The Cupping Kind: The Remarkable Story of Kona Coffee

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The Cupping Kind: The Remarkable Story of Kona Coffee

“When we were tall enough to walk, mother would give us a sausage can,” recalls 85-year-old Norman Sakata. “We would come home from school and fill the can with beans before dinner. After dinner, we’d go out with a kerosene lamp and pick more coffee. Every bean was money.”

Back then, in the 1930s and 40s, school break was in coffee season, not summer—so families could work the farms. “Those were the good boys, the mauka (mountain) boys who went home to pick coffee,” laughs Kathleen Hemphill of Mountain Thunder Coffee. “I always fell for the bad ones, makai (ocean) boys. All they did was surf!”

“It gave us good training,” Sakata says. “We were not afraid of hard work. That togetherness…you don’t find it today. It builds and molds good character. We didn’t need a foreman; working as a family was our secret of surviving.”

Trent Bateman, who sits on the board of directors of the Kona Coffee Cultural Festival, is deeply appreciative of the Sakata family and others like them. “We couldn’t have Kona coffee if the Japanese migrant workers hadn’t come here and established themselves. It’s a very special story, a pioneering story. They took a foothold and took the job seriously.”

Times have changed, but the people behind Kona coffee remain largely the same in their dedication to their product, which is so good in the grand scheme of things that, in 2010, for the first time in 100 years, Kona coffee (Bateman’s own Mountain Thunder Coffee) took first place in an international cupping competition (the ultimate taste-test for growers and roasters, featuring a panel of judges with super taste buds). “What’s special about Kona coffee is its heritage,” continues Bateman. We are the torch-holders, the fire-keepers, of the authenticity and the legacy and the promotion of Kona coffee.”

Never is the reverence of the crop more evident than during the Kona Coffee Cultural Festival, held annually on the Big Island of Hawaii. The festival, once a weekend event primarily for locals, has evolved steadily into what is now a full-blown, ten-day extravaganza attracting international attention, thanks in part to the different, even revolutionary , ideas of Sakata. “They appointed me chairman and I had one condition: nobody could tell me what to do.” Eyebrows were raised, but Sakata met with little trouble in making the changes he felt necessary, such as choosing an elder from the coffee community to be grand marshal at the parade. Sakata remembers telling the governor in 1977 that he’d been unseated as grand marshal and replaced by a farmer. “He told me: ‘If I were selected above that man I would be embarrassed to be in the parade.’” From that year on, the grand marshal was selected based on experience, not political status. “Not only the farmers, but the laborers…a Filipino man who picked coffee all his life, parade grand marshal!”

“Every year we changed [to] different ethnic groups who worked in coffee. Portuguese, Hawaiian, Chinese…and also the landowners who gave the land to farmers, and the first Kona-born dentist, and the first Kona-born medical doctor. They all came from coffee.”

The festival, attended by enthusiastic kama’aina and visitors alike, includes a world-class Kona coffee cupping competition, a huge parade, and days full of activities, crafts, local foods, and more. What does mocha have to do with coffee? The Japanese brought this tradition with them, along with bon dance and countless other practices. What does Hawaiian lauhala-weaving have to do with it? That’s how Hawaiian workers made their baskets. “We have so much variety,” says Sakata. “Every mixture of race. We never realized what we were doing was such an attraction. These things, we just did. They come from our ancestors bringing over the traditions of what they did back in their native country. We have multiple nationalities here, and the food, entertainment, clothing, and traditions reflect that.”

“When in Rome,” smiles Trent Bateman, turning to greet arriving visitors. They’re showing up to tour Mountain Thunder Coffee, the largest organic coffee farm in the state. This coffee also the highest-grown in the state, at 3200 feet above sea level, an elevation at which native trees like the ‘ohi’a lehua still flourish, and where I caught a thrill spotting a soaring ‘io, Hawaiian hawk. To get here, you go way upcountry beyond Kailua-Kona, passing through memorable Holualoa and carefully navigating the serpentine one-lane road that hugs Hualalai. You’ll know you’ve arrived when the smell of roasting coffee tickles your olfactory nerves and you hear the cacophony of a small community of fat, waddling, geese and ducks.

