One offering of the NKG PACE program is for the Partners to take the Q Arabica Grader Course at no expense (thanks to the generosity of the CQI and the Atlas instructor, Drew Billups), so that we can add this distinguished credential to our resumes, if we’d like to. While the original plan was for all three of us Partners to take the Q in late March, I had the opportunity to take the course four months early, due to an unforeseen yet exciting circumstance: a baby due around the same time!
Taking this intense exam four months early surely wasn’t in my original plan for completing the PACE program, but I was grateful for the experience, as it challenged me and gave me a glimpse of what a career in QC could look like in the future.
Before the Q Course took place, I spent about eight weeks preparing for it with targeted exercises aimed at training my sensory skills. Some of the exercises were familiar, as they revisited the modules created in the Sensory Kit that was part of the program application process for finalists. Other exercises were introduced to me during these training sessions, many by Amanda Armbrust-Asselin and Gavin Tull-Esterbrook, and the unfamiliarity of the practices worked to broaden my understanding of sensory perception in coffee.
My biggest takeaway from these practice modules was to trust my instincts, as the body will inherently notice subtle differences. Still, my coffee-cupping mindset has a tendency to overthink what I’m tasting.
All the preparation, pep talks and advice from other Q Graders helped to guide me, come the actual testing week, but it’s safe to say that no amount of prep could’ve truly prepared me for the beast that is the Q Course. The CQI succeeded at making it one of the most intense sensory experiences for coffee professionals across the board. You hear a lot about how complex coffee is as a commodity, but the average person doesn’t understand just how complex coffee truly is. The Q magnifies these complexities in a way that could make anyone gain a whole new appreciation for coffee, especially just how much time, effort and energy it takes to get it from seed to cup.
After six demanding days of course work, tasting and more tasting, I made it out alive, having passed 17 out of the 20 tests needed to get my Q Grader certificate. While I was initially disappointed that I didn’t pass all 20 tests, I was met with a lot of reassurance that I still did well, especially taking the Q while pregnant. This reminded me that I needed to give myself some grace, because the Q Course is difficult enough without an added layer of physical complexity. I will say that pregnancy has heightened my senses in ways I would’ve never imagined, so it ended up being more helpful than hindering throughout the week.
The Q Course was not only a great educational opportunity for me, but it was a chance for me to network with other coffee professionals and build new connections. I met so many talented people from all over the world who taught me new things about coffee while validating the skills and experience I already had. The other students represented a vast array of coffee careers, despite how small a group we were, so I was able to learn from a lot of different perspectives.
While taking the Q was supposed to be one of the last educational markers of the PACE Program, the knowledge I obtained taking it feels more like the beginning of a new chapter of my coffee career. Everything I learned during my training sessions, up until the actual course week, helped me to expound on my sensory skills and how I perceive coffee as a whole. Even with more than a decade of experience under my belt, it’s astonishing just how much there still is to learn about coffee.
Finally, one of the best takeaways from the experience is that I’m able to pass on my knowledge to the other Partners, Jayy and Charles, as they prepare to take the course in late March. I may not have my Q Grader certificate just yet, but I do feel a step closer to being a bonafide Quality Control Specialist.
Porttia Portis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.