Kona Coffee Needs a Quality Grading System

On Friday afternoon, I had the opportunity to give a short presentation to a small group of farmers at the annual Kona Coffee Farmers Association expo. I used the short speaking time (30 minutes) to make an appeal for something badly needed in Kona, a method of objectively grading the quality of coffee in our origin.

Whereas in many regions of the world, coffees are cupped regularly and systematically evaluated by the producer 1) for their own internal quality improvements, 2) to communicate flavor profile with buyers, and 3) to objectively promote cup quality, in Kona, the process is largely left to chance. Hawaii’s coffee grading system currently monitors only the number of faults in each green sample and screen size of the bean; no consideration whatsoever is given to the resulting flavor.

Since the Big Island’s coffee industry and stratospheric price quote largely hinges on the Kona district’s origin brand legacy, we need to take steps to make continual improvements to the flavor and consistency of every small grower’s estate (about 800 in Kona) in order to ensure its longevity. High prices are not sustainable without underlying product quality; professionals within the coffee industry already believe that most coffees originating in Kona are not a good value in comparison with other world origins, it is only a matter of time until the average consumer shares that belief.

A battle over product labeling and blending percentages has paralyzed Kona’s coffee growers for well over 20 years, but the conflict avoids the true issue at hand: brand integrity. The argument posed by the small farming community is that by diluting a pure Kona coffee product, you are damaging the reputation of the brand — but that argument is only half correct and makes the false assumption that 100% Kona is always 100% good quality. This is, unfortunately, not always the case. Nor is it the case that foreign coffees used in blending always damage the resulting product’s flavor; it has been my experience that less expensive origins used in Kona blending (to produce those 10% blends you see on store shelves) can be an improvement.

Blending or not blending, the underlying problem is that most of Kona’s coffees are not performing to their price level; if they were, consumers would not accept an inexpensive alternative that carries the Kona name. Like it or not, the coffees of Hawaii are in jeopardy as ballooning land, labor and operating costs combined with increasingly skilled world competition turn our origin into an aging and overpriced novelty.

The feedback from Friday’s session was overwhelmingly positive, which gave me a good feeling that perhaps Kona is ready to move forward, but one or two in attendance seemed skeptical. One particularly skeptical farmer posed the charged question, “if coffee cupping is so important, then why couldn’t coffee cuppers tell the difference between that and a cheap substitute?” The question references the infamous Kona Kai scandal, where Kona coffee was fraudulently substituted with inexpensive coffee from Costa Rica and Panama — no one noticed. The criminals were ultimately caught when someone stumbled on the shipping containers.

My response to the skeptic: “I believe that the bigger problem is that there was nothing so unique about the shipment of Kona coffee for anyone to notice that it had been switched. If no one notices when it’s gone, then why is it needed?

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Kona Coffee Needs a Quality Grading System

4 Responses

  1. Well put Andrew

    February 2, 2009 at 7:03 am #
  2. About 10 years ago when I lived in Hawaii, we always drank pure Kona coffee. It was worth the price.

    Don’t know what happened but the last few times we’ve visited, it doesn’t taste any different from the cheap stuff you get in the hotels. We kept trying different brands until we gave up wasting our money.

    So I guess you can include me in that group of average consumers who doesn’t think it’s worth it. I love coffee, but if I’m going to gamble with large sums of money, it’s not going to be for coffee beans.

    August 7, 2009 at 9:08 pm #
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