We are extremely excited to announce that our very own Savannah Phillips—charged with the critical task of quality assurance here at Cafe Virtuoso—has just become a licensed Q Grader! Not only am I honored as the owner of Cafe Virtuoso to have such an expertly-skilled and remarkable employee enabling us to procure even higher quality and better-tasting coffee, but also I’m so very proud because she’s my daughter and a strong woman elevating the coffee industry.
That being said, it’s fair to say that not everyone knows exactly what being a licensed Q Grader means or the level of importance it carries. I thought, who better to explain than Savannah herself? We discussed this just after her return from Portland, Oregon where she spent a full week working her way through a series of arduous assessments in order to attain this distinguished title.
Laurie: So I suppose my first question should be, “what exactly is a licensed Q Grader?”
Savannah: The easiest way to describe it like being a wine sommelier, but for the specialty coffee industry. Specifically, a Q Grader is an individual that has received extensive training and has been assessed and awarded a license from the Coffee Quality Institute (CQI) on his or her ability to rate and determine the quality of specialty-grade Arabica coffee beans through smell and taste.
Breaking it down, we learn olfactory (smelling) and sensory analysis skills, cupping protocols, how to triangulate coffees (find the “odd one out” in between three different coffees), how to match organic acids, and how to identify sample roasts.
It’s also important to note that Q Graders like myself work only with Arabica beans. As for those trained in grading Robusta coffee, the term “R Grader” is given.
Laurie: That brings up a question I get asked occasionally. Could you briefly touch on what the difference is between Arabica and Robusta coffee?
Savannah: Absolutely. There are two main species of coffee that are cultivated. Arabica is the most popular of the two and accounts for more than 60 percent of coffee production around the globe. The main reason it’s more popular because it has much more complex, desirable, and varying flavor profiles. Like wine, hundreds of flavors are possible ranging from caramel and chocolate to blueberries, stonefruit, and citrus. These and many more can all be part of a high-quality Arabica coffee flavor profile depending on the origin and how the coffees are roasted to best bring out their unique characteristics.
Robusta coffee, while having more caffeine and less acidity overall, tends to be less desirable because of the bitter flavor and is much less complex. Robusta is oftentimes used for instant coffee or as a filler in lower-quality coffee blends.
Laurie: So as far a Q Graders go, why are they relevant or should be considered important to the average coffee drinker?
Savannah: That’s a really great question. First off, times have changed tremendously regarding what the average coffee drinker now knows about coffee and expects how it should taste. We’ve come a long way as consumers who not that long ago mostly drank what is considered to be average “diner coffee”. Today, there is much higher-quality coffee available (known as specialty grade). Q Graders are in part responsible for indirectly bringing this extensive knowledge and higher standards to the average consumer by way of boutique third-wave coffee shops and roasters that has ultimately shifted the entire global coffee market.
The reason that Q Graders remain vitally important to coffee drinkers is that they are trained based on set benchmarks established by the Coffee Quality Institute and by the Specialty Coffee Association. This allows us to measure coffee’s quality and be able to speak about it with other coffee professionals around the world in a manner that is always consistent and understood by everyone. While identifying and labeling defects and undesirable characteristics are extremely vital, another important role for Q Graders is the ability to continue to discover the best coffee producers around the world. That way the new “average Joe” always gets the best “cup of joe” possible.
I’ve realized coffee for me has become my obsession. It’s just so damn complex. The minute I think I know all there is to know, there’s something new that is discovered. This fuels my desire to constantly keep learning more about coffee as the industry itself continues to grow and evolve. Another bonus side effect is that for us as a company it ensures that Cafe Virtuoso is consistently roasting, delivering, and brewing the best quality organic coffee to all of our customers both on the retail and wholesale side.
Laurie Britton is the founder & CEO of Cafe Virtuoso. Certified organic from day one, Laurie founded Cafe Virtuoso in 2008 with the vision of bringing a level of quality to coffee and tea previously unavailable in San Diego. Her passion and dedication ensures each business decision is based on being socially and ethically responsible and is acutely involved in every aspect of what it means to be truly sustainable.
Savannah Phillips leads quality assurance efforts at Cafe Virtuoso. Savannah’s most recent endeavor is founding the San Diego Coffee Training Institute (SDCTI), a non-profit organization that aims to empower and elevate vulnerable populations (homeless, foster care youth, previously incarcerated individuals, and others) to self-sufficiency through the advancement of coffee. These students receive specialized training in the form of SCA certified classes, workforce skills and job placement. For more information about SDCTI, visit SDCTI.org