A Word from our Roaster

The Coffee Quality Institute Q Grader Certification is a 6-day course (3 days of pre-test and 3 days of testing) where a candidate must pass 22 tests to become a certified Q Grader. The tests relate to the candidate’s ability to accurately and consistently cup and grade coffee according to the Speciality Coffee Association (SCA) cupping and grading standards and protocols, including a thorough understanding of the SCA cupping form.


In order to succeed, candidates must be able to accurately identify the full range of flavors, aromas, and acids found in coffee. Becoming a Q Grader is considered to be the most difficult certification in the coffee industry and is often compared to a sommelier in the wine industry.  According to the CQI, as of March 2017, there are 4,812 Q-Graders worldwide and only 439 in the US. To put that in perspective, there are more professional athletes in the United States than there are Q-Graders in the world.


This February, our roaster David Pittman became a certified Q-Grader.



In the fall of 2001, I stood on top of a mountain in North Georgia and looked down into a steep ravine, thinking that if I fell down the ravine I might break my leg and have a honorable way out of Army Ranger School.  I was on day 33 of the 61-day course, and had just been told by the Ranger Instructor (RI) who had graded my patrol that I had failed.  He went on to add that I not only failed, but questioned how I had made it this far into the course. I was tired, hungry and defeated. As badly as I wanted to admit defeat, I turned away from the ravine and twenty-eight days later I received the coveted Ranger tab during the graduation ceremony.  



David pours water over ground coffee in cupping bowls.


Fast forward 16 years and I am sitting on the steps of of Saint John’s Lutheran Church in Charleston, with my head between my hands and the same feeling of defeat. Ten minutes earlier I had failed the second of 22 tests required to pass the Coffee Quality Institute (CQI) Q-Grader Certification. I had just gotten off the phone with my wife and told her that I did not think that I was going to obtain my Q-Grader license on my first  attempt.


Now I was thinking of how I was going to tell my employer Jonathan Golden, founder and owner of Land of a Thousand Hills, that I had failed the course. Sitting on those steps I recalled that same feeling of defeat 16 years prior and how I stuck it out and eventually graduated from one of the toughest military courses in world. True, a Ranger School candidate is usually sleep and food deprived for 61 days if you’re fortunate to make it on through on your first attempt, but mentally, Army Ranger School and the Q-Grader Course are on equal footing.  The first time pass rate for both courses is about the same at around 50%.  


After clearing my head and shaking off my feelings of failure, I walked back into the training lab to complete the afternoon’s round of tests.  For the next day and a half, I passed 16 out the remaining 18 tests.  Instead of comparing the course to Ranger School, I started comparing it to a round of golf. If I passed a test I used that momentum going forward, and if I failed, I refused to let that failure carry over into the next test. Fortunately in the Q course, unlike competitive golf, we were allowed one “mulligan” per test. After all of the tests were completed everyone had to retake at least one of the 22 tests.  I had to retake four of the twenty-two tests and one by one I passed the remaining four tests and earned my Q Grader License.


David evaluates this coffee sample on the industry-standard score sheet.

David evaluates this coffee sample on the industry-standard score sheet.


So what does it mean to be a Q Grader? Upon passing all 22 tests a professional license is obtained and must be renewed every three years. The Q license is the only universally recognized scoring system for speciality coffee, and it allows the Q grader to assign specialty coffee a grade between 80 and 100. Coffees that score in this range are considered specialty, and any coffee that scores below 80 is considered non-specialty. It is important to grade speciality and non-speciality coffee for two reasons:


  1. Coffees that score in the speciality range tend to bring a premium price and typically the higher the score the higher the price.
  2. Coffees that score below speciality are given a report that provides feedback to the producer on how they can improve their coffee in the future. By grading coffee using the Q grading system the coffee industry continues to improve the quality of coffee around the world.




For Land of a Thousand Hills, having a licensed Q Grader on staff has more benefits than being licensed to evaluate and grade coffee. We have developed a training program for all employees, from our producers in Rwanda to our baristas in our cafés, that ensures we are all speaking a common coffee language.  


Through our quality control program and skills learned in the Q course we are able to provide feedback to Manu Gatare, our agronomist in Rwanda, if there are any issues that need to be addressed to the following year’s crop. For example, with the feedback he receives from our quality control team in the US, he might recommend that the coffee farmer prune their trees prior to the next growing season. Based on these adjustments, the coffee quality improves and the farmer receives a better price based on quality.


At the end of the day, the goal of the Q Grader certification is to provide incentives to farmers to focus on quality and not just quantity, improving the quality of coffee worldwide. This is a win-win for everyone, from the farmer all the way to the consumer, because everyone enjoys a good cup of coffee.


We feature coffee from around the globe, hand chosen and roasted by David. Check out our latest offering here!