Manners were left at the door of the Hualalai Room at the Sheraton Kona Resort & Spa at Keauhou Bay, where sniffing, slurping and spitting were requirements during the Kona Coffee Cupping Competition.
The three judges did so with vigor, tenacity and focus for two days. John King of Harold L. King & Co., Phil Maloney of Peet’s Coffee & Tea and Kazuya Ujimori of Ueshima Coffee Co. were searching for Kona coffee perfection among the entries submitted by 69 entries. They wanted something with a fragrant floral aroma, mellow acidity, subtle winy tones, medium body and sweetness.
A signature event of the 43rd annual Kona Coffee Cultural Festival and produced by the Kona Coffee Council, the cupping competition was held Wednesday and Thursday. It has two divisions: classic and crown.
The classic division had 60 single-estate farms, ranging from full-time commercial operations to tiny boutiques. Each farm possesses coffees with subtly different characteristics and a unique personality carefully cultivated by the owner. The farms each submitted 7 pounds of 100 percent Kona green beans for the competition.
The crown division had nine much larger farms and professional processing mills, which submitted 1,000 pounds of 100 percent Kona green beans.
The competition is a blind tasting because “transparency is key,” said Roger Kaiwi, the event’s chairman. Entries are accepted and assigned numbers to protect their anonymity. The numbers are changed between the preliminary and final rounds to keep the judges’ palates alert. Green and roasted coffee samples are also placed on the table for evaluation.
By the end of the preliminary tasting round, 13 finalists were named in the classic division. They were Bill Dwyer, Brocksengate Estate, Greenwell Farms Inc., Huahua Farm, Kainaliu-Kona Coffee Co., Kuaiwi Farm/Kona Old Style, Kona King Coffee, Kona Mountain Coffee, Kona Rainforest Coffee, Kona View Coffee, Mauka Fire, Mauka Meadows and Mountain Thunder.
What distinguished the finalists and winners from the other entries were their pleasant acidity, heady floral aroma with herbal notes, and nice medium body, said Phil Maloney of Peet’s Coffee & Tea.
Maloney said he enjoyed his second time judging the competition. With its open atmosphere, he said it allows the public to understand the process that goes into cupping, which requires more focus and sensory engagement. Typically when he does a cupping, it’s in a quiet, very controlled environment.
Nevertheless, Maloney said the venue and people continue to make the event “a pleasure.”
First-time judge Ujimori was impressed by the quality of the entries. During the finals, Ujimori said he was focused on finding the coffees with the best acidity — one with a bright, wine- or raisin-like flavor sensation. For him, this is one of the main characteristics that sets Kona coffee apart from others. To keep his palate fresh, his secret was eating crackers occasionally between rounds.
Ujimori said the competition helps increase the quality of coffee and sustainability of those in the industry. For those who didn’t earn recognition, the contest provides valuable feedback on how to improve. For the winners, they’ll likely sell more coffee and be able to command a justified premium, he added.
Kaiwi described the competition as “a prestigious event, one that gives winners bragging rights that last an entire year and sometimes a lifetime.” Kaiwi said the annual contest showcases the hard work, effort and aloha of folks who produce Kona coffee.
“Being a Kona coffee farmer is not just a job or living; it’s a passion and that passion comes out in the cup,” he said.
At the end of the finals, the top three coffees in each division were selected. However, the winners were not announced until the Kona Coffee Council dinner and benefit auction. Final results were not available as of press time and will appear in West Hawaii Today when received.
For more information, visit konacoffeefest.com.