The 4th Annual Good Food Awards recently came and went, with 14 U.S. roasteries winning for coffees that demonstrate lovely cup quality as well as forward-thinking and innovative approaches to sustainability and production. (See the full list of winners here.)
As the awards program has grown, giving winners foodie a badge of honor and powerful marketing ammunition, we’ve been fielding a number of questions from small roasteries throughout the United States asking just what’s going on with the GFAs. Important questions like:
“Who’s running this thing?”
“Why are there so many African coffees?”
“How do I win?”
Who better to answer these questions and others than Jen Apodaca, the second year chair of the GFA Coffee Committee and West coast production manager for Blue Bottle‘s Oakland Roasting facility. In conversation, Apodaca’s passion for the quality and continual improvement of the program is immediately apparent (it is worth remembering that the GFA coffee team is a small group of volunteers).
Here Apodaca replies to a number of our/your questions:
How did you get involved?
In 2011, I was roasting coffee for Ecco Caffe in Santa Rosa and was asked by Andrew Barnett to coordinate the logistics of the blind cupping for the judges. After the judging in October, I organized volunteers and equipment for the coffee service at the GFA awards ceremony and the Ferry Building Marketplace tastings for the public. I had such a great time working with the GFA team, when they asked me to be a Coffee Committee Chair, I was honored and eager to start planning the for the next year.
What is the composition of the committee?
The GFA coffee committee is currently four people: Andrew Barnett (Linea Caffe), myself (Blue Bottle), Tony Konecny (Tonx), and Brent Fortune (Heart). We are a small volunteer-run group with two overarching responsibilities. The first is to find amazing coffee roasters in the U.S. to enter the competition — especially in underrepresented areas of the country.
The second responsibility is to organize all of the logistics that come with cupping the samples at the blind tasting and serving the coffee at the awards ceremony and the Ferry Building Marketplace.
Participation is by invitation only.
That sounds like a fair amount of work.
There are three events that require a lot of work on the ground: the blind cupping in late summer/early fall, the awards ceremony and the Ferry Building Marketplace.
The blind cupping happens all under one roof with 200-plus judges from all of the participating food categories. It really is an amazing sight and a lot of fun. I am not sure how we will fit in our current venue if we keep growing at this rate. Beyond the administrative and outreach to get the word out to potential participants, there is another group of local coffee professionals that volunteer their time to weigh, grind, and pour the judges through 8 hours of cupping.
By the end of the day, judges and volunteers are pretty wiped out. The last couple of years we have had so many samples sent in that we have needed to cup for two days. The first day we split the judges into two groups and each group cups half of the samples. At the end of the day, we take the top 50 coffees with an average score above 85. This year, the cut was above 85 for the first round. The reason we draw the line at 50 samples is because we do not want to fatigue the judges palettes and we hope to have at least 10 representatives of each of the competition regions.
The awards ceremony has also grown and this year will be held at the Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco. All of the winning coffees will be served by coffee professionals in Chemexes to the guests at a reception immediately following the awards. The coffee committee handles the logistics of the service and the recruiting of volunteers.
The winning roasters will brew and sell their coffee to the public on Saturday, at the San Francisco Ferry Building Marketplace. It is a great opportunity to meet some amazing folks in the industry and to try some coffees outside of your local market.
Can you take us through the judging process?
Before coffee is sent to be judged, coffee roasters must fill out a form with the coffee they intend to submit and answer several questions about the sustainability practices in place at the farm level. This year, in an effort to be completely impartial among judges and volunteers alike, the GFA team sent a spreadsheet of all of the entrants to Cropster, our new partner for 2013. Cropster then generated a code for each coffee entry. These coffees are then re-bagged in identical kraft bags with only the Cropster ID as a label. This keeps the cupping blind to the judges and the volunteers because it is difficult to find coffee experts that are not working for a company that participates in the competition.
It is quite an undertaking with more than 140 coffee samples. Coffee is one of the only categories that judges two days in a row. Because of the amount of entries, the group of judges are split into two teams that cup 60-75 coffees. It makes for quite a long day and we have some very dedicated judges that are accustomed to powering through several rounds of coffees. At the end of the day we take the top 50 coffees and cup them again the next day.
On the second day the building is buzzing with energy and the other 200 judges and volunteers from the other categories. Coffee is shut in a quiet, yet glass-enshrouded room, where curious onlookers watch our “strange to them” cupping rituals. In the adjacent room, our top notch team of volunteers cranks out tables of cupping bowls. We have had the same dedicated crew for a few years now and I am extremely proud of the job we do. A few of the judges have told us that they would be willing to judge for more than two days and if our number of entries keeps going up we may just need to take them up on it.
Are there specific benchmarks for criteria like “traceability,” “transparency” or “sustainable agricultural practices?” How is the committee defining these concepts?
In these cases, it is best to put more information, than less information. The GFA does not want to exclude producers and cooperatives that are making efforts to include more sustainable practices. Perhaps the coffee one wants to enter is not entirely chemical free, but the cooperative or export consultant provides labs and education to farmers on using sustainable practices like water conservation and organic fertilizers. These are programs that we would love to hear about.
Our sustainability panel — Mieh Hansen (Dormans), David Piza (Sustainable harvest), and Edwin Martinez (Finca Vista Hermosa) — all are experts at farm level practices.
Do you have any advice for roasters thinking of submitting next year?
I would encourage roasters to enter coffees that cup well, but also come from farms that they know a lot about. Our minimum quality standards to be considered in the final round is an 84. This is interpreted by the group to be a clean and sweet coffee with no green or roast defect. The majority of coffees that make it to the final cupping score above an 85, meaning they are sweet and clean with complex acid structure and flavor.
Keep in mind scoring an 85 alone in the first round does not mean that you have a hall pass to be a finalist. The final rounds are much more difficult because your coffee is now being judged on the same table as the other top coffees in the country.
Unfortunately, not a lot of fresh coffees come out at the time of the year of the cupping. Ethiopians and African coffees seem to age better than Central American coffees with a few exceptions. We would love to have two cuppings a year inorder to level the playing field — Especially if we could find a way (sponsor) to hold a cupping in May/June on the east coast.
How have you seen the GFA program evolve? Or the coffee program in particular?
The mission of the GFA is to connect regional consumers and retailers to amazing purveyors in their own neck of the woods. The judging of coffee is quite serious and technical. Compared to our counterparts at the GFA judging, coffee is the most serious. Sometimes that can be seen as elitist and draws a barrier instead of extending an invitation. I would love to see a small percentage of the judges be coffee enthusiasts that are willing to get overcaffeinated and have their minds blown by how much amazing coffee is out there.
Nick Brown is the editorial director of Daily Coffee News by Roast Magazine. Feedback and story ideas are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org.