Date: April 1998

Column/Title: Hawaii

Author: Ken Davids

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A blind cupping of Hawaiian coffees provokes two interesting issues: First, how good is Kona? Is it a rip-off at $ 16 a pound green and $25 to $35 per pound retail? Or is this most traditional of Hawaiian coffees simply a very fine origin that has the further good luck to be scarce and expensive? Second, how good are the "other island" coffees, the new "non-Kona" Hawaiis from Kauai and Maui?

For those unfamiliar with Hawaiian coffee geography, Kona is a small growing district about two to three miles wide and by twenty miles long that straggles along parallel to the southwest coast of the Big Island of Hawaii. Growing altitudes are relatively low in the Kona district (800 to 2,300 feet), but a regular afternoon cloud cover and rain plus splendid drainage seem to mimic growing conditions normally achieved elsewhere at higher altitudes. All Kona coffee comes from trees of a traditional strain of typica Hawaiians call Guatemala and is processed by the traditional washed or wet method. Kona coffee farming was pioneered by Japanese-Americans with small holdings. Today Kona farms remain small, averaging about three acres. Contemporary farmers are a mix of Japanese- Filipino-, and Hawaiian-Americans, back-to-the-landers from the 60s and 70s, and a sprinkling of newcomers from the mainland.

Given the almost impeccable credentials of Kona coffee -- heirloom trees, impeccable fastidious wet-processing, small farmers passionate about their crop (many of whom refuse to use chemicals) -- it may sound odd that Kona is, along with Jamaica Blue Mountain, the origin coffee professionals most love to criticize. The main reason, of course, is price weighed against perceived value. Forced to spend unprecedented prices to get the Kona that their palm-tree-and-sand-smitten customers demand, roasters and dealers feel blackmailed by the Kona myth. "Look at Kenya," they complain, the world's consensus greatest coffee, and it retails for fifteen or twenty dollars per pound less than this "wishy-washy" Kona! Kona-bashing is particularly intense among professionals in the western states, where prevailing darker roast styles drive off the delicate aromatics that make Kona distinctive. One forthright cupping board member even admitted to reducing scores a bit on the Konas in reaction to their high cost.

But I'm sure that most members of the board understand that we can't hold high prices against Kona when we cup it, and that we live in an economic system in which supply and perception-driven demand determine prices, not the opinions of experts. The real question here is not whether Kona is worth $25 to $35 per pound, but whether it is a good and distinctive coffee regardless of price.

Judging from the response of the panel to the seven Konas in the cupping, the answer to the "good" part of that question is clear: Kona is a very fine coffee. The average rating for the seven participating Konas was 80. That may not sound like an impressive number, but consider that the fancy Brazils cupped in February 1998 averaged 75; the El Salvadors in September 1997 74+; and a range of Guatemalas, one of the world's most celebrated coffee origins, averaged only 78 in July 1997. Even if we compare the Kona scores to scores for Guatemalas from the Antigua valley, Guatemala's most admired growing district, the Konas still hold their own.

On the other hand, none of the Konas came close to provoking the excitement attracting the enthusiasm that the highest-rated Guatemala did. The Guatemala La Tacita elicited an 87 and raves; this cupping's highest-rated Fitzgerald Estate Kona attracted an 84 and mild enthusiasm.

However, average scores of any kind don't settle the distinctiveness issue, which is more a fine-print than a numbers question. Distinctiveness means, at the simplest level: Can you tell this coffee apart from other coffees? Is there any special way this coffee is "good" that is different from the way other coffees are good?

Again, the Kona-criticizers claim that Kona comes up short in this respect. One panelist added the following note to his cupping form:s that read, in part: "In my opinion Konas are largely overrated coffees. They are faint ... [with] slight or delicate acidity and soft, smooth body; never really substantial and bold. I was careful to not let my own opinions get in the way of being fair to these Konas, because some of them were quite nice. [But] Just because they (Konas) don't have any taints doesn't make them great coffees. The lack of flavor should actually be a taint. It's like knowing someone who doesn't have a criminal record ... Just because of that, [are] they ... someone interesting to talk to?"