“We’re on the edge of the world,” Bateman remarks, taking in the vista of the adjoining woods and pasture. The farm’s nature trail has an abundance of exotic plants, like Hawaiian raspberry, green tea, passion fruit, poka fruit, poha berry, wild orchids and vanilla, and there’s even a lava tube—discovered by Bateman himself when he nearly drove his tractor over its edge.

“I’m a machine guy,” he says, recounting his own personal path to java. “There’s a lot of machinery involved. I built everything you see here; every screw, every nail. It’s a family project. My two boys and my daughter helped me.”

Mountain Thunder is recognized throughout the U.S. via appearances on shows on the Food Network, Fine Living Network and the Discovery Channel. It’s also the bean used in Hawaii’s Meadow Gold’s Ice Cream’s Kona coffee flavor, and it is brewed at some of the most exclusive resorts on the island.

“We try to separate ourselves from the rest,” says Bateman who runs the Kona cupping competition each year. “I organize the whole event, which is sponsored by Gevalia—we supply some of their Kona beans.”

“This is not classic coffee,” adds John Langenstein, coffee guru and general manager of Mountain Thunder, which is the official Kona coffee mill and roaster of the cupping competition. “This coffee has got an acidity and characters you don’t normally find.” The combination of the elevation and the cloud cover throughout the days “develops more acidity, more aromas.” He goes on to describe a little of what a cupper will detect in the complicated cupping process. Cuppers are professional tasters, with actual extra dots on their tongues. They can detect flavors others cannot, everything from nuttiness to earthiness, tropical fruits and spices. “Acid is a brightness, a little sparkle in the cup, almost a metallic taste. It’s like a good wine. This is really a delightful coffee.”

When the beans are meticulously and lovingly picked, wet- and dry-milled, then roasted just so, the results are intensely pleasing. “I can taste the chlorophyll and it gives a wonderful character to the cup. We really want that caramelization to jump out.”

Picked red coffee berries go to the wet mill first, where the bean is sprung from its casing and cleaned of its sugar fruit. Next, the beans are dried and tumbled for about 36 hours.

The beans then go to another mill for further cleaning and polishing, followed by a sizing screen, which allows only the plumpest through to earn the grade Extra Fancy, the highest of the five grades of pure Kona coffee. “Extra Fancy is big and lush…clean, smooth, and mild.”

Most companies stop there, but not Mountain Thunder. Bateman and Langenstein employ a computerized four-channel color sorter linked to Adobe Photoshop. They input the desired range of color, shade, and hue for their premium green, pre-roasted coffee beans. Anything that doesn’t make the cut is rejected as the beans are sorted at a rate of 40 pounds per minute. “Looking at the rejects, you’d never know, but the fiber-optic eye can tell. This is a quality standard that really enhances the cup.  It’s by far the most expensive piece of equipment we own.”

Mountain Thunder roasts about 40 percent of the coffee grown here for sale and distribution. The rest is sold to other companies across the globe, as far away as Japan, even Spain. The cured green beans sit in giant sacks in a climate-controlled warehouse on the premises, awaiting inspection by the government, after which it will get the stamp of state certification. There are five grades of authentic Kona coffee: Extra Fancy, Fancy, Number One, Prime and Select, and five criteria by which the beans are judged: size, weight density, color, number of defects, cupping (or brewed) quality, and moisture.

“Kona coffee is the most scrutinized, heavily graded coffee system. We’ve got a name to protect, as well as our reputation,” says Langenstein. And it’s worth it. “If you do it right and do it well, coffee is good for you. You’re going to start feeling better, and when you’re feeling better, you treat each other better, and before you know it, we’ve got world peace!”

So, while the path to the best cup of coffee in the world is paved with intricate processing and high-tech machinery, lots of hard work (hot work!), the payoff can be ever so simple. “Take a sip of coffee,” says Norman Sakata with a soft smile. “Every bean was touched by human hands. It comes to you with love and care.”