With every sniff, slurp and spit, three judges fascinated spectators Wednesday during the preliminary round of the Kona Coffee Cupping Competition.
Inside the Sheraton Kona Resort & Spa’s Hualalai Room, these experts — John King of Harold L. King & Co., Phil Maloney of Peet’s Coffee & Tea and Makoto Ikeda of Ueshima Coffee Co. — searched for “that classic Kona flavor” among the entries submitted by 47 Kona coffee farms. After coating their tongues evenly and giving their taste buds a simultaneous splash, they evaluated the fragrance, aroma, acidity, body and flavor of the brews. For them, Kona coffee perfection is defined as having a fragrant floral aroma, mellow acidity, subtle winy tones, medium mellow body, and mellow sweetness.
King has been a judge at the competition for at least 14 years and enjoys having the opportunity to taste Kona, one of his favorite coffees, even if there’s one hazard: being highly caffeinated. He was delighted to have already found “several excellent samples” within the first tasting rounds before noon on Wednesday.
King claimed the trick for winning is to preserve Kona coffee’s quintessential mellow, sweet profile, with a bit of tartness.
“Coffee, in general, tends to bitter, but if you get a Kona that’s done right, it lacks the bitterness for reasons unknown to me,” he said.
King has heard over the years talks of drought, too much rain, floaters, late harvest and even the dreaded coffee berry borer, but he said none of the concerns have resulted in a lack of outstanding Kona coffee.
“With Kona coffee, the bar is already set high. So even the Kona coffees we deem average in two days are already far above most coffees around the world in quality,” King said.
A signature event of the 42nd annual Kona Coffee Cultural Festival, the competition has two divisions: classic and crown. The classic division features 42 single estate farms, from full-time commercial operations to boutique farms, that submit 7 pounds of green beans. Each has different characteristics and unique attributes cultivated by its owner. Meanwhile, the crown division features five larger farms or professional processing mills that submitted 1,000 pounds of green beans. All the coffee entered has to be produced in Kona.
The competition is a blind tasting. Each entry is accepted and assigned a number to protect its 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 judges to evaluate.
One suggestion King recommended to competition organizers, as well as for Kona coffee drinkers, is to use a lighter roast. He said a light roast would allow for the unique characteristics and individual traits to really shine through.
Fifteen finalists were selected and will be judged during today’s final round of the competition, happening from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. They are: Bird Feather Nobu, Castaway Bay Kona Coffee, Cloud Forest Estate, Huahua Farm, Keke Lani Estate, Kona Rainforest Coffee, Kona Rising Coffee Co., Kona View Coffee, Long Mountain Kona, Mahina Mele Farm, Mauka Meadows, Ohana Harbor Kona Coffee, Princess Radha Farm, Wailapa Farms and Yamasawa Farm.
At the end of the finals, the top three coffees in each division will be named. However, the winners will not be announced until tonight’s Kona Coffee Council buffet dinner and benefit auction. Final results will appear in West Hawaii Today when received.
When asked about how Ka‘u coffee, a young industry that has received awards and international recognition in recent years, compares with the prestigious, nearly 200-year-old Kona coffee, King had no answer. He has tried Ka‘u coffee, and thinks it’s good. He said he would be very interested in participating in a “cup-off” between the two coffees if ever given the chance.
Coffee is reaching beyond Kona, and Tommy Greenwell of Greenwell Farms thinks this is something residents should be proud of, saying there’s plenty of room for more Hawaii coffees. Besides Ka‘u, coffee can be found in Hamakua, as well as on the islands of Maui, Oahu, Molokai and Kauai. Each offers something different in taste because of soil conditions, temperature, rainfall or lack thereof, coffee variety and processing techniques, said Greenwell, who recommends consumers sample them like one would the various wine regions.
However, he warned, once you try Kona, it’s easy to get addicted.
All of Hawaii’s coffee deserve the recognition received because farming is a passionate way of life filled with endless hard work. In particular, Ka‘u has done a great job not only in marketing, but also producing, Greenwell said.
Besides watching the cupping today, the public can participate in a 10 a.m. tasting demonstration, hear about life on a Kona coffee farm at 12:30 p.m, and talk story with a Kona coffee farmer at 1 p.m.
During Wednesday’s tasting demonstration, Shawn Steiman of Coffea Consulting hoped attendees took away a better understanding of the complexities that go into producing a regular cup of Kona coffee and how a little step, such as how it was processed, roasted or brewed, can have a dramatic difference in the taste.
According to Steiman, one thing that makes Kona coffee special is it offers an experience beyond enjoying a specialty drink. He said consumers are able to purchase and support an American-produced luxury product, as well as get to know and form relationships with the farmers.
For more information, visit konacoffeefestival.com.