|Some Comments on the Competition from a Judge, Mainly for the Kona Farmers:
Since I have been one of the four judges in the competition for the last 2 years (and sure hope to continue to be in the future), I wanted to make a couple comments that farmers might find useful. Be warned, these are very candid comments ... please don't think I am trying to be a know-it-all. I don't know jack about coffee farming. But I am trying to offer some thoughts from my persepctive as a guy who has seen a lot of coffee farms and mills in a lot of places, including Kona.
First of all, people who grow coffee need to learn to roast and to taste coffee. It is kinda BS for a farmer to say "I have the finest coffee" or even to say "it has fine floral character, blah blah..." and then put out a table of 6 Kona coffees and say "find your coffee here." How many could do that? How many really, really understand the cup character of their own coffee? Okay, I admit that is a hard line to take, and a possibly a tough cupping test. But if I set up a table of a Red Catuai grown at 1000 feet, a Yellow Caturra from 1500 feet, a Kona Typica from Koloko Mauka at 2500 feet, a Kona Typica from Honaunau/South Kona at 1500 feet, and a coffee like the Bateman's 3200 feet Typica, you should be able to find yours, if yours was one of them.
Farmers need to roast and taste their coffee throughtout the crop, from beginning to end, to taste the different lots, the different grades, separate the faded from the average green from the opal green. I know, it's a lot to ask of people who have a lot on their minds already while running a farm, but it will separate those who just grow cherry to sell, from those who offer "estate" coffee, from those who offer "estate" coffee and REALLY know their coffee.
If farmers did this, than the results of the competition would not seem so random. The fact that last year's winners come in the lower percentile would make sense, and would not be an insult or mean that their coffee is bad (it doesn't mean that at all).
The fact is this: the competition is linked to the festival, and it seems that in most years it happens too early in the coffee season. That may or may not ever be changed, but what it means is that the competition is really evaluating who had the best parchment coffee THAT week the samples were due. Now, you could call this unfair, but you would be calling your soil, your altitude, your rain and your sun unfair. It's agriculture; there's always an X factor. You could have the competition Dec 15 or Jan 15 and have a different set of "winners" for sure. But the agricultural reality of that X factor, when a coffee peaks for a certain farm, would never go away. My wish would be that the competition could be in January, and those who feel their best coffee was in November could simply hold it in parchment, in climate control, until it is ready to mill and submit to the competition.
Anyway, if you place low in the competition, I mean really really low, I think you should know why. I think, privately, the judges should be able to tell you, or write to you, about what we experienced in the coffee. I would say their were 10-12 defective samples of the 57, ones we found unanimously defective, and another 5 that some of us found defective, not all. Cupping is about communication. It's a form of feedback, not a final judgement. A great, great coffee can be defective because of 1 bad seed, every farmer knows that. If a coffee was fermenty, phenolic or hard tasting, if it was dirty tasting, then these are processing defects that can easily be addressed (if the farmer knows about them). So I hope there would be a way (it is certainly possible via the web using secure logins) to return private results to each farmer about their coffee.
Now granted, alot of these results would not be so informative. The bulk of coffees we cupped are just good, solid Kona coffees, clean, defect free, but not stand out samples. They might lack body, or acidity, or special aromatics. What that means to me (usually) is that your coffee is not at it's peak yet. I mean, if you are at 2000 feet, there is some positive brightness in the cup, but it has a thin body, and an almost greenish cast to the flavor, it is too "young". Maybe you were just barely able to get a sample together of ripe cherry. We can taste this "immature" flavor in the coffees, and I felt there was a bit more of it that usual this year. The other thing that made sense to me is the volume of coffee cherry might adversely affect the cup. Now, this might be bugaboo, but I don't think trees stressed out with overproduction of cherry, leaves turning yellow, drooping, are going to be concentrating the usual amounts of compounds in their seeds that result in the best olifactory and gustatory experience. Farmers love to see volume, but I am not sure it makes cuppers so happy.
It soure would be nice if less farmes had to rely on wetmilling and drymilling services. There is newer equipment available that allows you to be a true "estate", to process coffee from start to finish. Then again, I realize this is just not possible technically, spatially, economically. I wish the mills all had electronic color sorting. Some do. Trent does. I know that the opinion is that, if all the other equipment is working right, the "electric eye" is not necessary. But I keep getting beautiful Kona XF or F, and plopped in the middle is a full-on black bean. Do you know what a full black bean does to a pot of coffee? It will mean one of the worst coffee experiences of your life, seriously. The machine would take care of that.
Lastly, many Kona farms are direct marketers of their own coffees. This is great in order to return the highest price to you for all your work. But in order to distinguish themselves from others, a lot of sites are sorta making up stuff about their coffee. What needs to be hammered in for consumers is altitude, soil, micro-climate, small farm production, hand-picking, excellent Typica cultivar. When people start up with poetic "kissed by Pele" or fanciful agriculture ideas like using a trellis to grow coffee, trying to make associations to viniculture, I don't think this helps then general effort to get the best prices for all the farms, and the best recognition to those who farm seriously. I guess I feel like everyone with low-grown should just sell cherry to go into Kona Blend, and there should be a real naming convention that communicates the level of care a farmer puts into a coffee. If you live on your farm year round or nearly, if you are out trimming and hauling and mowing, if you are hand-pulping and patio-drying, if you are on an old, traditional farm with some serious altitude, then I think this deserves some special recognition. The fact that some estates sell coffee in their estate bags which is comprised of cherry they bought on the road, and that competes with you, the small true-estate farmer, I don't think that's exactly right.
Back to the competition: Judging coffee is tricky, imperfect, but I hope everyone knows that we do our best. I know the work that goes into producing that sample, and we give each cup our full attention, going back and forth between them, bringing back the ones that have potential for the 2nd round, reranking them for the finals. We have no idea who grew what, all we have is numbers and samples. We are presented with the parchment, green and roasted smple to look at, but we don't judge the coffee that way. You don't cup with your eyes. You use a spoon and your sense of smell and taste. That's what we do, as best we can, looking for the best Kona coffee, the best character for Kona: aromatic, floral, sweet, some brightness (acidity), balance, medium body, delicate, mild, clean aftertaste ... and then hopefully some other special nuances that are Kona-like in character. That means if you plant SL-28, or Yemen Moka, or Red Catuai or Catimor, you probably won't win here, even if your coffee is nice. Now, I like experiments and as a buyer might be interested in unusual cultivars except the Red Catuai or Catimor (we like Rita's JBM). As far as the Fukinagwa (not the cut, but the Liberica root with Typica graft) I am not sure if I could cup the difference. I do know that the offspring from the graft might lack quality though and won't cup like the original. Grafter beware!
Okay, I have said my peace.
Some of this information is gathered from the Kona Culture Festival web site: http://www.konacoffeefest.com/