1998 - What's
in Our Kona Coffee Industry
by Les Drent
When everything is finalized with the production of
this magazine and all the coffee has been roasted and
shipped out to my customers I can finally look forward
to that brief window of opportunity to report to you
the current happenings in our local Kona coffee industry.
With a cup of my favorite medium roasted 100% Kona peaberry
at my side and an empty computer screen in front of
me that moment is upon me and I welcome you to the 1998
Kona coffee season.
While the Kona coffee industry boomed in 1998 Mother
Nature this past Summer sent Kona coffee farmers a definitive
message of who ultimately controls the success of the
yearly harvest. As Kona coffee cherry prices reached
an all time high, up nearly 75%, at the conclusion of
last year's picking El Nino brought on a drought that
was called the worst in Hawaii this past 100 years.
So bad was it that the County of Hawaii drained all
of its allotted fire fighting funds fighting numerous
brush fires in Puna and Kohala caused by the dryness.
They were reduced to fighting the fires by stating their
only goals were containment and prevention of property
Worried that this bizarre weather pattern was not going
to provide the necessary rainfall to produce a heavy
coffee flowering, a bountiful 1998 harvest seemed in
jeopardy for farmers. But it is now appearing to many
that the late Winter and early Spring rain and newly
planted coffee acreage appears to be carrying the hopes
of many for a healthy crop. According to early reports
at the coffee mills the beans are slowly coming in and
with only a 20% floater rate. A 'floater', as coffee
millers refer to them, is a bean that is more or less
hollow or lacking any density or weight, a criteria
very important in the strict Kona coffee grading system.
These 'floaters' simply float when placed into a bucket
of water. Normal Kona beans sink to the bottom. As many
will recall in 1996 the Fall coffee harvest started
off in a terrible fashion with over 75% of the first
round of picking resulting in floaters. That summer
the rains were plentiful, but it was an early Spring
drought which lasted only a month that stifled the trees
in their crucial first flowering. The floater situation
that year resulted in the worst beginning of a Kona
coffee season in nearly 50 years.
It seems though that Kona coffee is only gaining momentum
and not even Mother Nature, barring a volcanic eruption
on the slopes of Hualalai or Mauna Loa, could slow the
progress of the once beleaguered Kona coffee industry.
Bringing Kona coffee back into the realm of success
has been a difficult challenge but one that is starting
to reap the rich rewards of this independent movement.
With the threat of counterfeiting being further extinguished
not only in Hawaii but nationwide, aggressive marketing
and the direct marketing outreach to the coffee crazed
public by local farms and roasters, Kona coffee is seemingly
headed for great things!
Richard Kawai at 85 climbing
a tree to prune branches.
After the federal coffee counterfeiting case involving
Kona Kai Farms and their bogus Kona coffee scam, a loud
message was sent to anyone else in the industry who
was tampering with the Kona name to sell anything but
100% Kona coffee. Several hurdles still remain for those
in the Kona coffee industry who maintain that the Kona
name should only be used when selling 100% Kona coffee.
One issue that continues to be cloudy is that of the
use of the names 'Kona Blend', 'Kona Style' or 'Kona
Roast'. When these names are used the State of Hawaii
requires only 10% Kona coffee to be in the mix. Most
servers of these imitation blends, most often produced
by C. Brewer, Hawaii, Hawaiian Isles Coffee Co., and
Lion Coffee, do further harm by not referencing on their
restaurant menus that the Kona blend, style or roast
they are serving is actually only comprised of 10% Kona
The most blatant misuse of the Kona name was occurring
at the world renown and newly opened Four Season's Hualalai.
The name 'Kona coffee' was being used on their restaurant
menu to sell a 10% Kona blend. It took a series of plea
letters to not only the Food and Beverage Manager and
General Manager of Four Season's Hualalai but ultimately
a personal memo to Isadore Sharp, Chairman and Chief
Executive Officer of Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts
in Toronto, Candada before a change was made to the
menus. Not only did Coffee Times ask that the resort
serve the real thing if they were advertising for it,
but we included a sample package of Kona that was only
returned. The returned promotional box of coffee was
followed up by a letter from Kathleen Horrigan, the
Resort's General Manager, explaining that their decision
not to use 100% Kona coffee was purely a business decision
and that they were satisfied with their current vendor
who is supplying them with a 10% Kona blend. Horrigan
also apologized for the false advertising and continued
to say that any reference to Kona coffee will be deleted
from their menus. She did say that if 100% Kona was
not so expensive they would probably opt to serve it.
