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Cupping Challenge
1 February 2013


Roasted Cupping is different than simply drinking coffee.  I drink coffee every day but that's not the same as a formal cupping.  In a formal cupping you don't do much coffee drinking at all, just a lot of slurping and spitting.  If you've never done a formal coffee cupping, you should try it some time.  Learning how to detect the subtleties in a cup of coffee will give you a whole new respect for the popular beverage.  Be warned though, it might also mean you'll never want a cheap cup of coffee again.

I feel like cupping has been a big part of my life recently.  Cupping is an important part of coffee farming but it is often overlooked.  Sometimes it amazes me how few Kona coffee farmers cup their coffee.  I'm not going to complain about that though because as the education chairman for the Kona Coffee Council, it's kinda my fault for not holding more cupping classes.  I plan on fixing that.

Every year in Kona there is a well-known cupping competition during the Kona Coffee & Cultural Festival.  Professional judges are flown in and they spend two days tasting Kona coffee, eventually narrowing it down to the best of the best.  It's a big deal around here and the competition is fierce.

I've written previously about Kona Earth's many awards for excellent coffee.  Unfortunately this year I couldn't enter Kona's premier cupping competition because I was one of the event's organizers.  It wouldn't seem fair if, when I got up on the podium to announce the winners, I said "And the first place winner is... me!"

I know Kona Earth coffee is good enough to win that competition and it would be great publicity for us, but it's an important enough event for the Kona coffee community that I don't mind not getting another award.  Besides, running the competition taught me a lot.  I got to see a whole bunch of excellent Kona coffees from a variety of different farms.  There were some that weren't so good but most were downright fantastic.  Working with the judges was cool too, it's amazing some of the tiny details that they can detect in a cup of coffee.

Scroll over image to taste the coffee.
Cupping, like anything else, requires a lot of practice.  The more coffee you cup, the better you will get at it.  Simply drinking coffee doesn't work as well because training your pallet requires some directed effort.  If you want to be an Olympic level swimmer you can't just splash around in the water, at some point you'll have to spend actual effort doing formal training.  Luckily, as a Kona coffee farmer, learning to cup coffee is not too difficult.  I just so happen to have access to a sizable amount of coffee to practice with.

A formal cupping is often done without knowing what's in the cup.  For example, I recently cupped five different coffees, only two of which were from Kona.  There was a full natural coffee on the table and that was easy to spot.  Once you're familiar with them, full naturals have a very obvious aroma and taste.  The word blueberries describes it amazingly well.

I enjoy blueberries and I enjoy pulped natural coffee (yes, we will be offering more soon) but I'm not a huge fan of full natural coffee.  That is simply my personal opinion though, many other people love full naturals and happily pay a premium for it.  When cupping I try to evaluate the physical characteristics of the coffee and not just whether or not I like it.  Even though I'm not a huge fan of full naturals, other people are so it's important that we discuss the coffee's objective characteristics rather than our personal subjective opinions.

Of the two Kona coffees on the table, only one was a kona typica.  The other one was an experimental Gesha varietal (named after a coffee-growing region in Ethiopia, not the Japanese hostess.)  Gesha coffees can be amazing or they can be dead.  This one was good but it didn't pop out at me.  Of course I'm not an expert and I didn't know what I was looking for so maybe I just missed it.  It certainly wasn't bad, it just didn't hit me over the head as spectacularly different.

A week later we did another cupping with six different coffees.  Then a couple days ago I did yet another cupping, this time with three Kona coffees, all from the same farm.  It might seem impossible to tell apart three coffees from the same farm yet, with a little effort, the differences were relatively easy to spot.

The first cup was from a batch of "bad" beans.  In this case, bad means they were chipped, misshaped or otherwise damaged.  A few such beans always make it through the automated sorting process.  In this case, those stragglers had been hand sorted and collected into their own batch.  None of the beans were really bad, they just weren't perfect.  We didn't know it was "bad" coffee but we could still tell that it wasn't quite right.  For what it was, the difference was quite subtle.  The "bad" coffee was still way better than most commercial coffee brands.  In fact, I could see many people choosing it as their favorite because it had a hint of that earthiness that is so common in many coffees.

