Zoka Awarded 2008 Roaster of the Year

ZOKA COFFEE ROASTERS AND TEA CO.’S store in Seattle’s Wallingford neighborhood bustles with activity on most days, a coffee- and espresso-stoked energy fueling discussions about the new light rail line or the latest university art exhibit. But to owner Jeff Babcock, the real strength of the shop isn’t the people, nor even the fact that he roasts and sells excellent coffee. It’s that Zoka offers the one thing that most large roasting operations can’t: first-day freshness. “The defining feature of fresh-roasted coffee is that it’s only minutes out of the roaster, not minutes out of a vacuum sealed bag,” Babcock says. “It’s the opposite of mass production.”

Now with three retail locations and a soon to-open 10,000-square-foot roasting facility, Zoka isn’t exactly a mom-and-pop operation anymore. Roast magazine’s Macro Roaster of the Year employs 85 people and roasted roughly 550,000 pounds of coffee last year, distributing it wholesale all over the country. But Babcock still believes fervently in the importance of handcrafted, single-batch roasting and that “specialty” is a word that denotes more than just a grade of coffee. As such, all the coffees are roasted one at a time by skilled artisan roasters who give their undivided attention to the coffee and the surrounding conditions. Zoka is so adamant about quality that every roast that comes out of the machine goes through two production cuppings, typically performed by the roaster, roastmaster, and often a few other employees. It’s an approach that values consistency and quality above all else.

“We don’t want 10,000 stores,” says Babcock. “We just want a few really, really good ones. we’d like to be seen as a business that produces a very high quality product and that’s crazy about doing it right.” Babcock needn’t worry on either score, as Zoka receives generous praise from both the industry and its customers. “They have a real understanding for what they want to do–which is roast extremely high-quality artisan coffees– and that clarity permeates everything they do,” says Rob Stephen, president of Coffee Solutions in Hopedale, Mass. Stephen, who counts Zoka as a client for his consulting business, says that the company goes the extra mile in virtually every aspect.

“They’re very hands-on without being flighty,” continues Stephen. “There are a lot of artisans who are heavy on the art, but not heavy on the craft. Zoka, on the other hand, takes the craft very seriously. They do a lot of things that aren’t sexy but are the right things to do.” Stephen counts the production cuppings as an example, along with Zoka’s emphasis on putting coffee samples through a much more rigorous evaluation than most other roasters. Such measures are hard to put on marketing brochures, but usually lead to a much better overall product.

Zoka’s attention to detail is reflected in its coffees. Roast’s panel of cuppers evaluated three submissions from Zoka for the Macro Roaster of the Year category, with its Panama Hacienda la Esmeralda Especial earning an outstanding 93.38 average score (best in its class). Perhaps that shouldn’t be surprising, as Hacienda la Esmeralda earned a record green price of $130 per pound at auction, but Zoka’s other two entries also scored impressively, with its Ethiopia Aricha 7 scoring 90.63 and Colombia Llano Grande earning an 86.5 grade.

The Background
Babcock opened Zoka in 1997. A UW alum who fondly recalls going to Starbucks during college in the ’70s–back when the company had only a few locations–Babcock believed that the Seattle coffee scene had begun to neglect its fresh-roasted roots by the mid-’90s and that he could fill the void with a store that believed fervently in sourcing the highest-quality green coffees and roasting and serving them the same day. To that end, they installed a roaster in middle of the retail store, and began taking on the Honey Bear bakery down the street by adding homemade baked goods and hand-sourced teas to the menu.

Babcock continued on, opening his second store in Seattle’s University Village in 2003 and a third location on September 1, 2007, in Snoqualmie, Wash., a small community about 25 miles east of Seattle. The key to retail prosperity? Putting the same energy into your stores as you do your roasting. Babcock traces much of Zoka’s continuing success to a renewed commitment to barista training following the 2001 SCAA conference in Miami. Roughly three months after the show, he sent a small group of his staff to Norway, home to a team of baristas (with uniforms and all) who had performed exceptionally well at the SCAA’s barista competitions. Although Zoka had always taken training seriously, the Norwegian team took it a step further, having broken down cappuccinos and espressos to the minutest details. “There wasn’t a single thing left untouched: dosing, tamping, the velvety texture of the milk, the specific temperature of the espresso, how clean the station was,” Babcock says. “It was all there, scored on a competition sheet of 1,000 points.” The Norwegian training sessions, in turn, led Zoka to re-emphasize the connection between the minutiae of espresso and the roasting process itself. Babcock explains it as a natural progression: if your staff understands how a small change in humidity can affect the flavor of an espresso, they’ll begin to understand how small changes in roasting can alter the character of a coffee. “Once things get back from the barista to the roaster, the education becomes ongoing,” he says. “It becomes an endless project, and that’s inspired us.”

