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A cupping competition: Kona style.

Friday, November 15,1991, was a proud moment for Mark Berfield, Rick & Ann Mosquena, and Doug & Nilda Whiting. As co-owners of Wailapa Farms, they had just won the Fifth Annual Kona Coffee Cupping Competition. They also had won the competition two years earlier, in 1989, making them the first farm to win a second time.

Everyone wondered if this was a coincidence, or had they learned something from prior competition. Was it the 30 year old trees that made a difference? Was it their commitment to organic farming, or maybe just their location "above the highway" at 1,500 to 2,000 feet where the temperature drops at night allowing the trees to respire. Perhaps it was due to the water shed of the Honownow National Forest or the special heated drying deck that shortened the drying time. Could they repeat in 1992? Would they again take the risk of having their coffee scrutinized along side their peers?

This year, the Kona Coffee Cupping Competition is entering it sixth year. It was the brain child of Robert Regli and Michael Norton of Kona Kai Farms who wanted to reemphasize "coffee" as part of the Kona Coffee Festival. Kona Kai provides the funding, organization and prizes. They recruit the international judges, and in order to remain studiously neutral, none of their coffees are entered in the competition. In fact, the perpetual trophy is dedicated to the memory of Thomas R. Kerr, a retired San Francisco law professor who had moved to Kona and developed a coffee farm. It was his enthusiasm for Kona coffee and his leadership skills that led to the re-establishment of the Kona Coffee Council and inspired a new generation of coffee growers.

Approximately 10% of the approximately 500 small coffee farmers who grow coffee in the world famous "coffee belt" on the Kona Coast enter the contest each year. The basic rules are simply that 100% of the coffee must come from their farm and that they must have some commercial tie to the coffee industry.

For the 5th Annaul Kona Coffee Cupping Competition, each farmer submitted a three pound sample to Kona Kai Farms for entry into the contest. From this point forward, the coffees were numbered and no one knew the identity of any individual sample. All cuppings were blind, and even the numbers were changed between the preliminary competition and the finals. For Bob Regli, "the most inspiring aspect of the competition is the great lengths gone to by the competitors to ensure their coffee has the greatest chance of winning--it is truly a great learning experience for the farmers."

The preliminary judging took place on Thursday at the Fuku Bonsai Center. Forty-four coffee samples, both green and roasted, were placed on the table for the five judges to evaluate. After poking, fondling and sniffing the beans, the coffees were ground, placed in small cups, infused with near boiling water and cupped in the traditional "sip and spit" fashion. The only element missing was the quiet seclusion of the cupping room. The judges were instructed by the head judge, Alfred Peet, of Peet's Coffee in Berkeley, to select 12 to 15 coffees that they felt were qualified for the finals. Each judge worked independently, and while each judge took notes, no one shared them.

Invited to participate in this year's competition as judges were Martin Elkin, vice president of Specialty Coffee Holding Company; Hitoshi Iwata, a cup taster for UCC's office of overseas business development and trade division; Ted Lingle, executive director of the Specialty Coffee Association of America; and Mary Townsend, president of the coffee division of Klein Bros. International. In essence, the judges were looking for the same characteristic that would cause them to "buy" the coffee as if they were cupping it in order to make a commercial purchase.

How close were there results? Surprisingly, quite close. The judges picked just 25 coffees for consideration. Of those 25, 7 received approval from 4 out of 5 judges; 7 received approval from 3 out of 5 judges. Based on the independent evaluation of the judges, these 14 coffees were selected for the finals. (As a side note, 13 of the 15 coffees select by Alfred Peet, and 12 of the 13 coffee selected by Marti Elkin, made it to the final round of the competition.)

The finals were held the next day, in the Gardens of the Kona Surf Hotel. That morning, Ken Palmer of Kona Kai Farms did yeoman's work in roasting a new sample of each of the coffees making the finals. It is not easy roasting 14 different samples to the same color under the scrutinizing eyes of five highly critical judges.

The festive air of the finals also made judging difficult. An out door setting with lots of people, peering over the judges shoulders, busy talking, asking questions, and wanting to put their noses into the cups made concentration difficult if not impossible. At one point, the crowd was asked to step back because the perfumes of the bystanders were blocking the olfactory glands of the judges. But still they persevered.

Four coffees from the 14 finalist were selected as the best of the competition. As Alfred Peet said during the presentation, "all four were very close, and it was hard for the judges to pick the eventual winner." But they did, and sample #20 from Wailapa Farms was singled out as the "best of the best" in the 5th Annual Kona Coffee Cupping Competition.

In presenting the awards, June Kerr said, "I am both surprised and delighted that so many farmers had been willing to take the risk of entering their coffees in this years competition."

In a sense, everyone had won from what they had learned from the competition, including the judges. For Bob Regli, it was the crowning moment in the process of trying to grow the best coffee in the world--the legacy of the Kona coffee farmer.
COPYRIGHT 1992 Lockwood Trade Journal Co., Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1992 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Hawaii's Kona Coffee Cupping Competition
Author:Lingle, Ted
Publication:Tea & Coffee Trade Journal
Date:Nov 1, 1992
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