The 2011 Hawai‘i Statewide Cupping Competition – done a little differently

On Saturday, July 9, 2011, the Hawaii Coffee Association (HCA) announced the winners of the 2011 Hawai‘i Statewide Cupping Competition.  Sort of.  The HCA announced the top three winners of each region and the grand champion (congratulations Rusty’s Hawaiian- top winner two years in a row!).  In a departure from what they’ve done the previous two years, they did not list a ranking of the overall top farms nor did they announce any of the actual cupping scores.

I am a paying member of the HCA and have been since finishing school.  The decision maker for how the results would be presented was made by the HCA board of directors (BOD), of which I am not a member.  I have been and always will be a huge supporter of this annual cupping competition (note my blog posts about the 2009 and 2010 competitions).  I am shocked and disappointed by the absence of an overall ranking and actual cupping scores.  In my opinion, this method of reporting the results undermines the purpose of the competition.  This post, as you may have guessed, will shed light upon my opinions about this reporting method and why I disagree with it.  

Let us first look at what information is publicly available.  On the competition webpage, which was up for some months before the competition, we were forewarned of this new policy, “Awards for top regional winners and an overall champion”.  The competition packet says it similarly, “…with recognition going to the top 3 finishers in each certification district”.  We also are given the purpose of the competition

:•  “To promote and better understand the cupping qualities of Hawaiian grown coffees

•  To compare and contrast coffees from different growing regions

•  To receive a descriptive analysis from professional cuppers

•  To use in describing, promoting, & marketing individual coffees

•  To learn the process of cupping and rating the cup qualities of coffee

•  To be recognized with awards for the best coffees”

Lastly, in the BOD monthly meeting minutes (posted on the HCA and available only to members), there is no mention of any discussion or vote about how or why the results would be presented differently than in previous years.

Another public fact- one that is rarely understood or recognized, even by coffee folk – is the definition of “quality” used by the judges.  You can’t have a competition unless you define what is meant by “best” or “good”.  One must have a yardstick by which all the coffees can be measured and scored against.  While the definition has never been openly stated by the competition organizers, it is the standard definition used by the U.S. specialty coffee industry and clear if you understand the scoring sheet and methodology used by the expert judges.

Since the results were announced, I have spoken with several BOD members and strived to understand why the decision was made to present the results in this fashion.  All the BOD members I spoke with gave me a very similar and indirect explanation as to why the reporting format was changed.  Essentially, the BOD was trying to protect farms or regions that may not have scored well.  They said that if the purpose of the competition was to promote Hawai‘i grown coffees, then publicly sharing low scores would countermand that purpose.

I don’t believe the BOD was being surreptitious or selfish in making their decision.  I suspect that whoever voted for this format (it was not a unanimous decision) did so with good, if not shortsighted, intentions.  Thus, I am not certain they were protecting a particular farm or region, though it is easy to guess various farms or regions they may have had in mind when discussing the matter.

It is this very act of protection which, in my opinion, undermines the competition.  By not completely reporting the results (i.e., cupping scores and rankings) to the public (i.e., everyone but the entrants), the competition no longer acts as a promotional tool for or educator of the public about Hawai‘i grown coffees.  Instead, it is a way for the entrants to receive free information about their coffees: Entrants receive their actual cupping scores and their overall ranking.  I don’t know if they receive their ranking within their district.  They also receive positive and negative descriptors of their coffee.  

With this method of reporting, much of the competition’s stated purpose is unfulfilled.  Nobody (entrants or the public) has learned about “the cupping qualities of Hawaiian grown coffees,” nor is anyone able to “compare and contrast coffees from different growing regions”.  This is true because there is no information with which to discuss/measure the qualities; saying someone came in first place could mean they scored 99 or 59 (out of 100) and no comparison can be made without some information (multiple scores) to compare.  Furthermore, the public has also learned nothing about “the process of cupping and rating the cup qualities of coffee”.  Without providing evidence of the process, the public must blindly trust that the judges and those reporting the results are being honest about what they say regarding cup qualities and rankings (I’m an advocate of evidenced-based information and would prefer transparency at all times).  

Most importantly, though, the very first thought as outlined in the purpose of the competition, “to promote”, is greatly diminished.  Effectively, the HCA is now saying, “hey, we grow coffee in Hawai‘i” rather than, “hey, we grow delicious coffee in Hawai‘i according to outside experts.  See the scores for yourself”.  

