A new study commissioned by the Kona Coffee Farmers Association touts the benefits of legislating that all products sold with the label Kona Coffee within the State of Hawaii should consist of 100% coffee grown in Kona. While in agreement with the concept of truth in labeling and believe that the origin and percentage of coffee in blends should be identified on packaging, I disagree with the assessment that a 100%-only restriction would benefit the Kona coffee industry (but may be a windfall for other coffee growers in Hawaii outside of the Kona district).

Colleague Shawn Steiman makes a detailed technical analysis of the report on industry blog Roaste. I recommend that you read it.

The study makes two additional assumptions that are incorrect:

1) All Kona coffees are good and desirable. False. Unfortunately, 100% Kona Coffee does not necessarily equate to 100% ‘good’ coffee. Being the only coffee Q grader in Hawaii and one who is presently engaged on a project funded by the USDA to grade coffees in the state, I find that the far majority of 100% Kona coffees I have sampled directly from farms or on retail stores shelves to be of marginally acceptable quality and most a poor value for their high selling cost in comparison to other world origins.

A rare few are exceptional, but these coffees have largely pursued a strategy of developing and and marketing their own estate label brands instead of relying on the Kona appellation moniker to justify their high cost to consumers. In the commercial coffee trade outside of Hawaii, 100% Kona Coffee often occupies the same “exotic” designation as Jamaica Blue Mountain Coffee, Nepal Coffee and even kopi luwak coffee, all high-priced novelties that has some measure of fame on the primary basis of marketing and inordinate cost rather than commercial viability. This market position must change in order for the origin to survive and no amount of labeling will influence the purchase decisions of commercial traders or roasters — only taste will change the impression of professionals.

2) All Kona coffee blends use 90% inferior commodity grade coffee to complete their products. False. Although I have not worked on behalf of any company to develop a Kona coffee blend, I find it highly unlikely that commodity grade coffees from other origins are being used in typical Kona coffee blend products sold within the State of Hawaii. More likely, specialty grade coffees from Central or South America would be used for this purpose to create a mild and nondescript flavor, as taints and faults in commodity grades would be easily identifiable to even the most novice palate as undesirable. There is no direct correlation between price and quality where coffees of differing origins are concerned, so any assumption that coffees being used for blending are inferior to domestic Hawaiian coffees on the basis of price is incorrect.

The study concludes: The blenders’ loss in the No Blending case would be offset by the benefit of improving consumers’ perception of the quality of “Kona Coffee” by avoiding attaching that appellation to a product whose taste is indistinguishable from commodity coffee.

Unfortunately, the greater problem is that most Kona coffees ARE indistinguishable from the coffees used for blending, thus creating a market opportunity for lower cost and subsequently better value blends that approximate the same result.

The only sustainable solution for Kona is to innovate, develop and improve the flavor profile of Kona coffee to match modern commercial and consumer taste preferences through research and then enact strict quality standards for harvesting, processing and eventually roasting. We must make Kona coffee more desirable for use in modern methods of extraction, like espresso, and provide some objective assurance of quality and traceability for coffees produced to justify the high cost of operating in Hawaii. We must add value, not simply restrict use.

I urge the Hawaii Legislature to not restrict the free market from purchasing Kona coffee blends. In the absence of a blended sales outlet, the price of Kona coffee will collapse, as surplus supplies flood warehouses and Hawaii store shelves, thus creating further hardship for American farmers already hindered by the cost of doing business in the U.S.A. and unique costs of operating in Hawaii.

Furthermore, Hawaii does not exist in a vacuum and is not so distant from the U.S. Mainland or Japan as it may sometimes feel. As prices fall, Kona coffees will merely be sold off to other markets that do not operate under the enforceability of Hawaii’s State laws, further hindering small farmers who cannot reach store shelves on foreign shores.

Business as usual is not the answer, but neither are market restrictions. Make Kona coffee something identifiably unique and of great value, then consumers will no longer be satisfied by anything less than 100%.