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The Art of Coffee |July 8, 2024

The Terroir Of 100% Kona Coffee

What is Terroir and why does it matter for great coffee?

If you are a wine enthusiast you have most likely come across the concept of Terroir, a French term coined to refer to the taste of the place. More accurately:

1. The complete natural environment in which a particular wine is produced, including factors such as the soil, topography, and climate.
2. The characteristic taste and flavor imparted to a wine by the environment in which it is produced.

Imagine Champagne, France. Napa Valley. Chianti, Italy.

In the modern day, the concept of Terroir has been extrapolated to a multitude of single-origin agricultural products. Think blueberries from the Willamette Valley of Oregon, Vidalia onions of Georgia, maple syrups of Vermont, and cherries from Michigan.

Also, think 100% Kona Coffee.

Whether motivated by marketing or a continued nuanced understanding of how things grow, you may also come across words like single origin, single farm, single lot, estate, and sometimes micro lot.

These terms are used somewhat interchangeably and inconsistently, but there is actual meaning to each.

Some organizations will use the term, “Single Origin” to describe an entire country. “Single Origin Brazilian Coffee” was the first one that popped up on a Google search. Yet Brazil has 25 coffee-growing regions spread over seven states. Can I claim “Brazil” as a single origin? Depends on how nuanced you want to be.

In most American supermarkets these days, you may have come across “Ethiopian Yirgacheffe” coffee. This refers to a region within Ethiopia that claims a different Terroir than neighboring regions within the same country.

Moving to western Panama, hovering around the Volcan Baru area, Coffee Guru Ken Davids describes a region “where some of the most sophisticated farms in the world increasingly grow the most distinctive varieties/ cultivars of Arabica, processing them by the most refined experimental methods.”

So now we must further refine our understanding to single farm, or single estate (we’ll talk about tree variety and process later).

Sometimes on the same farm, within a field, a particular section of it just does really well. Observant farm managers will identify these fields and may produce single lots or micro lots. These terms can also be used to describe a small amount of coffee that was processed differently or uniquely.

I think you know where this is going, but the smaller the physical location of where the coffee grows, the more uniqueness of the terroir is evident. Does it really make that much difference?


What Comprises a Terroir?

If an ecosystem is a dynamic living system, then what grows within it is subject to the physical and biological interactions of the environment. Rainfall/irrigation, mineral content, soil constitution, soil temperature, availability, and quality of nutrients all interact with the plants.

Add to that seasonal temperature shifts as well as daily temperature ranges, flowering seasons coinciding with wind and rain patterns, sunlight intensity, shade, storms, and soil pH.

The terroir is not viewed in any single factor but in the complex interplay between all of these factors and the particular plant variety grown within it. (I promise we will get to tree variety soon)

Here in Kona, in the heart of the Terroir called the Kona Coffee Belt, the interplay between high rainfall and sun, a mild climate, well-drained, porous volcanic substrate, afternoon clouds that diffuse intense sunlight, wind-protected western slopes and elevations that slow the ripening of the fruit to create sweetness and complexity produces a globally recognized, highly prized coffee. Does that mean that all Kona coffees taste the same? No way.

Adventures in Cup Profiles (For 100% Kona Coffee)

Are there other factors that change the taste of the coffee? The simple answer is yes. Consider all of these:

• Tree variety (25-ish currently grown in the Kona Coffee Belt)
• Elevation
• Processing Method (washed, natural, honey, anaerobic, yeast inoculated)
• The particular weather/climate of that year
• The physical infrastructure of processing (Machinery, space, time-line, scanners.)
• The training of the staff to execute the vision of the company consistently and uniformly.
• Quality control standards
• Roasting
• Brew method and recipe

So, terroir is important, but many other factors contribute to the final cup.

I often hear, “Kona coffee is smooth”. “Kona coffee is delicate”. While both of these things can be true, they don’t define Kona Coffee.

I have come to view it like this:

In the days when there were 2-3 tree varieties, a few farms, and a single processing method, there was certainly a cup profile that could generally describe Kona coffee.

In the modern day, the terroir of the Kona Coffee Belt is an environment very conducive to growing healthy coffee trees. Those exceptional growing conditions produce extremely high-quality fruits.

High-quality fruit is typically measured by sweetness, acidity, nuance of flavor, texture, juiciness, and aroma. The subtleties of these flavors can very much be tied to terroir.

After that, it is up to each individual operation to take it the rest of the way to the final product. As mentioned earlier, tree variety, elevation, process, company vision, execution of the vision, quality control infrastructure, and roasting all change the final cup profile.

No two farms in Kona have the same tasting cup of coffee.


A Journey of Discovery

As you know, we are proud of our coffee and continue to grow and experiment with new tree varieties, processes, and quality control. Our coffee wins awards regularly and it is a testament to the team, but I want you to think about Kona Coffee as not a specific taste, but as a journey of discovery.

As we move into the future, Kona Coffee will more and more resemble that journey through Tuscany, that sojourn through Sonoma County, where flavors and experiences can be discovered and enjoyed in stunning settings with elegant surprises. Where each cup is its own thing, part of a larger story, but defined by the hands and minds of those who produce it. When Terroir and vision align, when blood, sweat, and tears bring it to fruition, magic happens.

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