men and women posing for a photo in Yahava coffee brewery

Sweet, Sour and Salt: An exploration into our senses.

This week we had the pleasure of doing some palate training with David Boudrie of FTA Coffee. He put a group of us at the Swan Valley store through a mock test which is part of the Q-Grader assessment. Q-Grader certification is an internationally recognised exam that tests a number of aspects of a coffee professional’s palate, as well as being able to visually identify defects in green and roasted coffee. Those who pass can accurately assess and grade the quality of Arabica coffee to an agreed industry standard. There are only around 6000 certified Q-Graders world wide, and the course takes a week of intensive learning and testing to complete. Quite often with our limited release coffees, we may mention a Q score for the coffee – this is a score on a scale with a maximum 100 points, with coffees 80+ being considered Specialty Coffee, and very few coffees scoring 90+. These scores are calculated based off a number of different aspects of the coffee, which you can accurately assess if you’re a qualified Q-Grader.

This test consists of three rounds – with each round getting progressively harder. In the first round, you are given 3 sets of 3 cups. These sets of cups have water in them, which has been spiked with sweet, sour or salt flavour. You are told which set is sweet, sour and salty, but your job is to identify the intensity of the flavour. While you’re doing this test, you also have to get a feel for what the different intensities taste/feel like – so that you can use this information for later tests. You need to get 100% in this test for a passing mark.

The second round is similar to the first, in that we are just dealing with one flavour in the cup. However, this time all of the cups are jumbled. Your job is to taste the cups and separate them into their flavours, and then their intensities. David told us the best way to go about this is to separate them first into their sweet, sour and salty groups, and then the intensities after that. Again, you use this round to get a good feel of the different intensities and how they come across on your palate. You also need 100% in this test for a passing mark.

The final round is where things get really tricky. In this round, you’re given 8 samples. In these samples can be either 2 or 3 different flavours, and of different intensities. All you are told is that 4 of the cups have two flavours, and 4 of the cups have three flavours. Your job is to use what you’ve learned from the first two rounds to help you taste which flavours are present, and the intensities of these flavours. To make things even harder – the presence of certain flavours will affect how you perceive the intensity of other flavours. David’s advice here was to go with your gut instinct, try and pick out which of the flavours was most in your face, and go from there. Once you’ve got your instinctual ideas sorted, then go back and taste cups against each other to see whether you feel you’ve got the intensities right. For this test, you get half a mark for getting the flavours present correct, and half a mark for getting all the intensities correct. A passing mark is a 70% score or higher.

David was impressed with our crew, with most of the team passing the first two sections with flying colours. The third round was a lot harder though – and none of the team got a passing score, but a few came pretty close – a great effort for their first try! The key to passing this test is a lot of practice. All we know is that we will now be more conscious of the relationship between flavours after taking these tests – whether that be in the coffees we drink or foods we eat.

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