I was curious who received the first 90-point coffee review, which lead me to re-read the first Coffee Review article from 1997.
“I have been convinced that the time has come to start assigning numerical rankings to cuppings as my counterparts have been doing for some time with wines, beers and cigars. These rankings are expressed as a number from 0 to 100….” – Kenneth Davids, Coffee Review, February 1997.
… and so began 100-point coffee ratings in the specialty coffee industry.
In 1996, I had convinced Kenneth Davids that, with enough caveats, one could rate and review coffees like wines. We thought objective 100-point reviews would help consumers make better purchase decisions. We thought quality-oriented farmers and roasters should be rewarded for their efforts. We decided to give it a shot.
We sought the advice and support of a group of distinguished coffee professionals. We spent the latter half of 1996 developing a Coffee Review cupping form that provided structure and consistency to evaluating and rating coffees on a 100-point scale. We assembled a cupping board, a Who’s Who of coffee experts that participated in a number of early cuppings. Their support offered credibility and strength in numbers.
So, in early 1997, we started posting an article and reviews to “the world wide web” each month. Given Google Analytics wouldn’t exist for nearly another decade, we had little idea who, if anyone, was visiting our website. Email was almost unheard of so we mailed paper copies of a newsletter to a couple hundred interested readers. We started to get phone calls from consumers (not from mobile phones, mind you) who wanted to know where to buy high-scoring coffees. Given that few coffee roasters had websites, we would give callers roasters’ phone numbers.
Flash-forward 16 years, 200+ issues, and 3000+ reviews. It’s amazing to see how much technology and the market has changed. However, the basic concept and market forces are still at work, just on a larger scale. We host more than a million unique visitors on our website every year. We don’t have to lick stamps or answer the phone much any more but we do email our newsletter to nearly 100,000 readers each month. We use social media sites to share the latest news. Roasters report that good reviews drive a significant increase in sales.
Oh, and back to my original question: who received the first 90-point coffee review? In our first article in 1997, we reviewed house blends. Steep & Brew and Green Mountain Coffee Roasters scored the first 90-point ratings for their Breakfast Blends (93 and 90 points, respectively).
Buoyed by these early favorable reviews, we’re pleased to see that these two roasters are still going strong.