Let’s fly to Hawaii and take a closer look at the Hawaiian Specialty Coffee

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Hawaii and coffee excellence

Top-scoring beans in domestic and international cupping competitions are a key element in the first-ever Isla Hawaiian Private Collection Auction, held by Alliance for Coffee Excellence in cooperation with Isla Custom Coffee (ACE, 2021). This auction contributes to raising awareness worldwide as regards the quality and diversity offered by Hawaiian coffee producers. Innovative processing methods and new planted varieties have been showcased on this occasion – and rewarded by the international judges (Tea&Coffee Trade Journal, 2021).

The role played by Isla Custom Coffee

Isla Custom Coffee has been sourcing Hawaiian specialty coffees for clients for almost a decade, and this is the reason why it has a strong network of farmers throughout the islands (ACE, 2021). Indeed, Isla Custom Coffee considers itself as an on-the-ground quality control service, developing unique coffees with trusted farmers and mills. Their Hawaiian portfolio mainly consists of coffees from Kona and Ka’u, the Big Islands’ most famous coffee districts (Isla Custom Coffees, n.d.)

The competition

The competition had 20 coffees passing to the international stage, representing seven companies from all over the world. The winning coffees announced by the Alliance for Coffee Excellence in partnership with Isla Custom Coffees are 16 in number, 12 of which are yeast-ferment processed, represent 11 farms, six processes, five varieties and two organic certified coffees (Tea&Coffee Trade Journal, 2021). Make sure you check the auctioned coffees at the next auction, which will be held on March 25th, 2021.

The winners

The winning lots showcase both innovative processing methods and traditional washed coffees. Black Rock Farm from Kona produced the most winners, with four lots, two of which were placed in the top five. The top seven coffees are all yeast fermented coffees produced by using different strains of wine yeasts, while the top 10 coffees are the result of recent planted varieties selected for cup quality (Tea&Coffee Trade Journal, 2021).
The first-place winner is a washed, yeast-fermented SL34 coffee from Kona Farm Direct which scored 88.38 points (Tea&Coffee Trade Journal, 2021). The producers are Kraig and Leslie Lee, who have been working in this field for 26 years. They process and roast their Kona coffee on the slopes of Mt. Hualalai (cf. map above). This year was their second harvest of the SL34 variety, which has proved able to give great results under the Hawaiian growing conditions. The lot was fermented with a wine-yeast strain selected to enhance the coffee’s acidity and its tropical-fruit notes. The coffee was pre-dried on a covered rooftop patio, and then transferred to a mechanical dryer designed and built by Kraig Lee (ACE, 2021).

Source: Tea&Coffee Trade Journal, 2021

The taste of Hawaiian coffee

The judges describe these coffees as extraordinary. Reportedly, these coffees outdo previous experiences of Hawaiian coffee, as they literally delight your senses. In terms of flavour, these coffees are characterised by a complex fruity character, with juicy stone fruit and tangy tropical fruit notes. Nut flavours, notably of Macadamia nuts, blend with the fruity notes, resulting in a sweet and transparent taste and scent (Tea&Coffee Trade Journal, 2021) that will be unforgettable for tourists and for all coffee lovers.

Kona coffee: throwback to the 90s

The 90s were a critical time for the Hawaiian coffee industry, as Kona coffee counterfeiting and market crashes occurred during those years (Hawaii Department of Agriculture – Agriculture Development Division, 2006). In fact, in the 80s the demand for Kona coffee was growing in the specialty niche market, and so was its price. Moreover, there was no Kona coffee federal trademark. The combination of these conditions resulted in the spread of counterfeit products, namely the sale of inexpensive, imported coffees under the name of Kona. This phenomenon had several economic effects. First of all, counterfeiting created a considerable price pressure. Secondly, due to the presence on the market of counterfeit coffee, real Kona coffee could not be easily sold at a competitive price matching that of counterfeit products. When later the Kona coffee which had been accumulated was offloaded, a market crash resulted.

Counterfeiting operations concerning Kona coffee became known to the public in 1996 because of a fraud indictment of a coffee dealer based in California (Hawaii Department of Agriculture – Agriculture Development Division, 2006). The chief suspect, Michael Norton, 48, in a telephone conversation taped by law-enforcement agents said ”All right, so it’s true we created a nonexistent demand and filled it with a nonexistent product”. Mr. Norton basically filled sacks marked ”Kona coffee from Hawaii”, a product that sells for as much $9.75 a pound wholesale, with inferior-grade Panamanian beans that typically sell for $1.80 a pound. He was indicted by a Federal grand jury in Oakland on charges of money laundering and fraud (Golden, 1996). Do you remember that?


ACE. (2021). Private Collection Auction with Isla Custom Coffees Hawaiian Specialty Coffee. Retrieved February 26, 2021, from https://allianceforcoffeeexcellence.org/isla-custom-coffees-2021-auction/

Golden, T. (1996). Supplier Is Accused of Selling Cheap Coffee as Top Grade. The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/1996/11/13/us/supplier-is-accused-of-selling-cheap-coffee-as-top-grade.html

Hawaii Department of Agriculture – Agriculture Development Division. (2006). Hawaii’s Coffee Industry. Structural Change and Its Effects on Farm Operations. Retrieved from https://hdoa.hawaii.gov/wp-content/uploads/2013/01/Coffee-industry-structural-change-FINAL.pdf

Isla Custom Coffees. (n.d.). Isla Custom Coffees. Retrieved February 26, 2021, from https://www.islacoffees.com/

Tea&Coffee Trade Journal. (2021). ACE announces winners of first Isla Hawaii auction. Retrieved from https://www.teaandcoffee.net/news/26461/ace-announces-winners-of-first-isla-hawaii-auction/