I’m David Ahrens, Q Grader at Cafédirect – the UK’s first Fairtrade coffee company. I’m trained in cupping and scoring coffee: ask me anything!
Edit: Thanks for all of your questions! I'm clocking off for today but will try and check back in to answer more later on.
I’m David Ahrens, Q Grader at Cafédirect (1 of 3 Q Graders in the business!) – the UK’s first Fairtrade coffee company. We train in cupping and scoring coffee to achieve an Advanced Q Grader License, and our skills have to be recalibrated every three years. Ask us anything about coffee, the Q Grading process, why we slurp it like that, the ethics of coffee farming and why Cafédirect pays above and beyond a Fairtrade price, how to make the perfect flat white, what we think of those online coffee trends…
To gain the Fairtrade mark, we have to meet international Fairtrade standards, which means that we offer a better deal to farmers and workers involved. We go one step further and pay our farmers Fairtrade premium price, on top of the standard Fairtrade price, which goes into a communal fund. The farmers then decide how that money is spent.
We also invest 50% of our profits into Producers Direct, a UK charity run by farmers which works directly with farmers to improve sustainability and livelihoods. It’s something we’re really passionate about, and we’ve directed more than £6million to our farmers so far.
Not to brag, but we were the UK’s first B Corp certified coffee company too!
How much focus do you put on traceability - knowing where your beans come from and who grows them?
We work really closely with our farmers – we were the very first customer of some of them! It’s important to us to work directly with the farmers and co-operatives growing our coffee because they get the best price, and we get the best-quality product. Win/win.
I prefer lighter and fruitier coffees, and drink it black. Are there any particular regions I should look at more than others?
African coffees have fantastic taste profiles. They have dominant notes of fruit and zingy acidity. You can't go wrong with a good Kenyan, and look out for Nordic-style roasters who usually roast coffee slightly lighter.
What’s better for a new coffee drinker, using a cafetière or v60?
Cafetière is a great way of brewing coffee and is slightly easier to get an amazing tasting cup than a V60 when first getting into coffee.
Why are all coffees in shops around the £2/3 mark? Why don’t you see the same variance as you would for wine as an example? Is it purely demand or is there no reason to justify a £10 flat white?
Interesting question. I’m used to being asked the reverse question - “why is coffee so expensive?” - so it's refreshing to hear it this way around!
Coffee sometimes struggles to be seen as more than just a quick caffeine kick in the morning. When done well it can produce an amazing experience, well worthy of £10, £20, £50, £100 a cup. Some coffee shops are offering coffees at higher prices per cup and I believe this will continue until it's somewhere similar to the wine industry.
Are you still able to drink mediocre coffee or you go for a different drink if good coffee is unavailable?
Wherever I go I always try to order a coffee and see what other roasters/coffee shops are offering. These days a coffee company's offering must be good as they are up against a lot of competition, so in general I'm not often disappointed.
How do you check the quality of your coffee e.g how is it rated?
We have number of ways we analyse the quality of our coffee before it's approved and sent out to our customers. We have a team of Q Graders who carry out physical analysis such as measuring moisture levels, roast color, green coffee grading and sensorial analysis which we refer to as 'cupping'. We score the coffee out of 100 based on its aroma, flavour, aftertaste, acidity, body, balance, uniformity, clean cup, and sweetness. Anything that scores above 80 is classed as speciality and the higher the score the better the coffee!
Interested to know what you're tested on as a Q grader?
The course runs for six days and combines a series of lectures and presentations with practical sessions designed to test every aspect of your sensory ability. It involves 20 separate blind exams covering olfactory skills, triangulations, taste modalities, cupping skills and organic acid identification.
There is also a written exam and both roast and green grading to complete along with roast defect evaluation. It can be a slightly gruelling experience both physically and mentally, and requires strong focus and self-discipline to ensure you can get through everything without suffering from palate fatigue.
Which plant milk is best in coffee?
A lot of the alternative milk companies have barista versions of their milks, and these are designed to work really well with coffee. I personally prefer oat milk.
Do you still find the slurping sound disgusting when your colleagues do it?
