This was my first year as Co-Chair for the Good Food Awards, hosted by the Good Food Foundation which exists “to celebrate, connect, empower, and leverage the passionate and engaged, yet often overlooked, players in the food system who are driving towards tasty, authentic, and responsible food in order to humanize and reform our American food culture”. Each year producers from all over the US submit their products for evaluation in a diverse array of categories, from oils to charcuterie to confections to coffee.
All the other categories, except coffee, go through evaluation in the same space at Impact Hub in San Francisco. For this weekend in September, Impact Hub becomes an anthill of delicious foods and talented tasters. However our product requires a lot of voltage to grind and brew, and our evaluators tend to enjoy quiet spaces free from the stinky smells of delicious cheese. We taste submissions at what’s known as the “coffee annex” at Counter Culture Coffee’s Training center in Emeryville. They have been generous to let the Good Food Awards host the coffee portion of the blind tasting for the past 5 years. It’s an incredible relief and a real luxury to brew approximately 200 coffees in a space with enough power to run 18 Bonavita brewers and enough rooms for for teams of judges to evaluate coffees simultaneously.
Our coffee committee, which includes Tovara Salley of Equator as my co-chair, Mallory Roth of Blue Bottle as Head Judge, and Andy Tan, barista at large, as Brew Coordinator, spend all of Friday opening boxes, coding coffees, and preparing for the weekend’s tasting. We are incredibly lucky to have the support of Cropster, and this year Norbert Neiderhauser and Devin Connolly joined us in person to facilitate our tasting. The coffees are coded to be double-blind, so neither the volunteers nor the judges have any indication of what coffees are appearing on which tables. Judges are broken up into pods, each with a team captain, and after calibrating with the Head Judge each team will taste up to 8 different flights of coffee. After Saturday’s enormous tasting – this year featured over 170 coffees – only 50 coffees move on to Sunday’s final tasting. These represent the 10 highest scoring coffees from each region of the US: East, West, North, South, and Central. The coffee finalists will be evaluated a second time on Sunday morning, and the top two in each region will become Good Food Awards winners, who are invited out to the awards ceremony in January and able to put the GFA logo on their product.
The Good Food Awards is committed to celebrating sustainably sourced, delicious products, and the coffee category has gone through several different sets of requirements in order to meet our industry’s unique needs. Most of the other categories involved in this event are produced right here in the US, whereas coffee producers are usually far overseas, often in countries with enormous wealth disparity and extreme poverty. For the last couple years, coffee has required a third party certification for all submissions, including NOP Organic, Fair Trade (FTUSA/Fairtrade International), SMBC Shade, Rainforest Alliance, C.A.F.E Practices, 4C/CAS – Global Coffee Platform, and Demeter Biodynamic. This requirement was implemented to make submissions more equitable, and to minimize the amount of work it takes to vet each submission. However, this protocol disqualifies the many farmers who grow their coffee thoughtfully and sustainably who have not yet been able to secure a third party certification.
The current coffee committee and the Good Food Awards both recognize that this is an imperfect solution, and are working actively to find requirements that support the work of coffee producers worldwide while recognizing the efforts of roasters who maintain positive relationships with these producers and their importers. Although we were unable to implement any changes this year, we are looking forward to working with our Sustainability Committee to find reasonable requirements that open the floor up to folks who are doing the right work but who are not certified. Stay tuned for more details, and if you’re interested in participating in this conversation please drop me a line.
Another frustration surrounding is the origin of the majority of Good Food Awards winners and finalists; there has always been preponderance, if not an overwhelming majority, of Ethiopian coffees in top scoring coffees. There are a few reasons for this: the first is that Ethiopia produces exceptional coffee. Another important factor is that Ethiopian coffees are freshly landed and popping in mid September when the blind tasting takes place, whereas some other origins might be starting to show their age around this time. Finally, in previous years the tables have been completely randomized, with no thought for contextual cupping. This often results in significantly lower scores for coffees who happen to be sitting next to an exceptional Gesha or similarly spectacular coffee.
In our constant battle to do these coffees and our industry justice, the requirements for submission changed slightly this year: “To support the work of coffee growers, farmers and roasters around the world, roasters submitting more than one entry must be from different countries.” This was done in an effort to increase the diversity of our submissions, instead of encouraging roasters to maintain the status quo and submit coffees they had sourced solely because it fit the profile of other Good Food Award winners. This requirement led to a significant increase in the diversity of submissions.
This was also the first year we chose to curate each table by origin and processing, allowing the judges to compare like with like. That is to say, Guatemalan coffees were cupped with other Central American coffees and washed Gujis were cupped against other washed Ethiopians. This practice significantly tightened the spread of scores from various origins on our general tasting day, and this year 30% of the finalists were from regions other than Ethiopia – a huge improvement over previous years.
Finally, as an experiment this year we invited “citizen tasters” to participate in our cupping. Their scores were not taken into account for the final tally, but this allowed us to evaluate how niche our market is and whether we are in calibration with the consumers who enjoy our coffee. Happily, our citizen cuppers performed really well and allowed coffee to feel less isolated from the rest of the Good Food Awards. We look forward to including people from other industries into our blind tasting in the following years.
The blind tasting this weekend was a real whirlwind, and I am so grateful to our fabulously talented judges who traveled from far and wide to thoughtfully and objectively score each coffee. I was deeply impressed with our group of hard working volunteers, made up of coffee professionals from all over the Bay Area. With their help, we were able to make this weekend run smoothly and efficiently, and most importantly we were able to have a lot of fun.
The Good Food Awards is an incredibly fun project to work on, and certainly has its benefits (I ate approximately my own weight in cheese last night at the after party). However, it’s also an incredible amount of work. If you know anyone who participated in this weekend’s tasting, whether as a roaster who submitted a coffee, a volunteer, or a judge, please give them a warm thank you on my behalf. This competition means a lot to our industry and the work the Good Food Foundation does to support our industry and many others like it is invaluable. Onward to another year!