Beware Kona Coffee Farmers’ Malpractice Methods!
Are you looking to source the best Kona coffee online?
Well, it turns out- it’s not that easy!
Some Kona farms and plantations are cutting corners with their harvesting and processing, which results in low quality coffee with subpar flavor.
Many unsuspecting consumers are wasting their money (and palate) on Kona coffee that’s oily, burnt, fermented, or even infested!
We’ve outlined the common malpractices that occur among some unscrupulous Kona coffee purveyors, and provided suggestions for finding the finest Kona coffee for your cup.
What is Kona Coffee?
Kona is the common name given to a type of coffee (Guatemalan typica) grown in the Kona districts of Hawaii.
Kona coffee is a premium gourmet Arabica coffee grown in the Kona district on the western side of the Big Island of Hawaii in the United States. The area where it is grown is known as the Kona Coffee Belt, and also Kona Coffee Country.
There are about 600 farms located in the uplands of the Kona Coast of Hawaii Island. This coffee growing region extends from north of Kailua-Kona on the uplands of Hualalai Mountain to the lower slopes of Mauna Loa Volcano in Honaunau.
These uplands are similar to the hilly and mountainous areas of other subtropical coffee growing locales around the world. The premium taste of Kona coffee comes from this ideal growing environment.
Rich volcanic mineral soils, cooler elevations, sunny mornings and rainy afternoons all combine to create the ideal conditions of a coffee utopia.
The results are exceptionally large cherry with a sweet pulp and large beans, which produce a coffee possessing a distinctive sweet aroma and full-bodied yet mellow flavor.
In the past two decades, the Kona coffee name has become internationally known, and 100% Kona coffee in high demand by discerning coffee drinkers around the world.
Though the elevations of Kona coffee farms are lower than the elevations of some of the world’s top Arabica coffees, when it comes to coffee bean quality a bigger factor than elevation is how fast the coffee cherry (fruit) mature on the coffee plant, and the Kona region’s growing conditions provide for a long maturation period.
The Kona Coffee Belt
Kona coffee is grown within Hawaii’s Kona district in the prime coffee-growing area known as the Kona Coffee Belt, which is about 30 miles long and only about one mile wide at elevations ranging from about 500 feet to 2,500 feet along the cool and fertile western slopes of the volcanoes Mauna Loa and Hualalai.
Most of the coffee plants grown in Kona are the coffee plant varietal called Typica (Coffea arabica var. typica).
Also grown in the Kona region, though much less extensively, is the Blue Mountain coffee plant varietal (Coffea Arabica var. blue mountain).
Kona Coffee Farms
Within the Kona Coffee Belt are some six hundred Kona coffee farms, most of them less than five acres in size. Kona’s coffee mills and coffee farms are mostly family-owned ventures.
In the early years of Kona coffee farming a century ago, Japanese immigrants were the most numerous Kona coffee farmer – at one point four out of five Kona coffee farmers were Japanese.
Today, many Kona coffee farmers are fifth generation descendants of these original Kona coffee farmers.
Kona Coffee Harvesting and Processing
Kona coffee is hand picked at peak ripeness, with the farmers returning up to eight times per season to pick the cherry.
Once the coffee cherry are picked they are wet processed (washed) and this includes fermentation, washing the coffee beans, then drying, milling, and grading, resulting in green coffee beans that are milled but not yet roasted. The Kona coffee beans are then ready for roasting and packaging for sale.
The Kona Coffee Belt provides optimal growing conditions including the climate as well as the soil making Kona coffee a wonderful example of how a true gourmet coffee is nurtured “from soil to sip.”
Kona Coffee Flavor Profile
Hawaiian Kona coffee is known for its simple yet rich flavor, typically light, delicate and mild with a complex aroma and taste.
A good Kona coffee is clean and well-balanced with a medium body and cheerful, bright acidity yet classically balanced and often exhibiting spicy and also buttery qualities with subtle winey tones, intensely aromatic, and with a great aftertaste/finish.
The finer Kona coffees are purchased from single estates rather than a mix of Kona coffees pooled for general market sale.
