

Only six of the group passed - among them Olivia Carson, who works in customer support for 5 Senses.

Carson says she found the physical and emotional strain tough.

''To put yourself up to be tested is emotionally hard. We're usually the people who speak with authority about coffee. And it's hard to drink coffee after coffee - it becomes very tiring. One person said they felt like they had been licking carpet.

''This is the highest certification in our industry, and having it adds to my credibility and allows me to speak with more confidence and authority,'' Carson says.

Says Holt: ''Talking about green coffee, people used to say, 'This is crap'. But what kind of crap? With Q Grader certification, we have a common language and grading system for use throughout the coffee world.''