Kona Coffee is Changing

When we started farming in Kona we were struck by two things 1) buyers who said that Kona Coffee was overrated and overpriced and 2) Kona Coffee farmers who said Kona Coffee was the best in the world and it didn’t need to improve. We heard these two statements or variations of them, over and over. Neither statement made any sense to us. Anything overvalued or overpriced gets pushed out of the market by competitors with better quality or lower prices. At the same time, there is no product that can’t be improved.
When we picked our first crop, we entered the local cupping competition. Of course, we didn’t do very well but it gave us a starting point. We tried to find out our score in the cupping. We were told that the judges were not allowed to share the scores. We thought that was strange. We also asked for a copy of the criteria that the judges used in evaluating the coffees. We thought knowing the criteria would help us create better Kona coffee. We were told that only one judge had the criteria – based on his perception of good Kona coffee – and he wouldn’t share it. Stange on top of strange.
We struggled on trying to make better coffee and our rank slowly rose without us having the slightest idea of what the scores or criteria were. Kona cupping competitions were pretty hit or miss. Some years the top coffees were marvelous, other years they were worse than supermarket coffee. It wasn’t the coffee, it was the unprofessional judging. One year we watched a head judge try to roast 50 coffee entries in an outdoor passageway at the Hilton Hotel. The passageway was right next to the ocean and a 10 mile an hour wind was blowing over the roaster. The result wasn’t good. Another year, another head judge decided to throw out the criteria used worldwide by professional coffee cuppers and create his own unique criteria. Two of the criteria he employed in the competition that year were “coffeeness,” and “floral.” Needless to say, the result was a disaster. Some farmers with a valid reputation for great coffee didn’t make the first cutoff. However, a good result was that the next year the competition started using professional judges.
Professional judging is starting to change Kona coffee for the better. Today there are Kona coffees that can compete in any competition with world class coffees. Kona farmers are changing their varieties, their processing and their roasting to create world class coffee.
We looked at recent Hawaii Coffee Association Kona coffee cupping scores to see if there was a trend. We used the Kona coffee top score and the 10th highest score.
Creating a coffee scoring 85 is not easy. Coffees above 86 are in a rarefied world class. This chart is one indication that Kona coffee is changing for the better.

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