Field Trip: Zoka Cup of Excellence Tasting

You may be wondering, what is the Cup of Excellence (COE)? How will my cup measure up? Will it give me an inferiority complex? I was first introduced to the COE on a recent field trip to Zoka Coffee Roasters, where Sam and I got a tour of the facility and the low down from head roaster Celeste Clark.

The COE is one of the most esteemed awards given to coffee roasters. Over the course of three weeks and at least five tasting rounds, coffees are rated based on the following criteria: cleanness of cup (can the coffee’s terroir show through?), acidity (does it have a brightness to it?), mouthfeel, flavor (a combination of taste and aroma), aftertaste, balance and overall score. Each round eliminates the lowest rated coffees, and the last ones standing that receive 85 points or higher are Cup of Excellence Winners. Among the highest quality coffees in the world, consider yourself lucky to get your hands on these beans.

Zoka is no newcomer to the COE and coffee roasting accolades, their founder Jeff Babcock having previously judged the Guatemala Cup of Excellence competition.  On our recent field trip, we tasted their Espresso Palladino Blend, Tuscan Blend, Colonel Fitzroy and Java Nica according to COE standards. We started the cupping process by experiencing the aroma of the ground coffee in each cup, three cups per blend to compensate for any inconsistencies. We then combined equal parts ground coffee and water, allowing the coffee to bloom and steep for four minutes.  While breaking the delicious brownie-like crust (see photo for action shot), we got to experience the aroma a second time.

Celeste and Dana, pros in the coffee world, then went to work removing the grounds from each cup, and we waited six more minutes before we had our first sip. Like tasting a fine wine, a loud slurp from the spoon was key to getting enough air on the palette to highlight various flavor profiles.  To prevent caffeine overload, it’s commonplace to spit post-slurp, rinse your spoon and repeat with the next cup. Slurp, savor, spit, rinse and repeat. As the coffees cooled down even further, different flavors began to shine through, and I tasted more cinnamon notes in the Java Nica, hints of pecan in the Colonel Fitzroy and the Palladino’s deep molasses undertones. It was a coffee revelation!

I’m often so eagerly awaiting my cup of java in the morning that I throw it back quickly to feed my inner-beast, but this experience reminded me to take the time to indulge in each cup. Savor your coffee as it cools from piping hot to room temperature – you’re guaranteed to taste more complexity with each sip.

Thank you to Zoka for sharing this meticulous cupping technique with us and being so generous with their time! If you’re a lucky Seattlite, stop by one of their cafes and treat yourself to an artfully crafted coffee beverage this winter.

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