What You Don't
Know About Kona Coffee
by Les Drent
Kona coffee farmer with
Since the first issue of Coffee Times rolled off the
press in April 1993 I pledged to myself to do everything
possible to bring awareness to an issue that for many
years has done more harm to Kona Coffee than any other.
That being the truth in labeling of one of Hawaii's
few remaining agricultural commodities, Kona Coffee.
Thus, the name Coffee Times.
The Kona Coffee industry is like no other in the world,
or at least none that I have found. It is a century
old industry that boasts undoubtedly one of the world's
finest coffees if not one of the rarest. But it is also
an industry whose product is marred by rip off and counterfeits
that have created a tsunami of controversy in this otherwise
peaceful region of Hawaii.
Considering the history of coffee in Kona, which saw
its first cuttings planted in Kealakekua in 1828, and
the nearly 100 year effort of Japanese farmers, it's
impossible to not think about preserving this truly
great local industry. Their are a lot of coffee farmers,
millers, roasters and retailers operating off of private
farms around Kona contributing to the growth of this
prized local commodity. And it is here that the strength
of the industry lies. It is outside of Kona that the
threat to Kona coffee exists.
Large corporations and some individuals have capitalized
by taking the name Kona and using it to sell coffee
that isn't Kona. Most often these individuals substitute
the real thing by replacing it with cheaper substandard
coffee from South America. Not only does this hurt the
coffee industry in Kona, but you the consumer loses
as well. When this occurs the relationship between the
coffee producer in Kona and the customer is placed in
jeopardy. Only when this customer is able to acquire
a cup or bag of real Kona coffee is the relationship
between the two a truthful one. Don't laugh though.
This so called rekindling of a relationship actually
takes place in Kona every day. The reaction of response
among visitors who arrive in Kona under a false impression
of what Kona coffee tastes like usually follows with
a feeling of bewilderment for why this problem is allowed
to take place.
Well, I'll tell you. Truth in labeling laws evidently
do not apply when both corporation and government do
not allow them to be used. This past year was a very
difficult one for many in Kona who struggled in the
legal fight to federally trademark the name "Kona."
After applying for the mark in Washington, D.C. five
corporations with large stakes in the blending of Kona
coffee filed separate law suits against this action
in an attempt to stop the process which would open the
doors for federal protection of the name "Kona"
in the national marketplace. What resulted were drawn
out legal proceedings, depositions, and other legal
pandering and manipulations that made it financially
impossible for the farmers to prepare their case for
federal court. No help was provided by either the County
of Hawaii, or the State of Hawaii because of threats
that these law suits would be targeted at them.
Locally, our weepy eyed Mayor, Stephen Yamashiro, did
however promise, through half hearted bureaucratic bumbling,
to issue a certification mark and to in some way help
fund the promotion of 100% Kona coffee. His statements
were reassuring at the time, but to this day, nearly
a year later, he has done nothing . Besides the inept
actions of the Mayor, the local County Department of
Agriculture, who are so quick to enforce local coffee
grading practices to ensure quality of product, talked
a good show as well but did nothing to aid the farmers
in their legal battle. I have an interesting question
for them. What good does it do to grade a product for
quality when it is legally allowed to be counterfeited
and sold as a ten percent blend? It is no wonder that
many say that the government in the State of Hawaii
resembles the workings of a third world nation, by allowing
itself to be controlled by outside interests, especially
when they are driven by the power of money.
O.K., so you now know the sad story behind Kona coffee.
Now I'll tell you about the happy one. In Kona today
we have a growing number of small coffee companies getting
bigger and stronger every day with the issue of truth
in labeling at the forefront of promotion and advertising.
And, more coffee is being marketed and sold to the consumer
directly from Kona. There are even rumors circulating
through Kona that law suits from deep pocketed mainland
companies are now seeking sizeable restitution from
several companies who have been brokering counterfeit
Kona coffee to them. All this good news is bringing
smiles to the faces to the same local farmers who took
a beating on this issue nearly one year ago. Many farms
in Kona, like Langenstein, Bay View, and Old Hawaiian
are opening their land and mills to the public for daily
tours and acquainting visitors with a flavorful alternative
to vacation touring. Besides farm tours they are selling
their coffee directly to the consumer and by mail, eliminating
the middle man. One other mail order coffee company,
Kona Cafe owned by Allan Frank, has taken their coffee
from his farm in Kona to his home in California where
he personally supervises the roasting and selling of
his coffee. Perhaps the most notable grass roots effort
was undertaken by the Kahauloa Coffee Company in Captain
Cook. It was nearly fifteen years ago that owners, Jeff
and Jan Citron started off with a rickety one room shed
on Highway. 11 in South Kona, and today the couple hosts
one of the finest places in South Kona to stop for coffee
and gourmet food. The view of Kealakekua Bay, 1,500'
below is just as incredible. Restaurants in Kona like
La Bourgogne, who serve only 100% Kona coffee, have
established one of the best reputations with locals
by refusing to serve the cheaper 10% Kona blend coffee
that so many other restaurants on the Big Island resort
to. It's care and concern like this that is beginning
to pave the road for coffee resurgence and independence
in Kona. And inarguably, when the consumer introduces
himself to the true taste and exquisite qualities of
Kona coffee, the difference between good coffee and
great coffee will become immediately evident.
Kona coffee is a rare commodity. In fact, only an estimated
1,500 acres are said to be in production and the majority
of farms in Kona are family owned and operated. This
little amount of coffee acreage in Kona has created
a shortage of product for many retailers and roasters
especially late in the season around summertime. For
some this has created a problem in meeting demand. The
Bad Ass Coffee Company, who is one of the largest locally
owned and independent retailers and franchise operators
in Kona, has remedied this problem not by counterfeiting
or blending Kona coffee but by renaming many of their
coffee lines as Hawaiian and using coffee from the island
of Kauai to meet the demand. As a result the Bad Ass
Coffee Company has become one of the larger purchasers
of Kauai coffee and has aided the growth of another
local coffee industry. The Company still sells all the
Kona coffee they can get a hold of and is always available
to customers at any of their locations but only under
the name "Kona" and only as a true product.
Owner, Dennis Lovel, feels everyone in the coffee industry
has an equal responsibility to promote truth in labeling
and is proud to be a seller of Kona coffee at whatever
The happy coffee drinker.
The one positive concern that resonates throughout
most of the local Kona coffee industry is a genuine
concern for you the consumer and the coffee you are
being sold. Great care is being taken by many in the
fields, on the farms, at the mills, over the roasters,
and at espresso machines to assure you the best cup
of coffee possible. Coffee shops like Holuakoa Cafe
in Holualoa and the Kohala Coffee Mill in Hawi have
perfected the art of coffee and espresso making, the
last step of the process in delivering the true taste
of Kona to you, the happy coffee drinker.
For now, all I can tell you is that it is buyer beware
when buying Kona coffee and that it is up to you to
truly know your source. One way that I can guarantee
you a truthful product is to buy directly from a locally
owned and operated Kona coffee company. The taste you
will not regret and the romances that come along with
the drink will be yours forever.
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