Grades of Kona Coffee
Kona coffee is graded based on standards defined by the Hawaiian Department of Agriculture, based on screen size and overall appearance of the beans.
All Kona coffee will be assigned one of the following grades :
Kona Extra Fancy
100% Kona beans with a minimum screen size of 19. All beans are clean and have a uniform green color. Additionally no more than eight imperfections are allowed in a 300 gram sample.
Same as Extra Fancy, except that the minimum screen size is 18, and up to twelve imperfections are allowed in a 300 gram sample.
Kona No. 1
Same as Extra Fancy, except that the minimum screen size is 16, and up to eighteen imperfections are allowed in a 300 gram sample.
Beans which are clean and “do not impart sour, fermented, moldy, medicinal, or other undesirable aromas and flavors when brewed.” Up to five percent of Kona Select may contain defects so long as no more than two percent are “sour, stinker, black or moldy beans.” No particular screen size is associated with this grade.
Same as Kona Select, except that up to fifteen percent of the beans may be defective so long as no more than five percent are “sour, stinker, black or moldy beans.”
Lesser grades of coffee aren’t permitted to use the Kona name (no matter where they originated).
With the relatively high price of all qualities of Kona coffee, many coffee roasters sell Kona blends, mixing Kona coffee with beans of other origins.
Under Hawaiian law (which would not apply to roasters outside of the state of Hawaii), it is permissible to label coffee with as little as 10% Kona coffee as a Kona blend.
Additionally, coffees labeled Kona Style may not consist of any amount of Kona beans.
Demonstrating the difficulty of pinpointing the exact origin of similar coffees by taste, some roasters have sold coffee of non-Kona (and even non-Hawaiian) origin as Kona coffee. In one well-known case, an importer sold bags of unroasted cheap Central American beans as real Kona coffee.
A Brief History of Kona Coffee
Coffee plants arrived in Hawaii from Brazil in 1825 and were planted successfully on Oahu. Coffee spread to all the Hawaiian Islands and was brought to the Kona District on the Big Island in 1828.
By the end of the nineteenth century, coffee cultivation took up substantial acreage on all of the islands, although it particularly flourished in Kona’s excellent growing environment.
Kona coffee has largely been grown on family farms with relatively small acreage, usually less than five acres per farm. So much coffee eventually came to be grown in Kona that at its high point in the late 1950s there were 6,000 acres in production growing 17 million pounds of beans annually.
Over the next 20 years fluctuating prices and the cost of hired labor forced many out of the industry and both acreage and production were drastically reduced. This was to be only a temporary setback for Kona coffee.
The trend to gourmet coffees in the 1980s and 1990s led to a dramatic resurgence of the Kona coffee brand and to the esteemed position it now holds in the coffee market worldwide.
Kona Coffee Industry Problems
Coffee from the Kona District of Hawaii has a outstanding reputation built on the integrity and hard work of its 600 coffee farmers. However, there are always a few individuals who damage the hard work of others.
The quality and reputation of Kona Coffee is being abused by the “coffee crimes” of a few people.
Some of their activities are:
Describing Kona As a Homogenous Beverage
Coffee consumers and professionals generalize coffee by region. So you often hear “Ethiopian coffee is not very good” or “Ethiopian coffee is amazing.”
Neither statement is correct.
Some Ethiopian coffees are amazing, but some are undrinkable. This generalization by origin may be unique to the coffee industry. We don’t drink Thunderbird and then say we don’t like American wines.
However, coffee consumers and coffee professionals often try one Kona Coffee and then generalize their reaction to all Kona Coffees. In fact, there are amazing Kona Coffees and Kona Coffee swill that shouldn’t be fed to a pig – and everything in between.
The typical Kona Coffee from a supermarket or roaster is average specialty grade coffee. Kona farmers sell their average coffee to distributors or roasters. Judging all Kona Coffees by tasting beans bought from a local roaster or a supermarket hurts the reputation of Kona Coffee. Outstanding Kona coffees must be sourced carefully.
