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Saturday, June 29, 2019


Q Grader Savannah Phillips of San Diego
GUEST BLOG / By Laurie Britton--San Diego coffee cognoscenti will note Savannah Phillips, who is charged with the critical task of quality assurance at Barrio Logan’s Cafe Virtuoso (1616 National Avenue), has just become a licensed coffee industry “Q Grader”.

Editor’s note: Reposted from San Diego Beverage Magazine, an all beverage sister publication of West Coaster craft beer magazine and website:

For those of us, who haven’t a clue what a Q Grader does, here’s a quick Q&A article.

Q: 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.

Q: What the difference is between Arabica and Robusta coffee?
Savannah: 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.

Q: Why are Q Graders 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 originally compiled and authored this Q&A.  She is the founder & CEO of Cafe Virtuoso, an organic brand, roaster and coffee house in San Diego, California, which she founded in 2008.   

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

San Diego based Cafe Virtuoso, 1616 National Avenue, Barrio Logan

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