Date: March 2010

Column/Title: Island Coffees: Hawaii and the Caribbean

Author: Kenneth Davids; Reviews by Kenneth Davids and Ted Stachura

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This month's reviews consider coffees from two famous island growing regions — Kona and the Blue Mountains of Jamaica — together with a handful of coffees from less famous island origins: Puerto Rico, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, plus a scattering of non-Kona Hawaii coffees.

The conclusions, rather sadly, are predictable for coffee insiders but perhaps a surprise for more casual coffee drinkers.

• Three coffees from the Dominican Republic, the least-known of these island origins, led the ratings with two of three samples scoring 90 or over.

• Kona, a region that can produce delicate, subtle, sometimes extraordinary coffees, showed no signs of pulling out of a recent decline in overall coffee quality. Of the nineteen Konas we sampled, only two attracted 90+ ratings. Many of the rest were decent but unexciting coffees, muted by possible carelessness or shortcuts in fruit removal and drying.

• The three Jamaica Blue Mountain samples we tested all displayed a mild but dulling mustiness, a taint owing to delayed or irregular drying after fruit removal. The deep, quiet richness of the classic Blue Mountain type showed up in two of the samples, but in both cases a shadow mustiness held down ratings.

• On the other hand, a handful of Hawaii samples from various non-Kona growing districts — particularly the Ka'u region south of Kona, but also the Hamakua region on the other side of the mountains from Kona and the revived region around Kaanapali, Maui — ranged from interesting to exceptional. Four of these seven non-Kona Hawaiis rated 90 or better and only one of the seven was an outright dud. I suspect there is no magic about growing regions at play here, simply the Avis principle: when you don't have the automatic marketing edge provided by the Kona name you try harder. You take more care processing your coffee, drying it, and generally coddling it. (The "non-Konas are better" implication did not apply to the one sample from the island of Kauai, coming as it did from a huge farm that, in order to survive, has reverted to industrial production practices to control costs and produce a "bargain" Hawaii coffee.)

• Three Puerto Ricos suffered like the Jamaica Blue Mountain samples from mild but distracting processing and drying taints: all three hovered in the 85 to 87 range.

• It should be no surprise that only two samples showed up from the desperate and suffering country of Haiti. The surprise was that one of these samples, the Haiti Ranquitte EcoCafé from Clive Coffee (88), was a solid coffee that, despite the ubiquitous hint of a drying fault, showed the rich, chocolaty, low-acid character once associated with Haiti decades ago when it was considered a premium coffee origin. For more on the project that produced the Ranquitte green beans visit www.ecocafehaiti.org.

Why the mainstream coffee industries in Jamaica and Kona are generally not producing coffees that live up to the renown of their names is a complex question. True, neither region boasts absolutely ideal growing conditions to start with: Elevations are rather low in both cases and soil is shallow in many parts of Kona. Both regions tend to grow varieties of arabica that are traditional and respected but not particularly distinctive in flavor profile. All of which means both regions need to excel in purity of preparation to best frame the inherently subtle flavor character of their coffees.

Given the high prices paid on the world market for Kona and Jamaica coffees, one would think that growers and processors would respond to this challenge by lavishing exceptional care on the acts of picking, fruit removal and drying. But based on this month's admittedly limited sampling, that does not appear to be the case. I have not been to the Blue Mountains for ten years or more, but I suspect the culprit in the centrally managed Jamaican industry is the typically long truck haul down the mountains from the wet mills to the drying facilities in Kingston, plenty of time for the wet beans to begin to attract mildew.

In the case of the dispersed and complex Kona industry, one culprit obviously is very high labor costs. But I suspect the Kona name itself gets in the way of quality by encouraging complacency. In the case of the larger mills in particular, there appears to be little incentive for quality. Call it Kona and it sells, so why not simply crank out any old coffee to put into one of the infamous 10% Kona blends? Although, given the rather plain character of the generic 100% Konas we sampled this month, I don't see how these decent but characterless coffees would suffer much when blended with Perus or Central Americas. As for the smaller Kona producers who sell direct from their farms, we hardly sourced enough samples to come to any firm conclusions, but certainly as a group the six Konas wholesaled or retailed by farm name were dramatically superior to the more generic Konas sold simply by grade as "100% Kona." The Moonstruck Farm Kona (91) was as pure and delicate as any Kona of yore, and the experimental, dried-in-the-fruit (and outlandishly expensive) "fancy natural" from Hula Daddy (91) fused the sweet subtlety of a classic Kona with the lush, fermenty richness imparted by the exotic procedure of drying in the fruit.

There need to be many more such coffees if Kona is to finally fulfill its potential of becoming the Napa Valley of coffee, the easy-access place where Americans go to genuinely learn about the relationship of coffee production to taste and connoisseurship. The small producers probably will need to succeed in their efforts to defeat the larger mills and roasters that are supporting the law that permits a coffee to be sold as a "Kona Blend" with only 10% Kona in it. The blenders are buying the rights to a valuable brand name by acquiring relatively small volumes of what is probably the cheapest Kona coffee they can find to stick in a can with similarly drab, inexpensive coffees from Central America or Peru. Perhaps the same rather ordinary generic Kona coffees like many of those we cupped this month will show up in 80% Kona blends, or 50% Kona blends, but at least we'll have some idea what the Kona contribution tastes like.

More importantly, the small producers will need to intensify their efforts to participate in the growing body of knowledge worldwide around the relationship of quality and cup character to processing and selection of plant material. They can't assume that simply by virtue of their coffee sprouting out of some lava that happens to be in the Kona region their coffee is "the best." However, as this month's top-rated Konas prove, plenty of potential exists in Kona for fine, even distinctive-tasting, coffee. You just don't get there by replanting with tasteless varietals and, above all, pursuing sorting, processing and drying practices that are cost-expedient but flavor compromising.

Producing genuine artisan coffee is labor-intensive, knowledge-intensive, and often frustrating. But if a significant number of small Kona producers with show-place farms and mills were able to push their practice toward an international standard of sophistication in regard to understanding the impact of botanical variety and the subtle details of processing on flavor, tourist-accessible Kona could genuinely lead the way toward a more mature understanding of genuinely fine coffee among taste-leading American consumers.

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