Aloha In Every Cup

by Matt Delaney

An old Kona Coffee advertisement appearing in print in the 1930’s.

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:

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…you can almost feel the warmth of the Hawaiian sun and hear the waves breaking over the coral reefs.

Readers may submit editorial comments to any of our stories by sending an email to We would be happy to attach your comments and feedback to anything we publish online. Thank you for your interest.

Story appeared originally in Coffee Times print magazine and appears online for archival purposes only. Any use or reprinting of these stories without the expressed written consent of the author is prohibited.