Aloha In Every
by Matt Delaney
An old Kona Coffee advertisement
appearing in print in the 1930ís.
The memory of my first Kona coffee experience still
brings a smile to my face. I was living on The Big Island
in Hilo at the time and working three jobs (normal for
most islanders). Friends who were renting an old coffee
shack on the hills above Kealakekua Bay invited me to
visit and stay for a weekend. Although completely content
with my assistant baseball manager/banana farm worker/forklift
driver in a ginger warehouse career, I jumped at the
chance for some fun and sun south of Kailua-Kona. Following
a beautiful day of kayaking and swimming with the Spinner
dolphins in Kealakekua Bay, I awoke Sunday morning to
the normal sounds of roosters - including one that had
climbed into the house through an open window. I also
awoke to the sounds of a coffee grinder. Along with
the cool and gentle morning breeze floated an aroma
that I can only describe as heavenly. Even back then,
my still-untrained nose caught a whiff of the complexities
of true 100% Kona coffee.
My friends had been picking beans on the property from
trees that had been abandoned a few years before. Although
no one had been tending these trees recently, the fantastic
volcanic soil and perfect growing climate allowed these
"wild" coffee beans to prosper. My friends
produced a fantastic cup of coffee that had been hand-milled,
sun-dried and roasted over an open flame. Just imagine,
I thought, what a dedicated, highly skilled Kona coffee
farmer could produce.
That experience over a decade ago inspired me to pursue
a career as a coffee importer and cupper (taster) in
San Francisco, where I've spent the last five years
with Knutsen Coffees Ltd. Currently, my wife Bobbi and
I own and run Coast To Coast Roasters Ð a quality
specialty coffee roasting company.
Specialty coffee and quality are synonymous with Kona
coffee. When we look at quality as a process, a standard
or even as an obsession, we begin to understand the
multiple steps and stages where critical decisions are
made. It is not merely an endpoint, but a necessary
component in each step of the process. When I think
of all the things that can go wrong between the planting
of a coffee seed and the final brewed cup, I am amazed
that there is any specialty coffee. So many people need
to understand and care. Special care must be taken in
growing, picking, pulping, fermenting, washing, drying,
turning, resting, sorting, milling, storing, shipping,
roasting and brewing. You get the picture. In the end
if care is involved in all these steps, to paraphrase
a bumper sticker, "Quality Happens".
I buy and roast 100% Kona Coffee for many reasons.
First, the Hawaii State Department of Agriculture has
mandatory certification for all islands. This certification
is the State of Hawaii's guarantee that the coffee we're
buying is 100% pure and from the area denoted. Hawaii's
certification program may be the most stringent origin-labeling
requirement in the world. This is not the case with
many developing nations such as Ethiopia and even Guatemala,
where unscrupulous middlemen may intentionally mis-represent
a coffee's origin. Hawaii also has the Hawaii Coffee
Association, an outstanding organization in constant
search for true Hawaiian varieties. Coupled with work
done by The University of Hawaii and the Hawaii Agricultural
Research Center, these three groups hope to continue
to produce better yielding and better tasting varieties.
A man harvesting an old
style coffee tree (tall and unpruned) in Kona. Courtesy
of the Kona Historical Society.
Of other interest is Hawaii's colorful coffee history.
Who knew that in order to encourage coffee production
in 1842, the Kingdom of Hawaii enacted a law allowing
payment of land taxes with coffee (as well as with pigs!),
and imposed a 3% duty on all foreign coffee imported
into Hawaii? * The tax provision succeeded in encouraging
small coffee plots all around the Big Island, Maui,
Oahu and Kauai. Descendants of the Kauai plantings can
still be seen on portions of the Kalalau Trail on Kauai's
Napali Coast (where I asked my wife to marry me!). This
is all fascinating stuff, I know. The most important
reason to me though, is the taste of 100% pure Kona
coffee. And believe me, Kona coffee tastes like no other
coffee on this planet.
Taste, however, is not the sole determinant of a coffee's
value. Exporters and importers usually make this decision
based on the coffee's growing region, species and processing.
The reference price point is typically the New York
Coffee, Sugar and Cocoa Exchange "C" market
indicator. Fine coffees command a premium (called a
"differential") above the C, while lower quality
coffees are sold at a discount to the C. A fortunate
handful of growers, such as those in Hawaii's Kona region,
can pretty much ignore the commodities market and price
their coffee based purely on costs and supply and demand.