Another coffee on the table was a two year old Extra Fancy.  It was good, just a little bit flat.  The brightness wasn't quite there like it should have been.  Some would consider it extra smooth, or extra mellow, maybe like mild salsa instead of spicy or like a canned beer instead of draft.  Again, it's about quantifiable differences, not personal opinion.

The final coffee was a freshly brewed peaberry.  I kept tasting it and searching for defects but couldn't find any.  It was the perfect example of what a good Kona coffee should be.  I'm kind of disappointed that I didn't say "Wow, this is fantastic coffee!"  I'm afraid that constantly being surrounded by excellent Kona coffee has made me a bit spoiled.

iRoast In addition to all the cuppings, another great part about being a Kona coffee farmer is having access to so many roasters.  There are large industrial roasters, small shop roasters, tiny sample roasters, fluid-bed roasters, drum roasters, fancy computer controlled roasters, ancient manual roasters, home built roasters... lots and lots of different roasters.  The way a coffee is roasted can have a huge impact on how it tastes so it's fun to experiment with all the different roasters.

Most of the time, Kona Earth coffee is roasted for consistency.  I know my coffee and over the years I've dialed in the roast for what works best for us.  We have a medium roast that is right at the first crack with a nice brown color and very few surface oils.  We also have a dark roast that is still much lighter than the vast majority of dark roast coffees but dark enough for a full coating of oils and a rich coffee flavor without the charcoal overtones of a heavy French roast.  Which is my favorite?  Well, that depends on my mood, I like them both.  The medium roast sells slightly better but they are both popular.

Being surrounded by large piles of coffee and a huge variety of roasters, we do occasionally get the opportunity to experiment with new ideas.  Eric and Casey are a fantastically enthusiastic couple that is currently living and working on the farm.  Not only do they happily tackle any farm job I give them, they are also eager to learn all they can about coffee.  When they got the chance to develop their own roast profile, they jumped at the opportunity.

Roasting I'm not going to discuss the details of their new roast yet.  Instead, I'm going to present it as your opportunity to test your cupping skills.  All I will say right now is that we are calling it the 19 North roast, it is a medium-dark (aka full-city) roast, and it came from Kona Earth coffee farm.  I'll also say that I tried it myself and I like it.  But that's just my opinion and I'm obviously a bit biased when it comes to my own coffee.

Now is your opportunity.  It is only a single batch of coffee so we won't offer it for long.  You can buy a single bag of the 19 North roast or you can buy an Evaluation Bundle that also includes a half pound of medium roast and a half pound of dark roast.  My recommendation is that you invite some friends over, get one person to brew up the coffees and label them #1, #2 and #3 in random order, then see if you can tell the difference.

For those of you that have never done a cupping, here is a brief coffee cupping how-to guide.  For more formal guidelines you can check out the SCAA cupping protocols but it's not necessary to get wrapped up in the formal details, consistency from one cup to the next is all that's really important.  Simply tasting multiple coffees at the same time can be an eye-opening experience all by itself.  If you've never tried it before, you really should.

Buy the evaluation pack now and it will arrive in a couple days.  Then next week (8 Feb 2013), after you've had a chance to try the coffee and write up your own notes, check back here for details of what went into the 19 North roast.  The 19 North coffee isn't hugely different from our regular coffee but an experienced coffee cupper will be able to taste the difference easily.  Maybe you'll like it, maybe you'll discover that you like something else better, that's up to you.  The fun part is detecting and quantifying exactly what makes this coffee different.

19 North

19 North

What exactly is this coffee?  Here are some hints:
  • It is 100% Kona Earth coffee
  • It is a medium-dark (aka full-city) roast
  • It is yummy
Invite some friends over for a coffee cupping event and evaluate the coffee yourself.  Then check back here for the complete desciption of this special 19 North roast.  You can order a single bag of 19 North or save $5 and order a full Evaluation Bundle for the complete cupping experience.

19 North Roast, Half pound $18  
19 North Roast, One pound $35  
Save $5   Three-bag Evaluation Bundle   $54  

Shop for more Kona Earth coffee.

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