Selling Black, Oily Roasted Kona Coffee
Some roasters are selling roasted Kona Coffee that is black and oily. Black, oily coffee looks great in magazine advertisements, but it tastes like it looks – burnt.
Just because the beans look good does not mean that they taste good. “It is a common misperception that shiny dark oily coffee is better than dull lighter oil-free coffee.
In actuality, the oily surface is caused by a degradation of the bean that allows oils to bleed through pores onto the bean surface. This degradation can be caused by age, a very dark roast, or both.
These oils actually retain the complex aromas of the bean; so if these oils are allowed to escape, the coffee will quickly become bland tasting with a strong stale odor. Over time, these oils will actually coagulate on the surface of the bean to give the coffee an even more bitter, stale taste.”
There are consumers who prefer the taste of burnt coffee.
However, burnt coffee is burnt coffee.
In The Joy of Coffee, Corby Kummer writes:
“At that [burnt] point, the beans are heavily carbonized and one kind of bean more or less tastes like another.”
There is no point in wasting good Kona Coffee, when all burnt coffees taste the same. Consumers who like burnt coffee should buy a burnt Central American coffee and save money.
The traditional Kona Coffee taste profile is light, sweet and fruity with hints of spice or nuts. As Kona Coffee is roasted, it first picks up flavors of sweetness and fruit.
As the roast progresses the sweetness and fruitiness decline and the coffee develops body. When the beans reach the black stage with oil on the outside, the only flavor left is a heavy burnt flavor.
Roasters destroying the subtle flavors of Kona Coffee by over roasting are hurting the reputation of Kona Coffee.
Using Under-Ripe and Over-Ripe Beans
In an era of high grade speciality coffee, ripeness makes a difference.
According to Factors Influencing Cup Quality in Coffee, “Green beans can produce a ‘grassy’ or harsh flavor caused by picking and processing immature cherries, and over-ripe beans can add a fermented or moldy taste.”
In Roast Magazine, Willem Boot reported that “An ANACAFE (Guatemala’s National Coffee Association) study showed that even a minor percentage (0.5 to 3.5 percent) of green cherries can have a negative impact on the quality of the coffee. In blind tests, ANACAFE cuppers detected the presence of undesirable astringency in the cup as a result of non-discriminate picking techniques.”
Only ripe, red beans produce superior specialty coffee!
Selling Fermented Coffee Beans
Coffee cherries contain natural sugars. Picking coffee opens the cherries to the natural yeasts on the outside of the cherry. Yeasts convert sugar to alcohol and other organic chemicals.
After the yeasts have done their job, natural enzymes convert the organic material in the cherries into acids like malic acid and acetic acid (vinegar). This fermentation process starts just as soon as the cherries are picked and it increases geometrically so long as there is organic material for the yeasts or enzymes to work on.
“Once detached from the tree, coffee fruit ferments rapidly. Placed whole in sacks the temperature immediately begins to rise reaching 35 C (95 F) in about 12 (hours) and 45 C (113F) after about another 24 (hours).
Heat generated by fermentation of the pulp causes the bean to respire and ferment further, resulting in weight loss and discolored, sour beans.
Farmers use fermentation in controlled conditions to break down the mucilage on the beans and to create dry natural coffees. However, if the process is not controlled the result is sour, fermented tasting coffee.
Some farmers let their coffee cherries sit until they get enough coffee to pulp. Some mills buy cherries on roadside stands and let them sit for days before pulping. Farmers and millers who care about quality pulp their coffee as quickly as possible.
Selling Kona Coffee With Bugs(!)
Suzanne Shriner, president of of the Kona Coffee Farmers Association reported West Maui Today that in 2012, the regional average infestation of coffee borer beetle across Kona farms reached as high as 44 percent — more or less a death sentence for an operation’s annual crop yield.
“That’s pretty much a total crop loss,” Shriner explained. “That’s barely anything that’s salvageable to sell, the quality is so low.”
In fact, a number of Kona Coffee farms have been driven out of business, partly or wholly, due to the borer beetle.
The coffee borer beetle has become a very serious pest in Kona.
At best, a farmer has to live with losing about five percent of the crop, at worst (s)he loses all of it.
