Of all the beverages people consume, typically only wine and coffee get a ton of scrutiny from the masses. It's not uncommon to see wine graded and scored at liquor stores, but only Milwaukee's Stone Creek Coffee Roasters has expanded the practice to coffee.
Specifically, only owner Eric Resch and Steve Hawthorne, the company's vice president and green coffee buyer, are "Licensed Q Graders" by the Specialty Coffee Association of America, and Stone Creek now only sells beans that score over 80.
In fact, to the best of Hawthorne's knowledge, he and Resch are the only people in Wisconsin licensed to grade coffee by the SCAA.
"Other people can follow the system, but we're the only ones licensed in the state," says Hawthorne, who trained and studied at a lab in Minneapolis.
The maximum score from the SCAA is 100, but Hawthorne says he's never tasted a coffee that scored over a 96, and the highest-scored blend Stone Creek is selling right now is a 92. That's an indigenous brew from Burundi.
"Arguably, that's going to be one of the best cups of coffee you've ever had," says Hawthorne.
Only six percent of the world's coffee scores an 80 or higher. But do Resch and Hawthorne always agree on their scores?
"That's one of the purposes of the training to start to calibrate you with other people who in the industry," says Hawthorne. "We're always within one or two points of each other."
Can the average coffee drinker appreciate the difference between a coffee that scores, say, a 75, and one that ranks a 95?
"In that case, you can definitely tell the difference, and even if we sat down together and I put four or five different coffees in front of you, from 80 to 90, I think you would taste the difference.
"Sometimes you have to listen to your mouth and your senses and what they're telling you," says Hawthorne.
Hawthorne says the system helps provide a foundation for pricing coffee based on quality, and Stone Creek pays more to farmers who sell coffee that scores higher.
"There's a built-in incentive that way," he says.
If you go to Stone Creek and just order a cup of coffee, Hawthorne says you'll most likely get one that scores 84 or better, but no, Hawthorne has never seen a coffee score a perfect 100.
"That 96 was a Kenyan coffee that I was fortunate enough to be with a group in the industry that had it on the table, and I was able to try it," says Hawthorne.
"It was really, really good."
Andy is the founder and co-owner of OnMilwaukee.com. He returned to Milwaukee in 1996 after living on the East Coast for nine years, where he wrote for The Dallas Morning News Washington Bureau and worked in the White House Office of Communications. He was also Associate Editor of The GW Hatchet, his college newspaper at The George Washington University.
Before launching OnMilwaukee.com in 1998 at age 23, he worked in public relations for two Milwaukee firms, most of the time daydreaming about starting his own publication.
Hobbies include running when he finds the time, fixing the rust on his '75 MGB, mowing the lawn at his cottage in the Northwoods, and making an annual pilgrimage to Phoenix for Brewers Spring Training.