For those of you who don't live around Seattle, these little coffee shop reviews might be less interesting, but I have an overall comment on the industry to make here. I'm going somewhere with this, I swear.
As I've mentioned before, I'm on the road for an extended time right now, in the Seattle area and then to make one or two origin trips in October and November. While in Seattle, I'm staying on the Eastside, where my parents and sister live. I've gotten to know the booming little suburb of Kirkland.
Now, no one's going to mistake downtown Kirkland for a chic neighborhood like Greenwich Village in New York, or an urban-grit-cred one like the west side of Capitol Hill in Seattle, but it's not quite what you expect in a suburb. It's a dense little pocket of housing, retail, and mixed-use buildings. The downtown core is very walkable, and indeed you see people of all ages walking there, especially on the weekends. Just a few miles south, in downtown Bellevue (by all measures a much larger city, though with similar demographics), the only place people walk is within the confines of the mall.
I didn't grow up around here, but my sister has lived in the area for a few years now, and I've become accustomed to spending time in Kirkland. One of the biggest changes to the neighborhood since I was last here was the opening of a huge, beautiful third-wave coffee shop right on one of the busiest corners (for foot traffic and for cars) in town: Zoka's new Kirkland location.
Zoka has been making good coffee in Seattle for years. Their Greenlake and U-District locations are neighborhood anchors. They're one of the original cluster of Seattle-based companies that have been doing specialty coffee in the "Third Wave" style. I remember driving in Ravenna one time years ago and hearing a radio spot on KCMU — er, KEXP — inviting people to come in and try Zoka's Ethiopia Yirgacheffe. That was the first time I'd ever even heard the work Yirgacheffe spoken outside of a coffee shop or roastery.
Well, flash-forward a few years and now Zoka has locations in Snoqualmie and Kirkland in addition to the two Seattle stores. I've been to the Kirkland store several times now, without announcing myself (I know, bad form), and I want to say a few words.
First of all the overall quality of the coffee is very good. All the espresso beverages and brewed coffee — and I have had several of each — have been somewhere on the scale from good to fantastic. I've had cappuccinos, espressos, and Melitta-style pour-over coffees.
The store is pretty glitzy and shiny on the inside, but not overly so. It actually fits in quite well in Kirkland. (The mark of a good shop is that it feels congruous with it's surroundings... this store would feel out of place in Greenlake, and vice versa.) It's got a big interior space, with lots of display given to beans and equipment. There's a big video screen that plays a slideshow of coffee photos from origin.
What really blew me away when I first walked in were the five (5!(¡cinco!)) Mazzer Robur grinders lined up in a row. I have no idea if Zoka plans to offer five espressos side by side, but they sure seem set up to do so. They have been offering two right now (an S.O. Brazil and S.O. Kenya) plus, presumably, a decaf (I didn't ask). Add in a Slayer espresso machine and that's-a spicy-a meatball-a. So they're decked out as far as equipment goes.
The staff has been friendly, fast, and knowledgeable every time I've gone. They wear smart-looking black and white clothes, which really adds to the whole feeling of professionalism.
But of course a professional look is nothing without professional execution. Happily, the Zoka Kirkland baristas make excellent beverages. Well-executed cappuccinos and sweet-tasting espresso.
Specifically: I had a shot of the single origin Brazil the other day, a pulp-natural coffee. The barista handed it over on a little tray with a gibraltar cup of sparkling water. As I lifted it to my mouth he started to tell me the flavor profile of the coffee, starting with "plum sweetness." I cut him off with a sidelong glance and a, "Just wait... I don't want you to color my perception," which came across much more rudely than I had intended. He smiled and nodded respectfully.
There was indeed a stone-fruit sweetness to it, plus a dry nuttiness like walnut skins. Overall it was fairly grassy, in a pleasing, fresh-cut grass kind of way. The total volume of liquid was just about one ounce, which always kind of disappoints me, but then, I'm back in the Northwest where the super-ristretto originates. But a good shot, overall, and knowledgeably prepared.
The real star of my visits to Zoka, however, has been the Colombia single-origin brewed coffee. Served as a pour-over cup of drip coffee, the cup I had on Saturday morning was a top twenty in my life kind of coffee. One of the most cherry-rich coffees I have ever had. All the best characteristics of high-grown Colombians with none of the nasty biting greenness or dirtiness. Deep, deep sweet chocolate and about three kinds of cherry flavors. I did not want that cup to end. Lucky for me, Zoka is just a few blocks from where I am staying, and the Colombia is still on the menu.
Sometimes people seem skeptical that great coffee will ever be anything other than a micro-niche, especially people outside the industry. It's not surprising that super-specialty coffee got its start in über-hip places like the corner of Denny and Broadway on Capitol Hill, or downtown Portland. And the urban hipster vibe is still crushingly strong in the overall industry. But Zoka Kirkland is proof that great coffee is about quality of ingredients, professionalism, care, execution, and love. Not your zip code. I'd put their quality up against just about any other shop in the country.