True, Kona does not display any textbook distinguishing characteristic, like the powerful, winy acidity of Kenyas or the overwhelming floral fragrance of Ethiopia Yirgacheffes. Kona may not even provoke a standard expectation in regard to overall flavor, something similar to our anticipation that Sumatras will be deep and resonant or Guatemalas complex and spicy. On the other hand, Costa Ricas don't display any particular characteristic either aside from bell-like clarity and balance, and certainly the best Costa Ricas, like La Minita, have to be considered among the world's very finest origins. (The typical Costa-Rica profile may be changing, though, by the way, as processing methods change are altered to accommodate new environmental laws regulating water use.)

The panelists for this cupping showed a remarkable consistency in the adjectives they chose to describe these Kona samples. Body generally was described as medium, acidity as bright and sweet, flavor as either balanced or bland depending on the cupper's predisposition (and the power of the particular coffee being reviewed), and aftertaste as clean and/or fresh. Characterization of nuance or grace notes tended to describe understated versions of the dry fruit tones I like to call winy.

Whether that description makes Kona distinctive or just pleasantly good is a question Coffee Review can only leave to readers. As for price, look at it this way. At $22 to $30 per pound retail, Kona coffee costs about nine to twelve cents per ounce in the cup. A mid-priced wine, something that sells for around $20 per bottle, costs approximately eighty cents per ounce, or almost ten times as much as the Kona, currently the world's highest-priced coffee.

Kona coffee farmers still can't support themselves on coffee growing alone, even at today's unprecedented prices. Elsewhere in the world many of the world's small coffee farmers live on the edge of starvation.

In my opinion the scandal is not that Kona is too expensive, but that the rest of the world's fine coffees are unjustifiably, inhumanely and obscenely cheap.

What about the second question before the cupping: How good are the new Hawaii coffees, the "non-Konas" from Kauai, Maui and Molokai?

In social and technical terms, these coffees are almost diametrical opposites to Kona. Whereas Kona is produced by owners of small farms working by hand using traditional methods, these coffees are produced on large corporate farms using highly mechanized methods. Whereas all Kona comes from trees of a traditional variety of arabica that has been grown in Kona for generations, the "other island" Hawaii coffees come from varieties now being raised in Hawaii for the first time. Whereas Konas are wet-processed by traditional methods involving loosening of the fruit pulp by fermentation, wet-processed coffees from the other islands are "aqua-pulped," meaning the pulp is removed by mechanical scrubbing. If Konas are relatively low-grown, the other island Hawaiis are very low-grown.

On the other hand, the non-Kona Hawaii coffees are produced using some of the most technically advanced methods available in the world today. And for rural Hawaii a good deal rides on the success of these coffees. Hawaiian plantation workers are the highest paid in the world, and as pineapple and sugar-cane plantations close owing to low-wage foreign competition, replacement specialty crops like coffee may be the only way to preserve the semi-rural "plantation lifestyle" so valued in Hawaii as economic reality and cultural symbol.

For these reasons I'm a supporter and even booster of the other-island coffees. I lived in a Hawaiian plantation town for a time, and like so many outsiders, fell in love with the rich, original, and humorously inclusive life of these places. Furthermore, I admire the scholarly technical approach of the people who direct the other-island farms. Kaanapali Estate is the only place I know of that keeps its botanical varieties of coffee so rigorously separate that the coffee-curious can taste four different varieties of arabica with other key variables like microclimate, and husbandry and processing methods kept constant. For a coffee researcher the body of information being developed, particularly at Kaanapali, is invaluable.

In the cup, however, these coffees clearly have a way to go before they can compete in quality with the better specialty coffees of the world. This cupping included four "other-island" coffees, two from Kauai Coffee and two from Maui's Kaanapali Estate. Malulani Estate on Molokai declined to participate. The staff at Coffee Review decided not to publish ratings for the Kaanapali Moka because we concluded that its dry-processed, exotic-varietal profile was misleadingly atypical in the context of this particular cupping.

Even with omission of the Kaanapali Moka the three remaining non-Kona Hawaii coffees filled in the bottom echelon of the cupping with an average rating of 74 compared to the Konas' overall average of 80 points. On the positive side, their average was only a little lower than the average for the specialty El Salvadors cupped in February. The highest-rated of the three, the Kaanapali wet-processed Yellow Caturra, was an interesting, if slightly flawed, coffee.

In coffee terms, the estates in Kauai, Maui and Molokai are still young farms. Hopefully as their trees mature and their processing methods undergo further refinement they will join their traditionally minded Kona elder brother on the premium lists of the world's premium coffees.

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