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Kona coffee – insight from the inside

November 27, 2010

Two and a half weeks ago, during the annual Kona Coffee Cultural Festival, the staple Gevalia Kona Cupping Competition took place.  To the best of my knowledge, there is no greater collection of Kona coffees in one place than this competition.  Submission is free and any farm in Kona is permitted to submit a sample.  This year, for the first time, I had the honor and pleasure of judging the competition.

While there are many coffee competitions around the globe, I suspect that no other has a pool of coffees from such a narrow geographical range.  Moreover, I doubt any has a collection that carries the myriad of reputations that Kona coffee’s carry.  Let’s face it; some folks are absolute believers in Kona coffee while others propose that the quality does not support the price.  With well over 600 farms in Kona, every spot on the spectrum of quality is likely to be produced.

And that is precisely what I discovered.  During the competition, I tasted defective coffees as well as extraordinary coffees that would easily vie for any coffee geek’s adoration.  As expected, the vast majority of the coffees were neither terrible nor exceptional.  Rather, they fell in the middle, as any normal distribution (bell curve) would predict.

There’s a lot more going on with Kona coffees than most folk realize.  I submit that there is a coffee in Kona to satisfy every person’s desired quality.  Yet, few people take the time (or expense) to explore the possibilities.  While this is understandable, is a shame, since the coffees from this origin and region are so accessible!   

There’s a great deal about the competition I’d like to write about.  However, I’m not keen to make this post a short story.  Thus, I’ll throw out some topics for you to ponder.  If you’re interested in hearing my thoughts on them, post a comment here or get in touch with me directly. As all the topics are posed as questions, I encourage you to take a stab at answering them (and sharing that answer with me)!

Some of those topics, in no particular order:

  • This competition could do more to improve the quality of Kona coffee than anything else.  Why is it seemingly having no effect whatsoever?  
  • There were plenty of complex, thought-provoking coffees on the table.  If they exist (and the coffees I judged represented a random sample), why don’t more customers know about them?  Is it because customers seeking such coffees aren’t looking hard enough, because the coffees are roasted too dark, because the farms aren’t even sure which bag of coffee they drew the sample from, or something else?
  • This competition aims to identify the coffee that most exemplifies the “classic” Kona profile.  What, if anything, is so special about that profile?
  • Considering these coffees were the result of perhaps the worst drought Kona coffee farmers have ever experienced, why were so few coffees defective?
  • Why was the number of submitted samples relatively low this year?
  • With these coffees being so young (from harvest), how will they taste in 6 months?
  • Why is this competition, so important to the festival and Kona, hardly known outside of the Big Island?

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