It’s all over the Hawaii news, an allegedly “harmed” consumer in Northern California has filed a lawsuit against the Safeway grocery store chain, claiming that the Kona coffee blend sold by the company probably had less actual Kona coffee than was inferred by its packaging. The suit attempts to collect $5 million on claims that selling a product with inferior quality coffee under the Kona name has damaged its pristine reputation. The Kona Coffee Farmers Association, who recently pursued Safeway with similar claims, denies any involvement.

Only one problem with that theory: the non-Kona blending coffees may have improved, not degraded, the product’s cup quality. Consider that it is not the percentage of Kona coffee that magically increases coffee quality, it is the starting quality of coffees used. 100% Kona is not necessarily 100% good.

I explain:

The lowest grade of coffee that can legally be called “100% Kona” within Hawaii is (itself labeled confusingly) Kona Prime. Is in 100% Kona Prime grade coffee?

Kona Prime

Moisture Content: 9% to 12% (that’s normal)
Defects: 15% defective beans, by weight.
Included therein no more than 5% by weight sour or black beans.

Professionals in the coffee industry will recoil in horror: 15% defective by weight? That means up to 2.4 oz of the coffee in your 1 lb bag of 100% may be moldy, bug-eaten, sticks and stones.

Worse still is the 5% sour or black beans. Practically all green coffee buyers have encountered these defects and know that just 1 single black bean can be detected as a fault when roasted and ground in a full 60kg coffee sack… that’s the scale of intense defect that I’m describing: a rancid phenolic, barnyard-like fault that will curl your toes. Each single bean.

Lucky you: that 1 lb bag of 100% Kona Prime that you just purchased for $35 can have enough black beans and sours to ruin the taste of about one ton of good coffee.

By contrast, both the Specialty Coffee Association of America and Coffee Quality Institute define specialty coffee as having “less than 5 secondary defects” (not 5%, five total) and zero primary defects (like sour beans, black beans, severe insect damage, etc). Kona Prime, sometimes sold as 100% Kona Coffee, is unlikely qualify as “specialty” under accepted industry standards.

I’ve also written in the past about coffee blend labeling in Kona and agree that it was the right move for Safeway to include the percentage of actual Kona coffee used it its blends. HOWEVER, before this lawsuit moves any further, I am curious to know exactly what coffees (Kona and otherwise) were used by Safeway’s supplier in this product, as I suspect that the Kona coffees were the ones of objective inferior quality — meaning that blending coffees from Central / South America may have improved the product’s taste for consumers.