Lisslotte Eckhoff sniffs and tastes samples of the brew at the Kona Coffee Cultural Festival at Keauhou on the Big Island. After tasting hundreds of cups, the cupper, also known as coffee taster, from Sweden's gourmet coffee company Gevalia Kaffe helped declare winners of the annual coffee competition and predicted a good year for Kona coffee.
Coffee cuppers foresee tasty year after Kona event
Top beans get top billing at the Big Isle competition
KAILUA-KONA » After tasting hundreds of cups of coffee, one of the world's top cuppers predicts a very good year for Hawaii's Kona coffee.
As a professional cupper, Lisslotte Eckhoff insists it is something of a natural gift, but she takes her vocation seriously. She helps judge the best coffee grown along what is America's only coffee belt, above the western shore of the Big Island.
Eckhoff has traveled the world for nearly 20 years to sniff out the finest beans for Sweden's gourmet coffee company Gevalia Kaffe, coming to the Kona Coast for the past four years.
She eschews anything that might unbalance her senses as she samples up to 300 cups of coffee each day, forgoing lipstick and perfume, and pushing away spicy foods and alcohol.
Each November, Eckhoff now comes to this seaside town known for its deep-sea fishing and the annual Ironman world triathlon championship to assess the year's coffee harvest.
Eckhoff joined three other master cuppers at the Kona Coffee Cultural Festival this year, a 10-day event held earlier this month to honor the legacy of Kona coffee and showcase the top beans.
"This is the top title for Kona farmers," she said. "This is a very good way for them to see where they are."
The only region in the United States to grow a substantial annual coffee crop, the Kona coffee belt is home to some 200 farms. Some are just a handful of acres tended by relative newcomers; others are larger parcels cultivated by three or four generations of the same family.
The Hawaii coffee industry dates to the early 1800s when missionary Samuel Ruggles planted the first trees and found the combination of volcanic soil, sun and a sprinkling of rain made for great beans.
Only coffee grown in the Kona coffee belt is eligible for the cupping contest. Entries are judged on fragrance, aroma, taste, acidity, aftertaste and body.
Holding the competition on the oceanside lanai of the Outrigger Keauhou Beach Resort offers as clean an atmosphere as possible. The stunning view of the bright blue sky and Pacific Ocean across a tide pool filled with turtles and native fish is just a bonus for the cuppers.
"These judges are so experienced they know if a coffee bean is from last year's crop or if it was grown off island," said Jim Cecere, Gevalia operations director.
The 57 entries this year were taken at the beginning of the harvest, but the cuppers said the early test holds promise for an excellent year.
After whittling down the entries to 15, the cuppers returned for a second day of tasting and finally bestowed this year's first-place honor on Bruce and Lisa Corker, owners of Rancho Aloha.
"We're so happy and proud to be part of a community that is united in raising such a wonderful product," Lisa Corker said.
Located on nearly four acres in Holualoa, Rancho Aloha is certified organic by the Hawaii Organic Farmers Association and has been in operation for four years. This is the third time Rancho Aloha has entered the contest.
Long Mountain Kona of Honaunau, owned by Lewis and Kim Johnson, was awarded second place. Third place went to Aikane Kona Coffee of Holualoa, owned by Dr. Alan Wang.
Cupper John King of Harold King and Co. said all three of the coffees deserved top marks. "What set the winner apart? The intense floral fragrance and a mellow body sweetness," he said. "I knew I had to pick that one because when I went to slurp I couldn't spit it out. It kept revealing itself on my palate."
Eckhoff agreed the contest was close.
"We had very good coffees this year. Some are not so developed yet, but none of the coffees are bad," she said. "This is going to be a very good year."
That's good news for coffee lovers everywhere and for Gevalia, which has sponsored this cupping competition for 10 years.
"We are here to find the great coffees of Kona. We wouldn't put our name on it otherwise," said Chris Nanos, Gevalia brand director. "This competition is a clearinghouse for us. It is important to have the well-known and iconic coffees, and it gives us credibility to be able to offer such a quality coffee."
Nanos said the cuppers' opinion is a primary criterion in selecting the product his company offers to an increasingly discerning consumer.
"The palette of America's coffee drinkers has gotten more sophisticated," he said. "Much like the market for fine wines, people are exploring other options."
It is also good news for Kona's farmers.
Tommy Greenwell, a fourth-generation coffee farmer, stood nervously to the side and watched as the four tasters repeatedly swirled, slurped, savored and spit.
"This is for the farmers who care," he said. "They get to talk to cuppers about what's wrong with the coffee and how to improve the process."
Cuppers and farmers alike appreciate the opportunity to trade tips and critiques. They sit in on educational seminars and swap tales of weather and innovations.
"The farmers really like the feedback," said cupper Thompson Owen, founder of Sweet Maria's Coffee Inc. in Oakland, Calif. "This festival is good because it also offers educational sessions for the farmers, and that only adds to our feedback."
Greenwell will have to wait another year to vie for the coveted title, but farmers know the honor could be just one bean away.
"Once you've won, you keep that title for life," he said.