The Seattle coffee scene has a long and proud history but remains a small close-knit community. At my first-ever coffee cupping, I was fortunate to meet Dana Foster, the Director of Coffee and Green Bean Buyer for Zoka Coffee, and Celeste Clark, head roaster. Their energy and enthusiasm got me over my fear of spitting coffee in public. More importantly their knowledge and passion fuels Zoka Coffee, a long established bastion of specialty coffee culture in the Northwest. I asked the ladies to share a bit about what coffee means to them.
Food GPS: What’s the very first cup of coffee you ever remember drinking?
Celeste: I think it was in college when I just drank it for the effect, not for the all the wonderful characteristics that might be in the cup. It was straight up drip with cream and sugar.
Dana: I remember having many sips from my mother’s coffee growing up. It was usually some grocery store coffee and often snickerdoodle flavored. Ha. I didn’t like it much. She knows a little better now.
Food GPS: At what point did you know you’d work with coffee for a living?
Celeste: My first job was at Stewart Brothers Coffee, but I didn’t know I would end up in coffee at that point. At other jobs I had, which were not coffee related, I brought my own mini espresso maker and used to practice making lattes for people. After working in Alaska I saved up money to buy an Espresso Cart, which I ran and operated for five years, called Celesto Espresso. From that point on, I was hooked. That was the catalyst for wanting to learn to roast coffee as well.
Dana: My passion for coffee started at the opposite end of the spectrum from most people in the industry, on the production side of things at origin. I lived abroad in El Salvador for a few years on a rural coffee farm, and about halfway through that time, I knew my professional fate was with coffee. I lived there first as a Peace Corps volunteer and also while completing my Master’s thesis, which examines roaster-producer connections. I knew once I moved back to the States, I had to find a job in the coffee industry.
Food GPS: What motivated you to start roasting coffee the very first time?
Celeste: I felt like my job was limited with owning an espresso cart and I was getting a bit bored with the good times, even though owning a business was tough stuff. I was ready to learn more about coffee and so I sold my cart. I began to work in retail for Tully’s Coffee, which was a new company at the time. Over the course of two years managing their stores, I persistently let them know that I was interested in more than retail and wanted to learn everything about coffee, specifically roasting. I began roasting shorty after.
Food GPS: What motivated you to become a coffee buyer?
Dana: My Master’s thesis assesses the viability, sustainability and benefits associated with direct connections and negotiations between roasters and coffee producers, and I wanted to continue to be a part of that. My closest friends in El Salvador were impoverished seasonal coffee pickers and I wanted to be in position to not only remain close to the people I loved, but collaborate directly with coffee producers to improve the way most coffee is bought and sold. I also wanted to provide a more equitable share of benefits along the commodity chain while producing exceptional quality coffee.
Food GPS: What would you say are some of the characteristics that distinguish Zoka Coffee?
Celeste: All of the coffees I roast for Zoka are super high quality, and over the last several years we have had the opportunity to source over 75% of coffee directly from producers. There is a basic roast profile that I follow for each coffee, but there is a lot of wiggle room. It’s exciting to play around with and see each coffee’s potential. We sell to a wide variety of markets, so every coffee is roasted according to what its purpose is and then fine-tuned after group cuppings.
Dana: I think the history of Zoka is really important not only in Seattle, but in specialty coffee. We have a story, and we are well known in the industry. We have made some big changes over the last few years and like Celeste said, we are really proud of the relationships we have with our coffee producers. We are well on our way to sourcing all of our beans directly and continuing the relationships we have worked hard to establish.
Food GPS: Tell us a bit about your involvement with the Cup of Excellence.
Dana: Jeff Babcock, Zoka’s owner, has participated as a judge for Cup of Excellence (COE) over a dozen times. I traveled to Brazil in 2012 for the COE and acted as an observer. I look forward to participating as a judge in the upcoming year. Each year, we try to buy an award winning coffee from the COE. We want to support the COE program, the Alliance for Coffee Excellence and it is a great way to put farmers on the map.
Food GPS: What’s your favorite aspect of working in the coffee world?