When shopping for wine, it’s not uncommon to find Wine Spectator or Wine Enthusiast ratings included in the shelf-tag descriptions of bottles at the store. Similarly for beer, there are Beer Advocate ratings. For coffee, there’s Ken Davids’ Coffee Review, which has been an influential resource since 1997 and started issuing an annual Top 30 list only two years ago.
Yet while a company with a highly-rated coffee occasionally features their Coffee Review score on their packaging or website, these scores are rarely visible in stores and require a paid subscription for viewing the full review online. 2013 World Barista Champion Pete Licata, the founder and head taster for a new roasted coffee rating system called Roast Ratings, thinks that in order for ratings to be relevant both to consumers and to the industry, they should be visible everywhere, easy to read, and expressed in terms that any coffee drinker can understand.
“Our target reader is the average coffee drinker,” Licata told Daily Coffee News after presenting his concept to an audience of industry peers at the first annual Golden Bean North America event in Portland, Ore. “We still want to be connected to the specialty industry, because that’s what we believe great coffee is. But we want to be able to connect and use language and not talk over the head of the average person that’s drinking coffee, who doesn’t work in the industry every day.”
Said Licata, “Our tagline is ‘coffee for the people.’ It’s to say, ‘we’re just like you, we’re not above you, we’re not some elitist thing that you may have experienced in a specialty café before.'”
Licata said he thinks the industry is successfully moving away from the tendencies that lead some old-fashioned coffee drinkers to label it as elitist, although there remains a need for basic, relatable communication of quality that’s not off-putting or intimidating yet not dumbed down, either. To achieve this, Roast Ratings includes evaluations of coffees both through rigorous SCAA-style cuppings as well as in a regular consumer brewing method, and presents its scores in two formats: a simple, eye-catching five-star system as well as a more detailed 100-point system.
The cupped evaluations include the precise scrutiny that more committed, analytical coffee drinkers appreciate, while the brew notes are more generalized for the more casual coffee-lover. “We use words like ‘bold’ or ‘mellow’ — average stuff that people understand. But we put it in context. The idea is to say, here’s the evaluation, here’s what it’ll taste like if you buy it and brew it at home. If you want to know more about what a professional would say about this exact same coffee, here are the notes and here’s the information.”
The home brewer of choice is the new and widely available Bonavita BV1900TS 8-cup brewer that uses flat-bottom basket filters. There are currently only three tasters evaluating coffees — Licata and experienced coffee QC professionals Holly Bastin and Bryan Miller — which may limit the pace of their coverage of the market but also tightens their calibration with each other, making it easier to stay clear, fair and consistent with their evaluations. Growing the business will involve establishing additional teams in other regions or other countries, while keeping the circles of tasters relatively small, to keep them as keenly calibrated with each other as possible. “I think that there is room for it to get bigger and to add more people, but they have to be people that are extremely vetted, that have a lot of experience, that we really trust.”
Smaller local or regional roasters can rest assured that their offerings are only evaluated either upon their submission or with their permission, as Roast Ratings does not intend to review anything that a small company isn’t comfortable or prepared for them to review. However, nationwide brands will be pulled from shelves for independent reviews at random.
“If it’s nationally distributed, it’s on a shelf in a retail department store or a grocery or Target or wherever it might be, you’ve already done your QC, you have to put it on the line every day,” said Licata. “So we’re going to go out and buy it ourselves with our own money, and we’re going to evaluate it. You don’t really have much say in it; it’s our opinion as food critics, essentially.” In this way, the Roast Ratings model is capable of providing a full spectrum perspective on the coffees any customer might come across either in public or online.
The website is an important component, as the company will generate its revenue both through submission fees as well as by hosting ads online. To avoid conflicts of interest, it maintains a strict ban on ads for roasted coffee, hosting ads only for various beverage and brewing accessories, devices, supplies and so on. The website is currently live and already features an impressive number of reviews and articles, as well as a “Coffee Configurator” that allows users to search for coffees by zeroing in on virtually every variable, including origin, process, brew method, and a range of cup characteristics.
A brick-and-mortar retail shelf tag system launched in early September. “We’re actually in discussions with some grocery store chains right now,” said Licata, describing tags that will feature the clearly visible five-star system. “The star system is on everything. The only time the point system comes into play if it’s a five-star coffee. This starts the differentiation of the high-end coffees.” Licata hopes to have Roast Ratings on national grocery chain shelves within the next six months.