Slurp, Swoosh, Spit: It's the Kona Coffee Cupping Event
Outside the verandah of the Keauhou Beach Resort, turtles lounged in tidepools. An eel chased a small fish. The sun outraced vog for attention. In the open-air cupping room, ceiling fans powered by trade winds spun haphazardly. If you’re going to cup coffee, it doesn’t get much better than the annual Kona Coffee Cupping Competition, held every November.
For the past 25 years as an importer of green specialty coffees from around the world, John King has started his day—and sometimes spent entire days on end—cupping coffee. That is, sampling coffee—not to be confused with drinking coffee, although he admits to plenty of that, as well.
Judging the Dry Grounds
On this second day of competition, John approached the cupping table on the lanai. He lifted a cup of dry grounds to his nose. Because the trade winds had picked up, he turned his back to block the breeze and inhaled deeply, fluffing the dry grounds with a pencil to allow the coffee’s fragrance to emanate. After a moment, John lifted his head from the cup, tapped it with his pencil and turned to another judge. They both smiled.
Two more cups of dry grinds sat on the white-clothed table. Some three dozen spectators lined the room. At the far end of the lanai, slack key guitar and ukulele players strummed and sang traditional Hawaiian songs. The recently-crowned Miss Kona Coffee arrived, all smiles.
This was the final day of the Kona Coffee Classic Competition, in which entrants were required to submit a 50-pound sample of beans harvested in Kona between June 1 and October 25. Sixteen of the original 56 entrants made it to the final round, where, after the numbers were tabulated, there was a three-way tie for first. Hence, a special “cup off” was underway to determine first, second and third place. Because this was a blind taste-testing, all the beans were stripped of any identifying names, placed in clear, plastic bags and assigned a number. To keep the judges sharp, new numbers were assigned to the 16 finalists.
John picked up the second cup of dry grounds and inhaled. Then, like a dog angles its ears to hear better, John tilted his head to catch a deeper scent. This time, when he put the cup down, he didn’t tap it with his pencil. Nor did he turn to any of his four fellow judges. He simply jotted a quick note and moved on to the third cup of dry coffee.
Scoring the Wet Grounds
After judging the dry grounds, it was time for the second phase of the competition. The crowd gathered closer now. One scoop of each finalist’s ground coffee was placed in three different cups. Then, hot water was added. Because there were three contestants in this final flight, that makes nine cups of coffee.
This is how coffee cupping works. Three cups of coffee are brewed for each entrant. John says it’s easier to pick out the individual characteristics of the coffee that way. It’s like a miner panning for gold, sifting through rubble and searching for that glint. Careful, though, sometimes the glint fools you. And that’s the point of three cups.
And still: No sipping, no drinking, no tasting. Not yet. The judges are after the coffee’s aroma here in the wet stage. They rate each cup on a 1 to 5 scale, with 1 equating to “very large” and 5 to “little/no.” After a minute or two of brewing, some coffee floats to the top and forms a crust. Aroma is most potent after breaking the crust of the coffee.
John leaned in, taking in the aroma of each of the nine cups and made a note on his clipboard. On a second pass through the nine, he pulled out his cupping spoon—sort of like a deep soup spoon—and stirred the coffee.
Sampling for Taste, Acidity and Body
Now, it was time to actually taste the coffee—step three. John dipped his spoon into the first cup and slurped. The idea here is to coat the tongue evenly, all at once, giving all the taste buds a simultaneous splash of coffee. Hence, the slurping. With five judges slurping nine different cups of coffee, it sounded like the room was full of people with seriously stuffy noses.
During the sampling phase, the judges rated the coffee on taste, acidity and body, again using the 1 (very large) to 5 (little/no) scale. Rather than swallowing, after slurping, the judges sprayed the coffee into a brass tobacco spittoon.
John slurped one entrant’s three cups of coffee. Paused. Then he moved on to the second set of three cups. Paused, again. And repeated the process with the third entrant. Then, he immediately went back to the first set, slurping each cup again. He didn’t bother with palate cleansings between tastings. It was all slurp, slurp, slurp.
At this point, John stepped away from the table. But not for long. Soon, he was back, slurping from the first entrant’s three cups of coffee. He shook his head, gazing out to sea, his narrowed blue eyes contemplating. He slurped some more. Erased something on his clipboard and wrote anew.
During a typical cupping, judges sample a minimum of three cups of coffee per entrant. On day one of the Kona Coffee Classic Competition that equated to 168 slurps of coffee. Of the 56 entrants, 16 made the final round. That’s 48 more tastings for a total of 216. Minimum. As you can see, judges often dip their spoons into the same cup of coffee more than once.
The unique profile of a good cup of Kona coffee
John said Kona is one of the only coffees in the world that when prepared and roasted right doesn’t impart any bitterness. When done right, Kona coffee imparts a sweet melody.
Finally, John stepped away from the table where his fellow judges had gathered. They looked at clipboards, each other. John pointed at his clipboard and said, “What did you think?”
“It’s hard,” one said.
“It was really good the first time,” another said.
“That was a surprise,” John said. “That didn’t come out the first time”,
The judges milled about, then turned in their scorecards. It was over. To celebrate, the event director passed around bottles of cold Heineken. It was just after mid-day.
And the Blue Ribbon Goes to
An hour or so later, in a special presentation, Debbie Hoshide, owner of Hoshide Farms was awarded first place in the 2008 Gevalia Kona Coffee “Classic” Cupping Competition. She inherited her farm from her parents. It is located on seven acres in Honaunau at 1,700-foot elevation.
Second place was awarded to Kuaiwi Farm/Kona Old Style, located in Kealakekua. Third place went to Kona Rainforest Coffee, located south of Captain Cook.
In a press release, John said, “The winning coffee possessed the quintessential Kona floral fragrance. It scored the highest marks in fragrance, which made it stand out from the others. On the cup, it was both sweet and tart.”