Common Ground: The South African Q-Grader Candidates

Tuesday, 15 April, 2014

Ok so you've landed the dream coffee trip to the 'birth place' of the bean, how did that come about?

Cuth: I’ve been wanting to do this for the last two years and thanks to Bean There’s connections I managed to land a spot on a course in a country that was fairly close to home.

Cuth sent me a what's app asking if I would like to do my Q grader in Ethiopia. I really didn't need to think about it, I was there! Through a series of fortunate events I was able to raise the money and graciously given leave by TriBeCa to join her. On the 29th of March we were off to Addis! I didn't want to go all that way just to do the course so we spent an extra week and Bean There facilitated a trip for us to head down to Sidama to look at the co-op that they get their organic fairtrade coffee from.

And was it everything you dreamed?

Cuth: I’m not sure what I dreamed it would be - I knew the course would be hard work and yup, hard work it was. Beyond that I didn’t have any expectations.

Matt: It was everything and more! On my 2011 expedition we were denied access to Ethiopia so I was really bleak, so to be able to fill in that piece really was something I have wanted to do for a long time. It is such an amazing country that is SO different to the rest of Africa.

How did the Q Grading testing go?

Cuth: Tough. Some tests you can study for, some tests you just end up rolling with the punches.

Matt: Tough as nails!! We practiced and trained quite hard before we left most mornings meeting at various locations around JHB at 7am. but still when you are in a foreign country with strangers that are becoming friends, in the Ethiopian Commodity Exchange building from 8am-6pm with a 45min break everyday for 6 days it cracks you a bit. Aside from that it was amazing and the test went well.

Cupping in a dark room with one red light. Why? Because we tough like that.

Is there any way you can try make the average coffee drinker understand what the Q Grader cupping qualification is all about and the purpose of going through this process?

For me, it’s given me a foundation for understanding the concept of quality and reminded me that there is an objective aspect to that - I will always tell people not to discount their own preferences, not to let anyone tell them how to drink their coffee - but now, if you ask me “Is this speciality? Is this a quality coffee?” I’ll be much clearer in responding yes or no. Not many coffee professionals ask that kind of question though, so much of our coffee culture seems to be based on our own personal preferences - or the preferences of the latest coffee celebrity. I feel like I’ve tethered myself to something a little more objective now rather than referencing myself against someone else’s opinion.

Matt: It's all about learning an international language. Coffee is scored on a scale of 0-100. 0 would be coffee that you wouldn't even consider calling real coffee it's so bad, 100 would be a sensory organism. So the purpose of the course is to teach us how to scientifically measure that scale and be able to Q (quality) grade a coffee.

The Ethiopian Coffee Roaster

The farmer grinding the freshly roasted beans.

Was there a particular coffee that blew you away?

First cupping we tasted a Colombian Geisha coffee … hell yeah!

Matt:  So many! There was on one of the first tables that we cupped a Colombian Geisha, floral, sweet, gentle, loving, caring, watered by baby angels tears of joy. Then in Sidama at the washing station one of the farmers made us coffee by hand he hulled the green bean, roasted it, ground it and then served it in a smoke blackened kettle. It wasn't yummy at all but to sit with a farmer at a washing station sharing a cup of coffee was truly an amazing experience.

Tell us a bit about the Ethiopian culture.

Cuth: There are no words. Or there are too many. But mostly there are too many questions.

Matt: One of the things that stood out to me is that they are a very affectionate culture hugs and kisses all round. They boast about a few things, their calendar has 13 months in a year and this year is 2006 for them so when we left we were reminded that we will be older when we return to SA. They have never been colonized, this made the language barrier a lot harder to cross than most places and most food orders would be done by looking around the restaurant at other customers plates, pointing to what we liked and showing two fingers to order two plates of what ever that deliciousness was.

Describe for us the character that had the most impact on you

Cuth: Just one? The trip was a whirlwind of people who were kind and funny and hospitable and inspiring.

Matt: This is an impossible question to answer. So many people played such a big roll in this trip from Lovely Linda, one of Bean There's amazing Ethiopian team who met us at 11pm at the airport to give us local cell phones to the students that we became friends with on the course. Samuel, one of our instructors who is from the US who moved to a coffee farm in Guatamala and then to China to open a successful coffee chain in China and the US. Our translator in Sidama who gave more hugs than Wayne Obi after a few beers, which I didn't know was possible, the amazing coffee farmers dedicated to making the best coffee.

As a coffee professional, were there any new things that you learnt?

Cuth: I learnt things I didn’t even realise I needed to know - things I’m not even sure I can quantify. I felt like I had a decent handle on what the coffee world was about, the people involved, a fair understanding of their motivations, a workable understanding of quality … this reminded me I am a toddler in nappies stumbling around in my parents shoes pretending to be a grown up.

Matt: Wow, so much. I am reminded often that the world of coffee is a big place, there will never be a point that I can sit back and say "I know everything about coffee now." One key lesson that I can share is that speciality coffee is named so because it is special and it is worth paying for. As a buyer, roaster, barista or consumer to spend the extra money to get the better coffee is going to change the game. We were given a sample of naturally processed coffee from Yirgacheffe that came second at the EAFCA taste of harvest. When I got home I roasted it and tasted it, in an instant I was transported in my mind back to the rainy mountains and remembered the care and effort that each farmer took to make that coffee so yummy that it would blow you away. I think it is fair to reward a farmer for that. Apart from that you get to drink more yummy coffee and we all need more yummy coffee in our lives.

Did you learn any surprising things about each other, I know you've been on a long coffee journey together already.

Cuth: Fun Fact - Matt is a strange, complex 16 year old girl. And it was an absolute privilege to travel with him :) Thanks Matt.

Matt: Cuth has always been my coffee hero, to pilgrimage with her to the birth place of coffee was great. I learnt that she can't say no to coffee. No matter the time, place or quality (or lack there of) the only thing that changes is the quantity of sugar added.

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