Talking Coffee With Jeff Babcock
We seldom compromise on the parts of our lives we truly cherish. For you, it could be art, food, wine, culture, travel, and so on and so forth. For Jeff, it’s coffee. Jeff Babcock is the Founder, President, CEO, and Owner of Zoka Coffee & Tea Co. in Seattle. He’s also the Chief Coffee Officer (CCO) of Bunafr. Needless to say, he knows his coffee. With times changing at a rapid pace, it’s important to remember what truly matters in achieving a greater coffee ecosystem. At Bunafr, it’s something we can never forget. Working with Jeff is a surefire way to stay on track, respect our roots, and constantly strive for coffee excellence. Here’s a compilation of all the questions we asked Jeff over a cup of coffee (or maybe two).
When & how did you start your journey into coffee? What do you vividly recall?
I got introduced to specialty coffee in 1975 with a visit to a Starbucks in the University Village. The coffee was so different and in those days the coffee in the few Starbucks stores was very fresh. I also noticed that there was little competition in this (Seattle) area of coffee. So as a student at the University of Washington majoring in business, I began to look into the specialty coffee world.
Having spent nearly 4 decades in the coffee industry, how have you seen it change, and what are some emerging trends that you’ve seen?
When I started, there was little to be special except for making the coffee fresh right after you roast it. There was no real distinction in the quality of different coffees.
With the development of the Cup Of Excellence in various coffee-producing countries, a measuring system for how to produce the best quality coffee was established.
This led to an explosion in quality on the green coffee side and so many ways a coffee grower can improve the flavors of his coffee through different processing methods. The second major development in the industry was the Barista competition which elevated the quality of coffee drinks around the world. And as one of the early competitors, Zoka played a significant part in the development of coffee drinks and specialty coffee culture.
Zoka turned 25 years old this year. What are some major accomplishments or milestones in your coffee life?
In 1997, we opened our first store near Green Lake in Seattle. There was little specialty coffee then, except for Starbucks and we felt with a roaster in our store we could really begin producing great fresh roasted specialty coffee. The next major event for Zoka was in 2002 with our winning of the US National Espresso and Barista Competitions. And again in 2005, we won the US National Barista competition which marked the beginning of our entry into the direct trade coffee world.
What’s next for Zoka?
Zoka will continue to grow in retail and wholesale.
How was your experience launching Zoka in Japan? What’s your favorite thing about Japan?
I loved working in Japan to introduce the World Barista Championship and very special coffees. We helped another company open 5 stores in 10 years and taught our Japanese partners how to make really great coffee. My favorite thing about Japan was the food. There are so many restaurants with great food, it’s crazy. With so many people and restaurants in Tokyo, you can’t get a bad meal.
What’s your daily coffee ritual? How do you like your coffee?
One perfect cup every morning – black, no cream, no sugar. Most likely from the Hario coffee brewing (pour-over) system.
What is your favorite origin or varietal if you have to pick one?
There really is no favorite because coffee in many ways is like wine. You can grow spectacular tasting coffee in any coffee region now as the technology and farming science have come so far since I started.
What was your favorite farm visit ever? What made it special?
Just like there is no best coffee, there is no best coffee farm. I have been working with many coffee farms for over 10+ years. They’re all special in their own way and we’ve established wonderful relationships with many.
What is a special coffee-drinking moment you still remember?
Cupping coffees in Kenya and discovering a coffee that cupped with a score of 95, the highest I have ever given in any competition and this wasn’t a competition.
What is the most number of coffees you’ve ever cupped in one day?
What is the minimum Cup Of Excellence (CoE) score standard for people to choose their coffee?
What would be your secret tip for coffee lovers to get the best coffee at home?
Roast it fresh, purchase really good green coffee beans, and wait 24 hours before drinking. Grind just before brewing and use filtered water at 205 degrees.
What role does roast freshness play in cup quality?
It’s unbelievably important. If the coffee is not fresh then it will quickly lose all of its great characteristics.
Any other words of wisdom to the coffee lovers not just related to coffee but related to the world of coffee?
If you ever have an opportunity to visit a coffee farm, do it. It’ll be like entering a whole new world.
In an ideal world, what does the coffee supply and demand look like?
Coffee is grown all around the world. But most of it is not very good. There is however a growing supply of very good coffee as farmers discover they can make a lot more money with high-quality coffee.
Let’s talk about coffee farmers. What would be your take on solving financial problems with coffee farmers?
The higher the farmers’ knowledge of coffee agronomy & farming science and the more assistance they have growing great coffee, the higher the prices they can get for their coffee. A long process but it’s already happening.
What are your thoughts on direct farm trade, fair trade, organic, farm gate and so many other terms that get thrown out?
Working directly with coffee farmers has always been very important to me. Most single-origin coffees are direct trade and have been for years. However, we get some of our coffees through great importers who have done the same work we do and we know that these farmers get great prices for their coffee and many long-term relationships are also being developed. I think direct farm trade is the best way to buy coffee from farmers.
What is one decision that people can make to uplift coffee farmers everywhere?
By buying high-quality coffee instead of cheap inexpensive grocery store coffee. That way you know farmers are getting paid better, you are getting much better coffee and life is good. Remember it’s less than a few dollars more per month than a grocery store coffee to buy really good roasted coffee and even cheaper if you roast your own. You are more than likely saving money, getting a better product, and making sure farmers are being treated well with your purchase decision…So why wouldn’t you??
You’ve had a pretty diverse experience with coffee from being the owner of one of the oldest and most well-known coffee brands in Seattle to serving as a judge on Cup Of Excellence (CoE) along with winning espresso awards & running SCA. What led to Bunafr and why did you jump into this?
Bunafr aligns with my ethos of high-quality coffee and connection with farmers, which is what I have always wanted and why I got into this business in the first place.
What is your vision for Bunafr and how do you see it growing?
I would like to see Bunafr really play the high-quality game from the smart home coffee roaster to the green coffee beans. If the roaster does a great job and the green coffee is high quality, you can’t go wrong. In regular roasting, there is work involved, but Bunafr is taking away most of it with meticulously curated coffees and perfectly crafted roast profiles, and technology. That little bit of work of adding green beans and snapping the lid on a roasted bean container is well worth it and it costs less!
We learn more from Jeff every day. His insight into the coffee ecosystem helps us create a better product while adding value for everyone involved. There’s been a vacuum in the coffee industry for years now. Many coffee brands get sucked into the notion that innovation in coffee can only happen by improving convenience. But convenience is a tradeoff accompanied by a colossal compromise in quality. We’ve had the opportunity to delve deeper into this notion and highlight some remedies to this misconception, read more here. With single-origin green coffee beans from our marketplace and the Bunafr Smart Home Coffee Roaster, you too would be a part of a movement that leads to the promised coffeeland.