There’s trouble brewing in paradise…

You may or may not know that Hawaii is home to the only coffee-growing land in these United States. The western slope of Hawaii Island (the Big Island) is home to that premium island coffee bean, Kona. I’ve waxed rhapsodic here from time to time about the clean and elegant subtlety of coffee from the Kona Coast, and you’re likely to get the impression that I like Kona coffee. I do. And I’m more than a little concerned about current events. First, however, a little back-story…

There are some 600 coffee farmers in Kona; most all of them smallholders — a farm of greater than 10 acres is rare. These family farmers work in cooperation with a small number of coffee processors–mills that do the pulping, fermenting, and washing of picked coffee cherries–steps in coffee preparation that require specialized equipment and lots of water; resources most small farms don’t have. More, these processors also buy a significant amount of coffee cherry from farmers for resale under their own estate label. All in all, coffee production on Hawaii’s Kona Coast is quite a lot like wine production in California’s Napa Valley, and these grower / processor / estate relationships have proved on the whole durable, symbiotic, and increasingly profitable for some time.

Most all of the coffee processors, and about half of the coffee farming community had organized the Kona Coffee Council, a volunteer-run organization created to foster the integrity of the Kona coffee label and to promote Kona coffee in the U.S. and beyond. The efforts of the council proved effective… Kona coffee has enjoyed a growing reputation as a premium coffee origin. So much so that an increasing number of coffee farmers have chosen to forgo selling their raw coffee cherries to processors, electing instead to market and sell green and roasted coffee beans direct to consumers. At the same time, coffee processors have enjoyed a very profitable business blending as little as 10% Kona coffee with beans from other origins — Colombia, Panama, Costa Rica — and selling the end product under the label Kona Blend. This is perfectly legitimate — Hawaii state law requires a minimum of a mere 10% Kona content in a coffee labeled Kona Blend.

In time the demand for Kona coffee — both as a 100% Kona origin coffee, and as a Kona blend — began to nip at the heels of supply. As coffee prices increased, processors may have found it difficult to absorb the higher costs of coffee cherry that Kona growers could now demand. And as an ever greater number of Kona farmers chose to market their own coffee at retail rather than sell their cherries to processors, it’s quite possible that some of those estate labelers found themselves hard-pressed — or unable — to fulfill their own contracts for delivery to roaster/retailers on the mainland. It would certainly go a long way toward explaining what would happen next.

The Kona Coffee Council had already outlined its 2006 strategy: seek “country of originâ€Â? labeling, lobby the state for a new minimum content of 50% in coffees labeled Kona Blend, step up efforts to promote the 100% Kona Coffee seal, and grow the council membership. And the body of membership did grow, though in a way the farmer members would never have imagined. On the eve of their board elections, membership of the Kona Coffee Council suddenly swelled by some 150 members; a fifty percent leap in membership. More, these memberships were purchased in the names of the employees, family members — even small children — of four large coffee processors. These processors voted the proxies of these freshly-purchased memberships in blocks to usher in a new board of directors. In effect, the coffee processors — dead set against most of the objectives of the farmers — had effected a takeover from within… a coup.

In short, it’s likely the new board will not support legislation pending in Hawaii’s state legislature to require five-fold increase of Kona content in a Kona coffee blend. Nor is it likely the new board will support country of origin legislation wherein they’d be required to note that their Kona Blend is actually 90% Colombian coffee… that’d spoil the romance altogether, wouldn’t it?

So, what’s a consumer to do? Well, short of buying a thousand memberships in the Kona Coffee Council in hopes of a counter-coup — unlikely, yes… but satisfying to ponder — the best answer is simply to be choosy about what you buy. Kona is a lovely origin coffee, and — because of its subtlety — it’s a bean best experienced all on its own… not in a blend of any sort. Very simply, then, when you want to enjoy a premium island coffee, insist on 100% Kona.

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