The Future of Hawaii Specialty Coffee

PCR just wrapped up four months of work roasting and evaluating nearly 100 samples of Hawaii Specialty coffee for the 2018 HCA Cupping Competition.

Q graders cupping Hawaii Specialty coffee at Pacific Coffee Research during the 2018 HCA Statewide Cupping Competition

We announced the results at the HCA’s annual conference in Lihu’e, Kaua’i alongside a two-day program of workshops and lectures.  PCR hosted a cupping protocol workshop for farmers to learn what actually goes on behind the scenes of the cupping competition. Juli Burden of Hawaii Agriculture Reseach Center presented a class on manual brewing techniques. Kevin McHale of Scott Labs offered a lecture on processing methods using commercial yeasts. Miguel Meza of Paradise Coffee Roasters gave a talk on the technical considerations involved in producing consistent, award-winning coffee.

Hawaii Specialty Coffee is Going Places

At PCR, we are big supporters of moving Hawaii coffee toward a more Specialty-focused model. This year’s conference certainly showed that’s exactly where we’re headed as a coffee producing region.  Nearly 30% of the entries into the cupping competition used a unique variety; an experimental processing method; or some other innovation in cultivation or processing. Not every experiment got positive results, but the fact that so many producers are exploring new methods was the big win for everyone in Hawaii.

Coffee Varieties and the Commodity Model

Preparing samples of Hawaii Specialty coffee for the 2018 HCA Statewide Cupping CompetitionThe most exciting (and probably most controversial) result for us in this year’s cupping competition was the diversity of coffee varieties in the top ten.

Being based in Kona, we hear a lot about Kona Typica being the only “real” Kona coffee.  There is a widespread belief among many Kona coffee farmers that introduction of new varieties will have a negative impact on the “classic Kona flavor profile”. There is some justification for this concern in that it’s true that different coffee varieties offer different flavor profiles. However, the idea that there is one singular, identifiable flavor profile common to all Kona coffee is not supported by cupping data. Over the years, in fact, we have tasted traditional washed Kona Typicas from all over the region and have encountered pretty much every different flavor profile imaginable.

The basis for concern about maintaining the traditional flavor profile is rooted largely in the commodity model of production that Kona has followed for most of its existence as a coffee producing region. In this traditional model, farmers sell their individual crops to the large mills as fresh cherry. The mills combine the individual crops into large lots of homogenized coffee.  The goal in this approach is to produce a large volume of consistent product with as little flavor variation as possible, so it makes sense that all the farmers contributing to these lots would benefit from their coffee tasting the same. For the commodity model, it makes perfect sense to hold fast to a single variety in order to achieve consistent results.

More and more Hawaii coffee farmers, though,  are vertically integrating. This means that they maintain control of their own coffee for its entire life-cycle. As a producer who is maintaining control of your crop all the way through to green – or even roasted – the value of your coffee tasting the same as your neighbor’s diminishes dramatically since it is not being mixed with other farmers’ coffees. It could even be argued that sameness of flavor profile is damaging in this case as it reduces your product differentiation.

Some argue that it is better for Kona as a region to continue planting a single variety and producing a homogenized regional product in order to compete in the global coffee market. The problem with this is volume. Hawaii’s entire coffee production is less than 1/10th of 1 percent of Brazil’s annual production… so if we’re talking about competing in the global commodity market, we already lost that game! Even if we could compete in price and consistency, there simply isn’t enough coffee here to make it viable. The only competitive route for Kona coffee – and for Hawaii Specialty coffee in general – is to focus on high-quality, high-value Specialty coffee from individual producers.

While variety is only one of many factors in producing better and more interesting coffee, it is certainly an important one. Especially when it comes to ensuring strong coffee production in the long term.  As with any mono-culture crop, planting only one variety of coffee in Kona makes us incredibly vulnerable to plant diseases, climate change, pests, or other hazards that can be mitigated by increased genetic diversity.

Hawaii Specialty Coffee

The evidence overwhelmingly suggests that high-quality Specialty coffee is the way forward for the Hawaii coffee industry. That’s why we are so excited to see that out of the top 10 for Kona coffee in this year’s cupping competition, 6 were  varieties other than the traditional Typica (Geisha, Jeni-K, Pacamara, SL-28, Progeny 502) and 4 used non-traditional processing methods (commercial yeasts, mechanical demucilaging). Two of the four Typicas that made it to the top ten were certified organic, one was processed using a commercial yeast during fermentation, and the other used a mechanical demucilager (still fairly uncommon in Kona).

We’re super excited to see where all of this innovation takes us.  We’ll be watching closely as the first ever Hawaii Specialty coffee auction unfolds in Spring of 2019, and we hope to see even more successful experiments in next year’s cupping competition.

Cupping Hawaii Specialty coffee at PCR during the 2018 HCA Statewide Cupping Competition