The inability of Hawaii’s coffee industry to adapt to changing marketplace demands over the past 50 years has diminished our origin’s integrity, but creates opportunity for a new breed of business-trained professionals to emerge as leaders in quality and brand loyalty.
The situation emerging in Kona reminds me of my upbringing in the world’s former automotive capitol of Detroit. As in Detroit, Kona in its golden years of the 1940s through the 1950s was recognized worldwide as a leader of coffee science research and Kona coffee praised for its characteristically bold and sweet “island coffee” flavor profile. American WWII soldiers returned home to their waiting families on the mainland with romanticized (and heavily censored) tales of Polynesia and its fantastic coffee – undoubtedly better than government rations of the time – which boosted sales further and the Kona coffee legend was born.
Hawaii’s scientific researchers like John Beaumont and Edward Fukunaga became international celebrities within coffee circles; the impact of which was made clear to me just last year when a farmer from Brazil asked if I had ever seen the famous Kona Agriculture Research Station at Kainaliu where they worked.
Paralleling Detroit, Kona today has a near-total dependence on its past reputation and origin cache and is intensely reluctant to innovate (or in many cases, adapt) in an ever-shifting world market. Brazil, Colombia, Ethiopia, Panama and dozens of other world origins looked to Kona’s early innovations as the key to improving their own coffee quality and subsequent earning potential. It worked. Using the research generated here and in many cases funded by American tax dollars, from USAID and others, they collectively raised the standard of coffee available from around the world.
Independent producers in countries like Brazil and Colombia now lead the way in scientific research programs for coffee and new world origins like Rwanda have applied our lessons to develop entirely new industries. Hawaii during the same time has remained largely the same. Being #2 in a marketplace has its benefit: you never feel the satisfaction and complacency of being #1.
I share this information with not with the intent of generating fear or concern (though it understandably may) but for the purpose of illustrating the importance of taking notice of the conditions here in the Kona so that some may start to deviate from the status quo that defines the Kona coffee industry.
When I meet with Kona coffee farmers for the first time, without making an introduction I like to ask, “so, what makes your coffee better than the other coffee out there?” the reply is always an enthusiastic “because it’s from Kona!” I also remember when “they’ll buy it because it’s an American car!” was the popular mantra in Detroit.
Following the inspiration of Lee Iacocca, I say, “if you can find a better coffee, buy it.”