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100% Kona Coffee:  Is there really a difference?
8 July 2007

Shawn A customer walked into a coffee shop to order a cup of coffee.  Before ordering, he asked the barista how long it had been since the coffee had been brewed.  She didn't know but was willing to come get him when she brewed a fresh pot.  He said he had some paperwork to do and wouldn't mind waiting.  Another barista standing nearby overheard the conversation and, after giving the customer a scornful look, proceeded make a fresh pot.

When the new pot was ready the second barista took a cup of the fresh coffee and a cup of the older coffee over to the customer who was quietly sitting at a table by himself.  The barista offered to pay for the coffee if the customer could tell which cup was which.

The customer said not only could he tell, but he would do it by smell alone.  After a brief waft of the aroma from each cup, he instantly identified the freshly brewed coffee.  As further demonstration, he sampled each cup so he could give a detailed analysis of the coffee, commenting on its origin, how it had been roasted, its freshness, flavor and aroma profile.

What the barista didn't know was that the customer was a graduate student at the University of Hawaii doing his dissertation on coffee.  He was specializing in coffee quality, chemisty, physiology and nutrition.  Part of his research included trying to identify and categorize the intricacies in flavor and aroma present in a cup of coffee.  So he was better than the average bear at identifying fresh coffee.

I was talking with this grad student after attending a workshop titled "Coffee Quality Begins on the Farm".  It had been a long workshop with several experts that covered everything from profound truths to trivial details.  Trying to sort through all this information, I asked the grad student, Shawn, how important all this stuff really was.  There's a huge quality difference between canned grocery store coffee and 100% Kona coffee fresh from the farm.  If the big companies can get away with selling stale, inferior coffee, do I really need to worry about taking the occasional shortcut or two?  Does it really matter if the coffee is stored at 60 degrees or 70 degrees?  Can anybody taste if a few beans were chipped in the milling process?  How many people can distinguish coffee roasted two days ago from coffee roasted two months ago?  Do all those details really matter?

That's when Shawn told me his little story.  He admitted that he is a coffee snob and most people are perfectly happy with two-hour-old coffee.  He assured me though, that with practice and maybe a little guidance, anybody can learn to distinguish and appreciate the subtleties in a good cup of coffee.  Kona coffee isn't just another coffee, it is a premium gourmet coffee enjoyed by people that appreciate good coffee.  Taking shortcuts can save time and money but it can also affect quality.  I take pride in my coffee and I want to produce the best coffee possible so yes, everything matters, even the little details.

Photo courtesy of Shawn Steiman

Not all coffee beans are created equal.  All coffee farmers end up with some good stuff and some bad stuff.  Just the other day I threw away 500 pounds of freshly picked coffee cherry because the beans floated instead of sank (caused by a stint of overly dry weather).  Some places would have mixed those bad beans in with everything else, but not here.  The entire pulping, drying and storing process is performed by me personally, not by employees, so I see nearly every bean.  When we do hire help, I'm right there making sure nobody takes shortcuts.  Once, after complaining that someone had spilled a few beans (out of the thousands they had just moved successfully), I was labelled with the phrase "Every bean is sacred."

Parchment Coffee farming is my full-time job.  Our livelihood depends on repeat customers and we won't have repeat customers without quality coffee.  I care about our coffee and I care about the minor details.  The profit margin on Kona coffee is surprisingly thin so attention to detail matters.  I attend very long workshops filled with information I already know just to make sure I haven't missed anything and hope that maybe I'll learn how to make my coffee even better.  And I'm not alone.  There are over 600 coffee farms in Kona and many of them are owned privately by people that take pride in their product and want to produce the best coffee possible.

Not all Kona coffee farms produce good coffee, but many do.  Not everyone can tell the difference between 100% Kona coffee and cheaper Kona blends, but many can.  Living and working on the farm, I can tell you first hand that growing good coffee is a lot of work.  It is a whole lot of work.  In the end though, it's nice to know that there are people out there that seek out and appreciate good coffee.  If you're one of those people then good for you, visit my website (or any farm direct website) and we'll be happy to set you up with some fresh 100% Kona coffee.  On the other hand, if you're someone that is content with whatever coffee is cheapest at the grocery store, that's fine too, everybody has different tastes and opinions.  Just remember, the next time you're in a coffee shop and the man in line ahead of you notices that his coffee isn't perfect, he just might know what he is talking about.

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