One of the great benefits of the first 2 competitions was the ability to track how the highest cupping scores changed from year to year (they improved dramatically).  With the current reporting method, there is no way to know if the coffees were worse or better or the same this year.  Those scores were a great tool for tracking coffee quality in Hawai‘i and promoting it.  Now, that promotional tool has been lost.

I understand the notion of not wanting anyone to look bad/have a bad score in this competition (many of these farmers are my friends).  If that’s the fear, though, then don’t have a competition!  Everyone knows that the necessary byproduct of a competition is that not everyone gets to win.  Sometimes, competitors aren’t as good as they think they are.  If a competitor can’t accept their ranking or final score, they shouldn’t enter.  A “competition” that is afraid to demonstrate that all are not equal is not actually a competition.  By having a competition that isn’t really a competition, it appears that nobody is good enough to be celebrated (i.e., coffee quality in Hawai‘i is poor).    

People say the competition is a driving force for improving coffee quality; farmers would have to work harder and change their practices to earn a high score and ranking.  Presumably, this would play out by more sales being garnered by those who scored and ranked highly.  Without public knowledge of the scores and ranking, farmers have no economic incentive to change their ways as consumers have no guidance in their purchasing decision.  I submit that economic pressure is a more powerful than personal pride as an incentive to change or improve coffee quality.  After all, if personal pride were all that was needed, then every coffee would have an incredibly high score and there would be no need for a competition to promote the coffees or improve their quality.  Reporting the results in this manner has minimized the potential for the competition to impact coffee quality.

In many competitions, the distance between the grand champion and runners-up is not very big.  In last year’s competition, the range for the top 10 ranked coffees was less than 5 points.  All were impressive coffees and all could be celebrated!  By not offering the ranking this year, all those other great coffees have lost the ability to be recognized and promoted by everyone.  By analogy, should we not celebrate our own Pete Licata because he ranked second in the World Barsita Championship and not first?

Perhaps the biggest consequence of this reporting method is the lost opportunity to discuss coffee quality and the quality of Hawai‘i grown coffees!  As I said earlier, the judges used a very specific definition for and methodology of measuring coffee quality (read this article to learn about that definition, the methodology, and my opinion of them).  Few coffees in the world fit well into that definition.  In fact, many Hawai‘i coffees are not going to score very high using that definition.  This does not mean that the coffees aren’t desirable, marketable, and good.  They are (as evidenced by the growing coffee industry in Hawai‘i!)!  Rather, they aren’t good according to that definition.  Thus, low scoring coffees typically aren’t bad or of poor quality; they simply are different.

To promote and celebrate the coffees of Hawai‘i means embracing the diversity and discussing it with pride.  It is not only okay, but fantastic, that there are so many different coffee flavor profiles in Hawai‘i grown coffee.  Not understanding scores and then hiding them completely defeats the purpose of the HCA and the statewide cupping competition.  Hiding the scores and rankings prevents anyone from saying “we have so much to offer.  We have something for everyone”.  Instead, we’re saying “we are afraid we don’t all stack up to this narrow definition of coffee quality.  To prevent anyone from losing face, we’re going to hide”.

All the entrants of the competition entered knowing their scores and rankings wouldn’t be publicized by the HCA.  I strongly believe that it would be inappropriate for the HCA to now disclose any of that information.  However, I still feel that the information should be shared publicly.

To all entrants of the 2011 Hawai‘i Statewide Cupping Competition, I encourage you to publicly disclose your overall ranking and your cupping score.  I volunteer to collate this information and publish it on this blog for anyone to see and contemplate (=send them to me!).  I, nor anyone else, will think ill of an entrant who chooses not to disclose their coffee’s information.

I wrote this blog with the purpose of engaging in an open, transparent conversation about this and other competitions.  I hope that next year, the BOD will consider some of these points and revert to their original reporting methods of an overall ranking and cupping scores.  It is better for the farmers and better for the industry.

This is a wonderful competition and it can do a great deal to promote and influence the quality of Hawai‘i grown coffees. I commend the HCA for organizing it these last 3 years and I thank the volunteer judges for their efforts.  May next year’s competition outshine all previous years’!


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