Over at Home Barista I've been collaborating on a series of peer-reviewed espresso evaluations. The structure of these reviews has been illuminating and the results very interesting.
First - by focusing on private and collaborative peer-reviewing before publishing, the usual "didn't really nail the extraction parameters" problems are being reduced if not eliminated. With a bunch of reviewers all working on their own with the coffees (usually from a common starting point), we've been able to rapidly identify one or two "sweet spots" and then focus on optimization and most of all tasting around those parameter sets. This is yielding reviews that are more focused on "how do you get this espresso to taste good - and what does a good espresso from this coffee taste like" than the usual "here is my numerical score and two sentences of flavor descriptors. In other words - espresso is being treated differently from how coffee would be treated when cupped and the specific barista and equipment issues around espresso are being addressed.
Second - directed peer-reviewing like this does a reasonably good job of adjusting for (and making transparent) personal taste. As I've said many times, "just because you don't like this coffee doesn't mean it's a bad coffee."
Third - the wide spread of perspectives, tastes, experience and equipment among the reviewers actually gives a far better picture of the coffee. By getting all the different data sources and results and the combining and correlating - the big picture really does emerge.
It's been a very good experience - one I've enjoyed immensely. I'm looking forward to the future reviews a ton. So far reviews have been of Counter Culture Toscano and Ecco Espresso - with Intelligentsia Black Cat and Stumptown Hairbender coming up this week I believe.
But more then the enjoyment of the experience - I think there is something important to learn here. I think this sort of approach has some real power and validity and I hope it spreads and I really hope that it is adopted by the professional community. I think that this is where it could do the most good. Yeah... it's good that this is being done in the Home community (especially given that something like 70% of the home enthusiasts say their coffee buying decisions are driven by online reviews). But if the Pros got on board with this approach it could not only improve espresso (IMHO) but also start to create more knowledge sharing and more collaboration within the industry. And god knows we need that.