For several years the Kona Coffee Cultural Festival Cupping Competition was dominated by a judge who insisted that Kona Coffee had to meet a profile he created. He never revealed this profile publically. Farmers entering the contest were not told anything about the profile or how their coffee compared to the profile. No cupping scores were ever revealed and no comments, negative or positive, were ever given to farmers. You could compare those contests to a shooting contest at night with no lights and black targets. Coffee farmers were confused and were not motivated to improve their quality from one contest to the next. Partly as a result of the contest and the failure to improve quality, Kona Coffee lost credibility with coffee roasters and green coffee buyers. It became common to hear coffee buyers say that Kona Coffee was overrated and overpriced.
Finally, the KCCF saw the light and got new judges. The new judges used the Specialty Coffee Association’s coffee cupping standards. They also revealed the scores that farmers received. Since every credible cupping contest in the world uses the SCA standards, Kona Coffee farmers for the first time could see how their coffee compared to other high quality international coffees. The effect was that coffee farmers, having a target they could see, began to do better. Kona Coffee scores began to creep up. In addition, the market price for both green and roasted Kona Coffee improved.
This year the KCCF has announced that it has selected a new head judge for the contest. In a series of blogs the KCCF has announced that the cupping competition will be “transparent.” By this we think the KCCF means that for the first time farmers will be given not only the total score for their coffee but also the scores for each attribute of the coffee. The KCCF should be applauded for this innovation. However, transparency not only shows the benefits, it also illuminates the flaws.
The KCCF has announced that it is abandoning the SCA coffee cupping standards. In place of the SCA standards the KCCF intends to use a new Kona Coffee profile that the judge has created by interviewing farmers and others to get their ideas on a Kona Coffee profile. The new system has added “coffeeness,” “complexity” and “floral” as attributes and dropped the SCA attributes of “aroma,” “flavor,” “body” and “aftertaste.” How does a grower explain to a consumer that her coffee has outstanding “coffeeness” without sounding like a fool?
In the new KCCF system there will be two categories of coffee “Heritage” and “Modern.” Heritage coffee is defined as coffee as it tasted in the twentieth century. Modern coffee is defined as specialty coffee as it is grown in this century. The implication is that Heritage coffee (i.e. Kona Typcia) can’t compete on the modern commercial stage so it has to be given a safe place to compete. Segregating Heritage coffee into a safe category will be its death. There is no reason that Kona Typcia grown and processed well cannot compete with modern coffees. In the last few Kona coffee competitions where the scores were published Kona Typica did well. Announcing to the world that the Kona coffee industry doesn’t think Kona Typica can compete with “modern” coffees will seriously damage its marketability.
There is another anomaly in this new scoring system. Under the SCA system each coffee characteristic is scored on a 7 to 10 scale . A coffee with a strong pleasant fruit aroma might get ten points. The KCCF scale sets an ideal standard and then any deviation over or under that standard incurs negative points for the coffee. For example, Heritage coffees are scored against an ideal of zero “floral.” So a Heritage coffee that has a pleasing floral aroma will be penalized for not meeting the zero standard.
There is nothing wrong with the KCCF experimenting with coffee flavor analysis. However, in each experiment the researcher has to identify both the positive and the negative effects of the new process. It doesn’t appear that there has been any consideration of the effect of this new system on the credibility of Kona coffee among buyers and consumers of Kona coffee.
Coffee sales to roasters and consumers are all about product credibility. The coffee industry has created a rating system that everyone relies upon. A roaster buying an SCA rated 85 point coffee knows what she is getting. However, a coffee buyer looking at this year’s KCCF cupping scores will be confused and suspicious, quite justifiably, of the scores. Even the ranking will be suspect since it is based upon two novel self- created profiles for Kona Coffee.
Kona Coffee farmers have been using the contest to test their coffees against other world class coffees. This has resulted in significant increases in Kona Coffee quality and prices. If the KCCF uses a different rating system then all of the other coffee regions in the world, Kona farmers will not be able to evaluate their coffee against other world coffees.
The KCCF contest is not a sandbox for untested ideas. This new judge has a PhD in agriculture from the University of Hawaii. He knows from his education that you do not create a new agricultural product and then go out and spray it willy-nilly on the crops. Every credible agricultural researcher with a new product beta tests the product against a control group, publishes her results and then waits for peer review. At the least, the new system should have been tried side by side with the SCA scoring system and the results published. This novel KCCF coffee profile and scoring system has never been tested, is not comparable to world standard coffee judging and has not been endorsed by any credible coffee institution,
It is a mistake to use the KCCF contest as a cupping playground. We know from past experience that using a unique coffee scoring system does not benefit Kona coffee farmers, does not stimulate improved quality and exposes Kona coffee to ridicule and disdain from coffee buyers. We do not need to go back to the past.