Haha! You get used to it! Sometimes I try to harmonise with my colleagues!
How do you look after your coffee bean farmers?
We pay Fairtrade standard price as well as Fairtrade Premium price, which means that the farmers and co-operatives earn more money for each lb of coffee. That money goes into a communal fund and the farmers decide how to spend it – it could be on improvements to farms or equipment, on housing, schools, advances in sustainable farming… anything. Because we work closely with them over long periods of time we get to see the impact the Premium has, and it’s very cool.
what is your favourite coffee?
It's difficult to pick a favourite as there are so many wonderful coffee-producing countries, all with distinct and varying tasting notes. In the morning I always enjoy washed Central American coffees and in the afternoon something more exotic such as an African coffee.
What's a good way to find out one's own preferences?
Try as many different coffees from different countries as possible. Most of the time retail bags will include tasting notes and so this will give you a really good idea of what taste profiles you prefer. Also, different brewing techniques will highlight different characteristics of the same coffee so experiment and have fun!
What do you sprinkle on top of cappuccino, chocolate or cinnamon?
Always chocolate. I find most things can be improved by a sprinkle of chocolate on top 😉
What’s the best coffee for someone who likes quite a light taste?
Look for a light to medium roasted coffee. A quick coffee hack is to add a splash of hot water to a brewed coffee if you find the taste too strong.
So, how does one make the perfect flat white?
A simple question with a potentially incredibly complex answer. People spend years mastering a perfect flat white, but start with ethically-sourced, expertly-roasted coffee. Then pull a double shot of espresso, steam your milk so it's silky smooth (and not too hot!) and then pour in the milk from height to start and then finish your pour closer to the surface making a little heart! YouTube is a great source for all your coffee brewing skills. Remember practice makes perfect on this one!
So how many q graders are there in the UK? And do you have to have sophisticated tastebuds to become one?
There are currently around 91 Q Graders in the UK. Becoming a sophisticated taster is all about practice, repetition, and exposing yourself to as many new and interesting tastes as possible.
How would you recommend getting into the coffee industry?
Lots of coffee roasteries offer public cuppings. These are a great way of learning about coffees, meeting coffee people, and learning how to cup. Most people start from a barista position.
If I'd describe my preference for coffee as the equivalent of a red wine with a spicy and aged character, what's your recommendation of bean, generally speaking? If it helps, acidity should be at a minimum. I'm making it in a moka pot for reference, and dark roasts are a given :)
Sounds like you would really enjoy coffees from Indonesia. They are renowned for having tasting notes of spices and have a rich, heavy body when roasted dark, which make them perfect for brewing with a Moka pot.
How much coffee should I be putting in my caffetiere because I kind of just eyeball it at the moment (enough to make 4 cups worth btw)
Also any simple tips for kicking up my cup of coffee without the need for expensive equipement?
If you want to brew the best-tasting coffee consistently, I cannot recommend enough investing in a scale and weighing the amount of coffee you put in your cafetière. A good point to start is for 1 litre of water, use 60 g of coffee. So for a 4-cup cafetière a good starting point is 30g of coffee. If you find it too strong, then use a little bit less coffee and vise versa.
Water makes up 98% of a cup of coffee so make sure you're using good quality water too!
Do you think you could take James Hoffman in a fight? What about in a cook-off?
I've seen the way Hoffman cooks his eggs and would love to go up against him in a cook-off! He's a legend of the coffee world so unless it's a charity boxing match for a good cause, a fight is off the cards.
What kind of role do you see yourself, as part of the industry, play in tackling climate change?
As a business, we believe all of our actions need to respect our environment. By weaving environmental and social strategies into our overall strategy, we have created a business which continually strives to reduce its environmental impact through our governing Gold Standard. You can read more on our website!
Does it ever get frustrating or depressing having a sophisticated enough palate to fully appreciate specialty coffees, then spending all day tasting cheaper supermarket-grade stuff?