I couldn't help but to think why their clientele, who
pays a minimum of $400 per night for a room at their
resort, wouldn't be willing to fork out another 50¢
for a great cup of locally grown 100% Kona coffee. I
do however tip my hat to the Four Season's for removing
the reference to Kona coffee on their menu and that
move alone will do much to protect and preserve the
identity and reputation of 100% Kona coffee.
Giving credit where
credit is due. Misha Sperka of Old Hawaiian Coffee
was the first to invite the public to tour a Kona
Many long time farmers in Kona will tell you that it
is the inspiration they receive from those farmers before
them that has maintained their gritty determination
to forge ahead in their efforts. And for those just
getting started in this industry and have recently bought
farms or have put in a new planting on their vacant
land, it's best to get in touch with your history because
Kona coffee is a commodity that has seen not only the
most magnificent peaks of success but the darkest and
coldest valleys of failure throughout its 150 year history.
Richard Kawai, friend and inspiration to many South
Kona coffee farmers, was one farmer whom many took 'lessons
in life-style' from. Richard passed away at the age
of 88 on his coffee farm this past Summer and he will
be greatly missed by his neighbors and friends. Memories
of Richard however will continue to influence the lives
of many of his farming neighbors.
Richard was known by many as a simple living, self
sufficient, generous and kind person who was also widely
acclaimed as Kona's oldest organic coffee farmer. His
distrust for banks and government seemed to fit in well
with his farming neighbors. His feeling that their are
hidden dangers in much of the food we buy at the supermarket
led Richard to live a life derived solely from what
he produced off his farm. Growing his own vegetables
and fruit, Richard lived off catchment water and without
electricity. The hundreds of chickens that ran wild
on his 8 acre farm provided not only food, but fertilizer
and weed control as well. Outside of his weekly walk
to town for fish and rice Richard lived a life of simplicity
that many can only dream of. It was his way of life
that has silently kept in check the progressive life-styles
of those who were his friends. Farewell Richard.
Transporting coffee to
the drying decks at Bay View Farm.
As we continue to learn from the lessons of those who
came before us, progress is still the name of the game
for many involved with Kona coffee and a necessary and
integral part of a developing and growing modern day
While many mills continue to upscale their equipment
to handle the increasing loads of coffee none have seen
such a dramatic change as Captain Cook Coffee Company.
While their methods were requiring back breaking work
loads their dry mill has been replaced by a state of
the art system geared to enhance quality, reduce labor
and increase production. Now one of the most sophisticated
small mills in the world their fully computerized system
runs on a series of air ducts that transport the beans
through the dry milling process. Quality is enhanced
as the size and density of beans are more precisely
determined. When fully operational the system will be
capable of processing 3,500 pounds of coffee per hour.
Mark Berfield, Captain Cook's green mill operator, admits
that their is still a bit of fine tuning that must still
take place before the system is fully operational but
is excited about the prospect of what the mill can handle
in terms of production. This may be the key factor as
Kona coffee production is climbing.
Visitors to Greenwell
Farm enjoy a leisurly stroll around the family coffee
estate and mill.
On all fronts the Kona coffee industry appears to be
heading in a healthy direction. While we learn from
those who came before us and continue to tackle the
problems of name association, the 21st century awaits
us with what many believe is a bright future for Kona
coffee. If you are a coffee lover make sure you don't
miss out visiting one of the many local mill's now open
for tours. Bay View Farm and Greenwell Farms are two
of the major players in the local industry and both
host a personally guided tour and are strict proponents
of 100% Kona coffee. Guests also have the chance to
sample for free the best coffee in the world. The annual
Kona Coffee Cultural Festival also happens this November
and if you are lucky enough to be in Hawaii be sure
to attend any or all of the activities.
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