Barista ApprovedNew site reviews cafés by competition standards
By Chris Ryan
For many coffeehouse owners, the reviewing Web site Yelp can be a frustrating entity. Yelp can be a forum for useful reviews, but it can also be a place where irritated patrons can anonymously criticize a shop based on one brief experience. Dan Baumfeld, owner of Seattle’s Neptune Coffee, has felt this firsthand: “As a shop owner, I’ve definitely seen the side of Yelp where people just have a bad day and take it out on you.”
Last fall, Baumfeld launched the coffeehouse-reviewing Web site tehcoffee.com, which can be described as “Yelp for aficionados.” The Web site uses U.S. Barista Championship judging standards to review coffeehouses, and Baumfeld—himself a USBC judge—handpicks the reviewers from a pool of fellow judges and other industry members with comparable experience. “The goal is to help people find great coffee and highlight great specialty coffee shops,” says Baumfeld. He sat down with Fresh Cup outside the 2012 Northwest Regional Barista Competition in Tacoma, Wash., to talk about his inspiration for the site and the challenges that arise when coffee professionals rate the operations of their peers.
Q: Why’d you decide to start the site?
A: I came up with the idea for Teh Coffee based on not having a solid foundation of coffee when I would go places to judge competitions. Basically I wanted something that could tell me when I went to a new city where the good coffee was. I played with the idea for a while, and I ended up, since I was a judge, using competition standards.
Q: What does that evaluation entail?
A: It’s strictly based on the drinks. In judging, they teach you to basically keep everything in the cup. So you judge what you get.
Q: Do you worry about criticizing other shops, since you’re an owner yourself?
A: The way I wrote the site is any shop that has an average score under a two just isn’t going to show up. If I go to a shop thinking it’s going to be good and get a horrible drink, I just won’t list the shop. It’s not about being vengeful to shops; it’s just about finding great coffee near you.
Q: Right now most of the reviews are of Northwest shops; do you plan to cover the rest of the country?
A: Yeah. Most of the Seattle and Portland shops that are going to be on there are on there for the most part. But I need judges around the country right now to help me expand the site. The goal is to cover the whole U.S., and another goal is to have several reviews of each place. Right now it’s a small sample size—I went to one shop and did one review, and if they had an off day, they’re not going to rank as highly. So in theory, you’d have 10 different judges hit a shop and post their review, and the scores would normalize.
Q: Did you design the site?
A: Yes. I used to be a programmer, and I worked for some dot-coms back in the dot-com heyday. I was a programmer for about 10 years. I’ve had Neptune for five years, but I never really stopped programming. I do small projects for people, or I get bored and make things like this.
Q: What is it about the judging standards that you think are authoritative enough to warrant this site?
A: I just wanted to use a scoring system that’s nationally known and can score whether a coffee’s good or not. We basically use a sensory score sheet that’s condensed a little bit. And we use numbers to evaluate the drink—you evaluate each element, then you enter the numbers in and the site does the math for you.
Q: How often do you post reviews?
A: It’s very cyclical. I’ll be gung-ho for a week and do five or six shops. I’ll take trips specifically to do reviews; I made a trip to Portland, and for three days I did eight reviews of shops. I’m hoping to go to Chicago and Santa Cruz and judge in the two regionals, so I’ll get a bunch of reviews in from there.
Q: You’re using USBC standards, but are you working in conjunction with SCAA?
A: It’s still beta, so I haven’t really tried talking to anyone in the SCAA about it yet to get official judges’ approval. I’ve talked to some judges off and on, but never to get official. I don’t know if that’s a goal yet, though I’d be open to it. I just haven’t crossed that bridge yet.