Specialty coffee is a very small percentage of the world's total coffee grown and produced. Many farmers will produce small lots of amazing-tasting specialty coffee, but the bulk of their harvest might be slightly lower quality. Every coffee has a purpose and place within the industry. Also, how can I be frustrated or depressed having a job where I get to taste coffee all day 😉
I'm a tea drinker... so I guess do you have a favorite tea?
If you get the chance you need to try cascara! It's a herbal tea made from the dried skins of the coffee fruit.
For someone brewing at home, are there any tips you would give them to make a perfect cup of coffee?
A cup of coffee is around 98 percent water. Make sure you use good quality water to make your coffee taste better! I personally use a water filter at home. And buy beans and grind fresh every time!
Hi! Thanks for fielding questions!
I'm confident you'll get this question for pour overs and espresso but: what kinds of coffee (varietals /flavour profiles) are best for moka pots, French press and cold brew coffee?
Thank you for your time!
Coffees with rich & chocolatey taste profiles and lower acidity work really well when brewed by Moka pot. French press can be used with any coffee, it's super versatile! Cold brew works best with a more developed/darker-roasted coffee.
I've wanted to get into coffee for a long time. Is the Breville Bamboo a good choice?
A great choice. Remember, you don't have to spend lots of money on equipment to enjoy a really good cup of coffee. Some of the simplest equipment, like an AeroPress, can give equally good results.
(1 of 3 Q Graders in the business!)
According to CQI there are 91 certified Q-Graders in the UK alone with a total of over 6,000 certified Q-Graders worldwide. Do you mean that you are just one of three total Graders at Cafedirect?
That's right, one of the three Q Graders at Cafédirect.
I roast at home. What advise can you offer someone that roasts about 1lb at a time?
Roasting and cupping are equally important. Give as much attention to tasting and evaluating your coffees as you do to roasting them. You will accelerate your roasting skills by being able to understand the affect your roasting has on a coffee's taste. Also if you haven’t already then read The Coffee Roaster's Companion by Scott Rao, it’s the bible of coffee roasting.
Another question: how to store coffee: room temperature, refrigerator, freezer? I know that moisture can be a problem, but I think that can be solved by keeping the coffee sealed until it gets back up to room temperature. Other than the moisture problem, are there advantages to storing coffee cold?
I would recommend storing your coffee in an airtight container in a cool dry environment away from sunlight. If you’re going to freeze coffee use small vacuum-sealed bags (or remove as much air as possible) and never re-freeze. I would stay away from putting coffee into the fridge as its a easy way to introduce moisture. I personally have a freezer full of small 50 g bags of some of my favourite coffees from over the years. They taste great months and months after roasting!
Coffee is a ritual for many people before heading to the restroom, but some people have overly sensitive stomachs that cause stomach pain and other symptoms. Are their beans or regions where the product is know to be kinder on those with sensitive stomachs? All while not sacrificing the profile or flavor?
Look at decaf options, as they can still have great flavours but without the caffeine (they still contain a tiny amount). And don’t drink coffee on an empty stomach!
When I have done cupping in the past, I can usually smell the notes fairly easily when the crust is broken and coffee stirred but I struggle when the coffee hits my tongue. My tastebuds are overwhelmed by the taste of... coffee. Can you give any thoughts on how to move past this? I have never been able to taste “sweetness” and “caramel” in coffee but I can always smell it. Is this normal?
Smell makes up a large part of something's perceived taste, so the fact you can pick up specific aromas of coffee means you are doing really well. These things take time and practice so stick at it! I had a very similar experience to you when first cupping coffees and could only taste “coffee” but with time and practice you will improve. A really good “slurp” to accelerate the coffee over your tongue and towards your olfactory bulb helps. And try to be mindful in everyday tastes which you can then call upon when cupping.
I've only ever tried blind A/B and only recently learned about triangle tasting. Any tips or techniques you wish you knew when you first started out cupping? e.g. palate cleansing, avoiding taste fatigue (don't know how else to phrase it) etc.
Be mindful in every slurp you take to avoid taste fatigue. Be patient. Taste the coffee hot, warm and cold. Different coffees reveal different characteristics at different temperatures.
As a customer when you see the Fair Trade logo on a product (like coffee) what does it actually mean?
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