What’s it like being Q Grader?
Q grader is not a job in itself, so it depends on what you do with it. In my case it involves daily tastings – cupping samples of every single batch of coffee that we roast – along with a sample of the previous batch for consistency’s sake – and ensure we are happy with the way all our coffees taste before we send them out. I usually have to taste more than a hundred cups a day! Luckily I don’t need to drink them to the last drop, otherwise I wouldn’t have survived this far.
It can be much more glamorous, too. Imagine waking up at the heart of the jungle in Peru, opening your shutters and looking at the sun rising over a mountain range, knowing that you are about to spend the day tasting some fantastic coffees... A dream come true.
How do you become a Q Grader?
The Q grading system was created by an international NGO called the Coffee Quality Institute (CQI) aiming, amongst other things, to create a universal and fair way of assessing coffee quality.
To earn the arabica Q grader certification you need to pass a series of twenty tests covering a wide array of subjects from general coffee knowledge to various sensory abilities.
When did you realise you wanted a career in coffee?
Several years ago, I landed a job in a cafe called Taylor Street Baristas in London. There, I was introduced to the speciality coffee culture with a predominant Australian third-wave influence. For me it was more about the people and the general mind-set than the taste of coffee itself. It felt like the speciality coffee industry cared about all its people; from producers to baristas and customers, and everybody seemed to be willing to work hand-in-hand for the greater good.
Nowadays profitability is gaining ground over ethos in a lot of industries, but I hope the speciality coffee industry will somehow stay true to itself and not become solely profit-driven at the expense of human lives.
Can you explain the perception of taste?
It’s your brain making sense of nervous signals coming from your mouth and the back of your nose. They are trying to figure out what you are about to ingest. This is why training your memory (and more specifically associative memory) as well as paying more attention to what you are experiencing are key to become better at tasting and make sense of it. Everyone can do it.
What’s the most extraordinary coffee you have ever tasted?
Hands down, a Geisha varietal from La Esmeralda estate in Panama. It was an incredibly sweet coffee with marvellous flavours - one for the ages.
How should someone begin getting familiar with tasting coffee?
In “to get familiar with tasting coffee” there is “to get familiar with tasting”. It sounds obvious, but we mostly don’t pay attention to what we taste. Our brains go through a short check-list and in a split second we know whether we like something or not. Then we naturally move on; we focus on what somebody is saying, check our phones or start thinking about other things. The first step is becoming more mindful of our sense of taste.
When it comes to coffee specifically, try and taste as many as possible over time, and try to remember what you tasted and compare it. Good questions to start with are: What are the similarities? What makes them taste different from one another? What makes you like or dislike them? Don’t let anybody tell you what tastes good and what doesn’t, keep an open mind and find out what works for because at the end of the day your sense of taste is unique to you and you don’t need to conform.
When you source coffee, what are you looking for?
Sourcing coffee is complex and multi-dimensional – we predominantly look for the potential to establish an ethical and sustainable relationship as a starting point. Coffee quality is also extremely important; you can’t run a successful business if nobody is willing to buy your product. To that end, we will look for attributes that fulfil very specific purposes, for example: do we need to find a chocolate-y coffee for our next blend? Do we want to find a rare and outstanding coffee lot? Or do we want to offer a light and refreshing filter?
What kind of roasting profile do you aim for at Union Hand-Roasted?
The kind of profile that will make people enjoy drinking our coffees and come back for more, hence we have different roast profiles for different palates, ranging from light “Scandinavian” style to darker, more developed coffees. I don’t think roasteries need to be one-dimensional, although it certainly feels like there is a push in that direction.
Have you been designing espresso blends lately?
I am currently working on a new blend that you might see at the London Coffee Festival. We want this blend to be easy to work with from a barista’s perspective and produce a very sweet and balanced cup of coffee with a lively acidity and a smooth, coating body.
We selected two components from two neighbouring countries in South America; the first is a heavy-bodied and chocolate-y coffee from Brazil, whilst the second is a bright and sweet lot from Colombia. Both were washed in the same way for a better synergy.
Blended post-roast, they complement each other extremely well and extract in nearly identical ways to produce a very balanced and even espresso.
What would be your last cup of coffee on earth and who would you share it with?
A nice and balanced filter coffee produced by the Esquipulas cooperative in La Libertad, Huehuetango (Guatemala). I’d love to sit there with Iliana Martinez, the cooperative manager, and simply look back at the journey they have been on over the last ten years and the fantastic impact that growing speciality coffee has had on people lives over there. That would allow me to come to terms with never drinking coffee again.
Is your tongue insured and for how much?
No it is not –let me talk to my boss and I’ll get back to you before the LCF next year!
Want to take it one step further and experience taste like a Q Grader? Union Hand-Roasted will be hosting a new sensory tasting experience at The London Coffee Festival 2018. Stay tuned for the full announcement coming soon.