Q Grader Testimonial: Sunalini Menon

Sunalini Menon is a current volunteer for CQI which all started with her Q Grader course, exam and eventual certification in Ethiopia. She runs Coffeelab in India.

My career in coffee has been a long and tumultuous one, starting at the Coffee Board of India, as an Assistant Cup Taster. The designation itself had its own issues and problems, with people asking me as to how I could taste cups or whether I had a coffee break all the time and even getting paid for it! However, the Board gave me the opportunity to be trained in coffee tasting for many years, not only within India, but also overseas, which provided me with the foundation to carry out the so called ‘invisible task’ of coffee tasting. I  use the word invisible, as initially when i started my adventurous journey in coffee, very few people in India understood that coffee tasting could be an objective method of evaluating coffee quality, not understanding that with training, experience and of course, with an inborn acuity of taste, one could analyse and decode the inherent quality notes of the coffee cup.

After working for 20 years at the Coffee Board, I moved on to the private sector and developed further expertise in this field of coffee tasting. At the lab “Coffeelab” which I helped to set up, I had to not only hone my skills in tasting, but also had to take on various challenging assignments connected with coffee quality, both within the country and outside the country. I realised that my credibility in tasting could be further enhanced by doing the Q Arabica and Q Robusta grader licensing programmes, which would not only enable me to calibrate my cupping skills with other cuppers from different parts of the world, but would also enable me to assess my own capability in the field of tasting.

I took my Q Arabica grader course and exam in Ethiopia, the birthplace for Arabica coffee, under a very able instructor K.C. O'Keefe. I carried out my exam with a large number of Ethiopians, whom I consider as great cuppers, which fact was also proved during my course and exam. I found the tests very intricate, well developed and constructed and they positively made me understand myself in terms of my ability to cup and in terms of relating my cupping scores to others in the coffee industry. I have just done my recalibration course for the Q grader license, this time in Atlanta, in the U.S., after the SCAA Conference and Exhibition 2016. Here again, my recalibration was done with an entirely different group of individuals, coming from different parts of the world and in different areas of the coffee value chain. A very interesting and challenging calibration and I found that this calibration reinforced my confidence level and the ability to evaluate coffees independently.

As for the ‘Q Robusta Grader course, I took this test in Uganda, the birthplace for robusta coffee. Strangely, I seem to have taken the Q Arabica grader and Q Robusta grader courses, in their respective places of origin, namely Ethiopia for the Q Arabica grader course and Uganda for the Q Robusta grader course!! The course and exam, which were also for a period of 5 days (as in the ‘Q’ grader course) were challenging and my instructor was Miran Oh. It was a stressful, yet interesting week, analysing coffees with the Ugandan cuppers, whom i found were equally talented in the field of coffee tasting. A great experience, which again helped me not only to calibrate with great cuppers in Uganda, but also helped me to strengthen my skills in robusta cupping.

Having these 2 licences of a Q Arabica and Q Robusta Grader has helped me in my profession, as they have helped to strengthen my knowledge base on the intricate quality nuances in the coffee cup and at the same time, has helped me to develop not only confidence in myself, but also to be able to explain to the coffee farmer as to why his coffee secured a low rating or a good rating, besides being able to separate speciality coffees and premium coffees from commercial coffees. It has also helped me to analyse not only the negative aspects of the cup, but also the causes for the various negatives in the cup, how they can be removed from the cup, what are the processing steps that need to be carried out by the farmer to highlight the inherent taste nuances of his coffee beans and most importantly, the action points that the farmer needs to take in order to upgrade the quality of his coffee, to a special, if not a specialty status.

The Q Arabica and Q Robusta courses have certainly impacted me personally, by making me more confident in my profession. Today, I am able to explain with clarity on the taste profile of coffees from different coffee growing regions, not only from India but from other coffee producing origins, and at the same time, infusing confidence in the coffee farmer, in the roaster, in the cafe owner or in the participants, who attend the various training programmes that we conduct at the lab from time to time, that tasting is the ultimate in understanding coffee quality.

I am indeed richer by this experience of securing the Q Arabica and Q Robusta licences and I am thankful to the Coffee Quality Institute for not only empowering me further in my career, but also in helping to establish my tasting credibility in the coffee world.”

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