But for some farmers, even five percent is the difference between profit and loss.
This doesn’t excuse the fact that some roasters are buying bug infested and bug damaged beans, dark roasting them, grinding them and selling them as 100% Kona Coffee.
Obviously, roasted beetles do not taste like Kona Coffee.
Consumers who don’t want “coffee con carne” should buy their Kona coffee directly from a proven, high quality farm/roaster.
I like Koa Coffee Plantation; they’ve acquired many accolades, including winning the coveted Gevalia Cupping Competition, PCCA Coffee of the Year, and were featured in Forbes “Top 10 Coffees of the World”.
I can also recommend a few other Kona coffee brands which put out an excellent product (see below).
Selling Old Crop Coffee
Coffee does not age well. Wine is vintage, coffee is not. Coffee is either current crop or past crop. Depending on how it is stored, green coffee can become flat and uninteresting in just a few months. If it is stored badly, it can lose its flavor in just a few weeks. A major defect of coffee is a baggy taste from being stored in burlap bags for months.
Most stale coffees do not taste bad, they just taste flat and lifeless. Good Kona Coffees are neither flat nor lifeless. Consumers should ask for and insist on current crop coffee.
Selling Machine-Dried Coffee
Kona Coffee has traditionally been dried on decks in the sun. However, many millers are introducing propane drying machines. In addition, a few farmers have created novel ways of drying including dehydrators and solar powered dryers.
Coffee drying machines work well for commercial coffee. They are fast and labor efficient. They have a place in specialty coffee but not at the start of the drying process.
Sun drying introduces changes in the organic chemicals in the coffee bean, which affect the flavor of the roasted coffee positively.
Both mechanical- and sun-drying impart a sweet juicy flavor characterized by orange citrus notes; however, the sun-dried coffee is heavier bodied with more intensity in its flavor.
As coffee dries, the chemical changes slow down, and at that point they can finish drying in a propane dryer. Finishing in a dryer is less labor intensive and produces a more consistent moisture content in the beans.
Large producers who sell average or below coffee don’t sun dry their Kona Coffee beans. Farmers who care about the quality and taste of their coffee sun dry their beans.
Selling Kona Blends That Don’t Taste Like Kona
A few coffee distributors are selling 10% Kona Blends. The blends feature the word Kona on the package and sell for a premium price. The coffee tastes like average Central American specialty grade coffee.
Coffee blending is an honorable craft. Taking two or more good coffees and making one great coffee is an art. However, taking an average coffee and adding 10% of a coffee with a great reputation that no one can taste is a scam.
Even professional cuppers can’t taste Kona Coffee in a 10% blend.
So customers are paying a premium price for a bag that has the name Kona on it but are not getting any Kona taste in their coffee cup.
Best Kona Coffee Online
These are the very best sources of high quality Kona coffee, based on their harvesting and processing techniques, reputation, and consumer reviews.
Koa Coffee Plantation
- Established 1997
- Won the Gavalia Cupping Competition
- Won the Pacific Coast Coffee Association Coffee of the Year
- Forbes “Top 10 Coffees of the World”
Kona Coffee and Tea Company
- First Place Winner of the Gevalia Cupping Contest in 2003, 2009.
- Won First Place in West Hawaii Today’s 2017 Best of Hawaii
Kona Gold Trading Company
- Won 1st Place Crown Division in the Kona Coffee Cultural Festival’s cupping competition.
Kenneth Davids (2001). Coffee: A Guide to Buying, Brewing & Enjoying, Fifth Edition, 78-79.
William H. Ukers (1922). “Cultivation of the Coffee Plant”, All about Coffee, 241.
Kenneth Davids (2003). Home Coffee Roasting: Romance & Revival, Rev. updated ed., 83.
Kenneth Davids (2003). Home Coffee Roasting: Romance & Revival, Rev. updated ed., 90.
Kona Coffee Farmers Association – Revision of Hawaii’s 10% Kona Coffee Blend Law
Mark Pendergrast (1999). Uncommon Grounds: The history of coffee and how it transformed our world, 391.
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