Stumptown vs. Zoka

April 19th, 2009 by Eric

At this weekend’s croissant smackdown event, a few of us went the extra distance and orchestrated a Stumptown vs. Zoka coffee comparison.  I’m generally an espresso/macchiato/cappuccino drinker, with Espresso Vivace providing my caffeine source at home.  But I appreciate a good French press coffee, and the coffee cuppings and classes I’ve participated in at Victrola were all enlightening.  So I was all for it when our friend Michael suggested we stage this comparison.

The competition

Stumptown, based out of Portland, is the current darling of the coffee roasting world.  In addition to five coffee shops scattered around Portland, they opened up two coffee bars in Seattle in the past year-and-a-half, and now have their sights on the NYC market.  The New York Post even gave their beans (served at Momofuku Milk Bar) a “Post pick” earlier this month over several serious contenders.

Zoka is a much smaller roasting operation based in Seattle, with two popular coffeehouse hangouts in the city and a third in Kirkland.  In addition to their wide range of coffee beans, Zoka has a nice selection of high-quality teas and decent baked goods in their cafés.

We compared three freshly-roasted beans from each roaster:

Sumatra: Stumptown’s Blue Batak vs. Zoka’s Lake Tawar
Ethiopia: Stumptown’s Wondo vs. Zoka’s Sidamo
Costa Rica: Stumptown’s Don Mayo vs. Zoka’s Helsar de Zarcero

This was a single blind tasting – our non-coffee-drinking administrator assigned a letter to each region and a number 1 or 2 to the roaster, which was randomly chosen for each region (that is, “roaster 1” in the first round did not necessarily match “roaster 1” in the second round).  The participants sampled five-minute French press brews, one region at a time.

The result was surprising to all of us: Zoka crushed Stumptown across the board, with zero votes for Stumptown!  Zoka’s Sumatra was nutty and its aroma immediately reminded me of a favorite coffee I’ve had in Europe, whereas the Stumptown Sumatra was too acidic with little aroma.  The Ethiopia brews were distinctly different, with the classic blueberry flavors coming through clearly in Zoka’s roast, while Stumptown’s offering seemed muted and again too acidic.  The Costa Rica beans were the only ones where everyone agreed the difference was subtle, and yet all votes swayed toward Zoka.

Finally, we ranked our favorites across the regions:

3. Costa Rica Helsar de Zarcero
2. Sumatra Lake Tawar
1. Ethiopia Sidamo

I think this warrants several follow-up competitions.  Victrola vs. Caffe Vita?  Zeitgeist vs. Lighthouse?  Zoka vs. Blue Bottle?  The possibilities are tantalizing.  Post your favorite roasters, and we’ll see about organizing more face-offs.

Zoka coffee beans

University Zoka
2901 NE Blakeley St, Seattle
(206) 527-0990
University Zoka on Urbanspoon

Stumptown Coffee
1115 12th Ave, Seattle
(206) 323-1544
Stumptown Coffee on Urbanspoon

13 Responses to “Stumptown vs. Zoka”

  1. Michael Bruchas says:

    Victrola vs. Caffe Vita? Zeitgeist vs. Lighthouse? Zoka vs. Blue Bottle? All are great ideas. We should build a bracket of sorts, and really get down to business. Zoka Sidamo is at the top of the list, and I’m thinking I should gift it to more people who don’t live in the area.

  2. Dawn says:

    Or, you can gift it to people who do live in the area. :)

  3. Lauren says:

    I love methodical taste offs! My favorite coffee roaster is the, always overlooked, Diva and their Highlands Blend. Give it a try!

  4. Eric Vigesaa says:

    Nice tweet on this piece from Jonathan Kauffman! After all of the national press Stumptown has had recently, I was surprised to see Zoka win so convincingly. The prices btw are almost identical ($15-16/lb).

  5. Eric says:

    Lauren, thanks for the suggestion. It’s been years since I had Diva coffee, so I will check out that blend and get them into our coffee bracket!

  6. Joseph says:

    I agree that Stumptown coffee is overhyped and overrated. I am a Victrola fan though the best whole beans in the area come from a little know roaster in Redmond, Caffe Lusso. Most of the rosters use Atlas as a supplier of raw beans. It is the roast that differentiates.

  7. Eric says:

    Joseph, thanks for the Caffe Lusso tip – I’ve never heard of them, and will give them a try. Good coffee on the Eastside would be nice to see!

  8. Philip @ Caffe Lusso says:

    Heh heh. So it’s a bit of a slow saturday and I was googling our small family roastery, Caffe Lusso. This site popped up so here I am. Always weird to see yourself online, especially when you’re a small, underground mom and pop.

    Thanks for the kind words, Joseph! And anyone who would like to drop by the roastery next week, I should be around. Macchiato’s on the house (mention this post). We’re just outside of Marymoor Park, although tricky to find. Give me a shout at 425-284-2327 and I’ll give you directions. :)

    Happy Coffee Adventures,

    Philip @ Caffe Lusso

  9. Anne [wideangle.ca] says:

    Tried to check out Cafe Lusso this morning. Not only is it hard to find (obscure location and no door signs…), it is also closed at 8h45am…

  10. Mike Rupp says:

    Zoka’s Sidamo is a fantastic roast and anything Ethiopian that I’ve had from Stumptown just didn’t even compare. The one thing that I’ve noticed about Stumptown is that it seems that they roast their beans to the exact same degree of darkness, regardless of the bean itself. I think that the African beans lend themselves to a lighter roast to allow the fruity smells and flavor to come through and the Latin American beans are better when roasted darker.

  11. Steph says:

    Zoka has a new location in Kirkland, WA.

    129 Central Way
    Kirkland, WA 98033

    (425) 284-1830?
    zokacoffee.com

    They source their own beans. Hmm. Delicious.

  12. Brian says:

    I’ve been wanting to do something like this myself. Being from CA, here are the places I would look at, for starters:

    Verve Coffee Roasters
    Barefoot Coffee Roasters
    Ritual
    Blue Bottle

    For espresso, Vivace is the best I’ve had. WOW!

  13. Dawn says:

    Brian, thanks for the coffee suggestions! We’ve had Blue Bottle (love it!), and tried Ritual, too, when we were in SF last year. Haven’t tried Verve or Barefoot, though. It would be interesting to put them head-to-head in a blind test. Vivace is awesome – more often than not, it’s the espresso we have each morning at home.

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