Zoka employees then transfer that passion to the customers. “We do seed-to-cup slide presentations, we make the customers go through formal cuppings, we do everything we can to make sure that people understand the differences between certain coffees,” Babcock says. “It takes time, staff effort and a ton of organization to stay true to the drink.” “We rocked at our first two stores. We don’t rock in Snoqualmie yet, but we’ll get there.”

The Coffee
Babcock isn’t shy about handing out compliments to Zoka staffers, but he saves his highest praise for his roasters: Erik Evenson, Drew Billups, Lori Billups and roastmaster Thomas Hodges. “They do an awesome job, and right now they’re getting the recognition,” says Babcock. “It really is all about the coffee, and it doesn’t mean much unless you roast it right. They truly do it right.”

Appropriately for a true specialty coffee roaster, the coffee menu includes both “nuts and bolts” coffees, such as the Espresso Paladino and Tangletown blends, and a number of single-origin coffees available on both an ongoing and a limited basis. It’s these latter coffees that most excite Babcock, specifically the limited-edition coffees that Zoka markets under the name Artisan Reserve. These coffees range from such Cup of Excellence standouts as Brazil Santa Ines, Colombia Llano Grande, and Nicaragua Santa Isabel to Panama Hacienda la Esmeralda (the aforementioned $130 green coffee) and Sumatra Lake Tawar. The purpose of the Artisan Reserve line is to both focus more attention on the care that goes into producing excellent coffees at the farm level, and to embrace the idea that topnotch coffees of certain vintages deserve special attention, as in the wine industry. (The remainder of the coffee lineup consists of a number of blends, organics, fair-trade and shade-grown coffees, and decafs.) To Babcock, the auction coffees are at the cutting edge of the industry and they help define what he wants Zoka to be. “we think it’s the coolest thing in the world,” he says, citing a recent trip to Rwanda for a Cup of Excellence competition. “Because of the Cup of Excellence and USAID, there are now 140 washing stations all over Rwanda, where there were none before that. More importantly, the top auction results are trickling all the way down. Rather than receiving 33 cents for a pound of green coffee, the farmers there know if they get to a certain level they’ll earn $1.50 or $2 a pound. We’re seeing it happen in Rwanda, Burundi, Uganda, Costa Rica years ago, and Nicaragua. The coffees in many parts of the world are better now than they were 20 years ago, and we think they’ll only get better if we keep up the effort.”

This also feeds into the company’s goal of full traceability for its coffees. “We’ll always work with importers to ship the coffee here, but we basically want to pick every single bean that we buy,” Babcock says. This includes traveling to origin as often as possible–the company claims that a large portion of Zoka’s annual budget is dedicated to travel expenses–and observing all aspects of production and the surrounding environment with a critical eye. Although Zoka doesn’t restrict itself to only certified organic, fair-trade or shade-grown coffees, the buyers do make a conscious effort to visit farms and verify firsthand that the producers: 1) maintain a diverse and multi-level shade canopy (when appropriate) on their farms; 2) use natural, worm-generated compost made from cherry pulp at a micro-mill; 3) when necessary, use only parabolic dryers fueled by renewable sources rather than timber from surrounding forests; and 4) safely neutralize all the wastewater from wet mills. Intertwined with this is Zoka’s belief that true sustainability derives from both responsible environmental management and exemplary quality, as farms that don’t produce high-quality coffee are unlikely to sustain a farmer’s livelihood.

The Future
Stephen, who’s worked at both the Coffee Connection and Peet’s Coffee & Tea through the years, believes Zoka embodies the ideal of specialty coffee: “They’re a good example of the natural evolution of a company like Peet’s, which has always been very serious about coffee. we’d like to think that if Peet’s was still that small, they’d be doing exactly what Zoka is doing. It’s a combination of tradition and innovation in exactly the right proportion.”

And that’s exactly the vision that Babcock maintains. Although the business is expanding-in addition to building a larger roasting facility, Zoka is upgrading from a 22-kilo roaster to a 90-kilo Probat, and will probably add a 45-kilo roaster in the next year or two- Babcock doesn’t want to expand for expansion’s sake. “If we’re successful, we’ll do one store at a time, but we want to make sure we do it right every time,” he says. “If we said we’re doing it perfectly right now, we’d be lying. we just want to make us better and better.”

RIVERS JANSSEN is a freelance writer and editor based in Portland, Ore.
He can be reached at riversjanssen@gmail.com