Outside of the specialty coffee marketplace, coffee
prices reflect cup quality, cosmetics (bean size, number
of defects allowed) and very little else. Within the
specialty market however, most buyers place a high value
on flavor and preparation. At the bottom is a developing
new trend where most large multi-national coffee companies
and even many respected European roasters are now importing
huge quantities of low-grown, low-grade Robustas. This
varietal of coffee is mostly disease resistant and high
yield yet it has to be steam cleaned (I'm not kidding
here) to remove its harsh flavor before roasting. Finally,
we also have politically correct coffees that are organic,
fair-traded, shade-grown and bird-friendly and even
free-range! No, but seriously, if you're as confused
as I am, just think what the farmer must make of all
these terms. To me, it appears that flavor has become
a secondary concern to many coffee buyers. All of this
leads me back to the consistent quality and outstanding
flavor of 100% Kona coffee.
As an importer and cupper, I receive dozens of samples
for evaluation per week. In some countries, these samples
can vary widely in cup characteristic from region to
region and even within the same region. This can be
good or bad. If a country or growing region has good
overall milling practices (milling is what happens to
the bean once the farmer brings it to the mill), like
Costa Rica, then more often than not I'm looking for
subtle differences in the cup; I'm really keying in
on appearance, aroma, flavor, body, acidity and finish.
With coffee from less-developed countries, or those
that use mechanized harvesting, I sometimes first have
to sift through insect damage, rocks and other foreign
matter (I once found some poor Yemen farmer's tooth
in a sample!). Then I have to watch for other serious
defects like over-fermentation, which can lead to a
sourness flavor. Because of the advanced level of skill
and care that goes into planting, growing, picking and
milling Kona coffee, I know I'm starting with a very
good bean. I then can focus my cupping sessions on the
subtle differences between the various farms. 2000/2001
was a very good year in Kona. I sampled and cupped dozens
of offerings from different farms and while all were
good, many were astonishingly complex.
Matt Delaney lives in
San Francisco with his wife, Bobbi Bryant, where
they own and run Coast To Coast Roasters. When not
searching for and roasting world-class coffees,
Matt can be found singing and playing original roots-rock
music in local clubs and cafes. Check out: coasttocoastroasters.com
When I cup Kona, as with all coffees, I use three methods.
First, I use the traditional cupping method of grinding
7.5 grams with 6 oz. of 195-degree water and slurping
with a spoon. I then brew a pot. Finally, I run the
coffee through an espresso machine. I taste and spit
out, of course, or I'd be crazed with caffeine! Being
thorough allows me to detect all the wonderful subtleties
of the coffee, as well as it's possible faults. The
brewing aroma of Kona coffee is literally mouthwatering!
I know of no other coffee that comes close to its powerful
bouquet of aromatics. In one sample, I detected nut
and even vanilla tones that shimmered in the nose (up
front Ð first taste). Another had a predominating
sweetness that hinted of floral notes. Kona coffee,
in general, has a plump, smooth, medium body to it.
In this year's crop, many offerings were deeply dimensional
Ð there were clean-cut nuances that shifted and
revealed themselves as the coffee cooled. One such sample
had earthy notes that hinted pleasantly at chocolate.
Overall, I find Kona coffee to have discreet acidity
(not over-powering like Kenya) that just tingles the
sides of one's throat.
What is it that makes Kona coffee so complex? In the
end, I believe, the stars have all aligned themselves
perfectly. Kona's growing climate with its altitude,
rich volcanic soil, sun and shade, and afternoon showers
is perfect. Kona's farmers are highly skilled, caring
and have a deep and real connection to the land. Certification
guarantees what I'm buying. Of course, there's also
the romance of Hawaii. If one has visited the islands,
especially the Big Island, it is a magical place that
stays with you forever - its mana (spirit) is unforgettable.
Last, is the sweet nectar of Kona coffee. Do yourself
a favor and ask your favorite roaster for 100% pure
Kona coffee. Now, put your feet up and take a sip
can almost feel the warmth of the Hawaiian sun and hear
the waves breaking over the coral reefs.
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appeared originally in Coffee Times print magazine and
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