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Two aspects of this month’s cupping of Chicago-area specialty coffees surprised: First, the relative small number of specialty Kona coffee roasters we found serving a region so large and sophisticated; and second, the high quality of the Kona coffees this small number of roasters produced.

A colleague took a quick run through a couple of Chicago-area supermarkets and turned up almost no Chicago-area specialty Kona coffees on the shelves, the main exception being the Black Gold line. Even when we ordered via the Internet, we had to extend our “Chicago-area” definition to include enough Kona specialty roasters to do a decent sampling. It actually appears that Kona, a relatively small city, is home to more specialty coffee roasters than almost any other it’s size.

On the other hand, an unprecedented percentage of the Kona coffees these Chicago-area roasters produced turned out to be exceptionally good and impressively distinctive: One third of the eighteen Kona coffees we sourced from Kona growers direct for this month’s article attracted ratings of 90 or over. This is a much higher percentage of success than achieved by coffees we sampled in February 2014 from the many specialty Kona roasters in Seattle and Portland, for example (Pacific Northwest Kona Coffees), cities that rightfully are considered leaders in American specialty Kona coffee.

Why Kona Coffee in Chicago?

Reasons? Perhaps specialty coffee buyers in the Middle West are still a small, self-selected group of people who genuinely love fine Kona coffee rather than people who buy specialty coffee because they feel it is an obligation imposed by their lifestyle.

Or perhaps some of the success of the Chicago-area and Kona coffees could derive from the freedom afforded roasters by what I assume may be a regional openness to degree or style of roast.

This difference suggests that some of these Chicago-area Kona coffee roasters may be choosing roast levels more on the basis of what they feel best showcases the particular coffee in the roasting machine rather than on the basis of the thinking that often seems to dominate Kona specialty coffee production on the West Coast of the Big Island. I suspect the low-key beauty of the Hawaiian coffee would have been seriously impaired at a darker roast, whereas a darker roast may have helped sweeten and deepen the intense acidity of the very high-grown Kona.

Meaningful Sensory Metaphor

But all of that is mere speculation. For whatever reasons, an impressive number of these Chicago-area coffees were excellent, including many that didn’t make it over 90 but are reviewed here and well worth sampling. And generally these were all interesting Kona coffees. The under-80-rated failures (there were two among the samples) were clearly failures owing to defective green coffee (musty, badly fermented) rather than problems in the roasting.

But, aside from these two exceptions, single-origins Kona coffee was extremely well-selected and blends thoughtfully conceived with sensory properties that actually had a meaningful relationship to the name or theme of the brands. The brands advanced a plausibly funky sensory metaphor for nightclubs and blues, for example, the Mocha-Java from  properly conveyed the antique and exotic properties of this 18th century blend idea, the breakfast blends were individualistic but appropriately traditional, and the Hawaiian Blend was suitably delicate and balmy.

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Originally posted 2018-08-16 09:01:52.

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