Dora Jaramillo slides off the top of a wooden box to reveal 36 numbered vials of "perfume." Each number in the kit corresponds to a different aroma commonly found in coffee, some positive (lemon and butter) and some not so positive (medicinal and rubber). These codified aromas are part of Jaramillo's professional infrastructure.
As quality assurance manager of Vernon-based Gaviña Gourmet Coffee, Jaramillo, in common with other coffee professionals known as "Q graders" uses a vocabulary based on these aromas to describe coffee.
Worldwide, there are 395 such graders -- coffee buyers and cuppers (tasters) who have passed an exam administered by the Long Beach-based (CQI), a nonprofit organization that is the educational arm of the Specialty Coffee Assn. of America (SCAA). Of these graders, 11 work in Los Angeles.
Certification means an applicant has passed 22 challenging sensory tests in the course of three days, consistently distinguishing brewed coffees by taste and smell from each major coffee-producing region, and is able to grade coffee using established criteria.
Among the certified graders around town are Jaramillo and purchasing manager Michael Gaviña, who share the Gaviña cupping room; John Gozbekian, director of coffee at LA Mill's roasting facility in Alhambra; Rocky Rhodes, owner of Rocky Roaster in Canoga Park; Jeff Chean, co-owner of Supreme Bean Coffee Roasters in North Hollywood; and at Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf's Camarillo roasting facility, Jay Isais, senior director of coffee, Jesse Martinez, master roaster, and Mark Woods, quality assurance manager.
SAYS Craig Min, LA Mill's chief executive, "There are a lot of great coffee buyers who don't have this certification, but the amount of coffees we're tasting, you do need a system. It serves as a huge benefit to be able to buy efficiently and effectively."
Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf's Isais was inspired to take the test to help elevate industry standards. Supreme Bean's Chean felt becoming licensed was important because he's establishing direct trade with farmers, buying container loads (37,500 pounds) of coffee.
"When we're negotiating with the farmer," Chean says, "I'm qualified to say it's not the grade we requested, or it's better." This objectivity helps ensure fair trade for buyer and seller.
"Individuals who cup and grade coffee in large measure determine the prices paid for the coffees they evaluate," says Ted Lingle, executive director of the CQI. "It's like having an outside Realtor, someone who's trained in appraising value, who gives an opinion about what a particular property's worth."
The CQI expects those it has certified to grade coffee consistently and objectively using its 100-point scale. In a related program, the organization grades coffee beans submitted by growers.
Practically speaking, a coffee that's graded at 79 is worth less than a coffee graded at 89. "Consumers pay for higher quality," Lingle says, "but don't necessarily pay for other certifications, like organic or fair trade."
For the exam, candidates assemble for a battery of tests, including olfactory tests using the standard 36 vials of aromas. Test takers are asked to match like aromas, drawn from four aroma groups.
The triangulation skills test is a brewed-coffee shell game. Faced with three cups, candidates must pinpoint which coffee's origin is not the same as the others.
"It could be three coffees from the same region of Colombia, but one's from a different farm," says K.C. O'Keefe, who until recently oversaw L.A. quality control for Intelligentsia Coffee & Tea but has relocated to Washington state. "You have to get five out of six sets to get it right."
Green grading requires candidates to sort through 350 grams of unroasted beans for defects and cleanliness. This part of the exam mirrors a function of green coffee buyers, who work to remove black or brown beans, foreign objects and beans with insect or fungus damage.
"CUPPING" IS when coffee tasters measure the consistency of multiple cups of the same brewed coffee, keeping in mind the aroma, flavor and body. For the cupping test, candidates simultaneously grade blind samples of five brewed coffees using the 100-point scale.
Candidates discuss tastes and aromas, grades are averaged, and scores too far from the mean ensure failure.
Chean says cupping offers a unique challenge. "You have to divorce yourself from what you like."
Any coffee professional is eligible to take the exam, but industry experience doesn't necessarily provide an advantage. Local coffee pros who've passed the test generally agree that it is impossible to study for it.
"It's not a test to prepare for," Rocky Roaster's Rhodes says. "You do it in your daily job and understand it, or you don't."
The SCAA sells handbooks, charts, forms and even the aroma kit, but Chean contends that training might never be enough. "You've got the right amount of taste buds or you don't, and you're in touch with them or you're not."
Passing the test helps to instill confidence in tasters who previously judged coffee without a structured system to support their instincts. The program allowed Rhodes "to be honest and trust myself . . . I taste everything better now. I'm a better wine taster and food taster because I can trust I'm tasting what I'm tasting and am able to communicate that to other people."
And the license carries prestige within the industry. "Until Q grading, there was no objective measure," LA Mills' Gozbekian says. "It doesn't change the way we purchase, roast or blend coffee, but it validates our ability to taste coffee or buy it."
Other highly regarded local coffee professionals say they won't be satisfied until they become Q graders. One aspirant is Intelligentsia's Kyle Glanville, the current United States barista champion.
"It's important because it validates me as a well-rounded coffee professional," Glanville says. "For Intelligentsia, it's important because it says the people who we have tasting and grading coffees, they understand it."
"There are 800 different flavor components in coffee," O'Keefe says. "All customers know is if they like it or don't like it."
If that's too much to contemplate as you grind your morning beans, leave it to the growing cadre of certified pros.