Shawn Steiman, coffee author, scientist and consultant from Hawaii, writes in his recent blog: "In Hawai‘i, the blending of Kona coffee with imported coffee is a regular controversy...If Kona coffee blends were made illegal, the market would not only be flooded with Kona coffee but this coffee would all be sold at typical Kona prices. With such an increase in supply, could the market bear so much coffee at the higher-than-blended prices?"
I didn't understand what you were implying with the "flood the market" statement until I read the whole blog.
Here's a couple of the missing pieces:
"...What actually happens is that several hundred farms sell their coffee cherry to a processor that is owned by or contracted with the large roasters (I spoke to the president of Hawaii Coffee Company today to verify that several hundred farms is accurate; he’s asked that I not disclose the number of farms he works with directly). There is no estimate of the number of private label/estate farms in Kona. I personally estimate at least 150-200, though 300 wouldn’t surprise me. Essentially, this means that, roughly, at least ½ the farms in Kona sell their crop solely to the blenders for use in 10% kona coffee blends and 100% product lines while the other half, private label/estate farms, market and sell 100% Kona coffee.
A second and vastly more important implication is that a law enforcing Kona coffee to only be sold as 100% Kona product would not increase the Kona supply by just 10% a year. Rather, the amount of coffee that would enter the 100% market would be approximately 50% of today’s total production. I conclude this because if only ½ the farms in Kona sell all their cherry to the big roasters (that’s 355 farms), then nearly all that coffee would be shifted from kona coffee blends to 100% Kona coffee product..."
There was a great discussion on this topic a few months ago. I'll dig it up later if I can find it.
The price implications are interesting. I'm no economist, but would the result be that the Kona price would come down? Does that imply that the current blending situation is keeping the price artificially inflated?
All that said, I do like the current Hawaii approach better than the total lack of control you see on some Jamaica Blue Mountain though. I was curious about the $15 2lb bag of "Blue Mountain" that I saw at Costco this weekend... no indication at all on the front of the bag that it was a blend - just "Jamaica Blue Mountain". The back of the bag had tiny print that read "a blend of coffees from Jamaica, the Caribbean, and Central America". No percentages at all.
Forget it. I'll just continue to stick with origins that are slightly less hyped.
Interesting. One of my employers has been using Kona Blend for a long time. Something they are known for I guess but I question the real value of since it is a Blend and not single origin.
I don't think it there is much you can do about blending as it is done all over the place. I do wish that it was more accessible to get just 100% Kona. I'm willing to bet that if enough stink was raised (or demand) then there would be more farmers selling to distributers or roaster just wanting the whole real deal. ??
It really shouldn't matter, remember kona is expensive not because of excessive quality but excessive cost. Sure It's ok coffee, usually high grade clean beans but theres nothing that comes out and grabs you yelling " I'm the Best thing you'll ever taste". It's absolutely unfair to wonderful coffees from developing nations that Kona gets such praise, I think all kona should be labeled" Warning:American grown with American prices and high paid American workers, this is not interesting coffee>
To make a blanket statement that Kona or Hawaiian coffees are merely high-priced, non-tasting coffees is just a bit more than myopic. I've traveled extensively through Kona and Ka'u and have tasted the gamut from barely drinkable to something fantastic. Just as within any growing region, there will be stellar examples, horrid examples and everything else in-between.
Further, to categorically berate Kona for paying their workers a living wage is simply outrageous. Lots of lip service is given towards "helping" the farmers earn a living wage, yet when farm workers are actually paid a living, First World wage, the reaction is that they're "charging too much"? Is it okay to pay a "living wage" - so long as the price per pound does not exceed two dollars? Let the workers take it in the neck because we're too cheap to pay an appropriate price based on the costs of operations?
Better yet, why not have every barista monkey work for $2.35 plus tips - because really, it's outrageous that anyone would charge $3.75 for a latte. Because I know baristas around the world that barely make $3.75 per day in wages.
No, Kona coffee blends should not be made illegal. Until consumer awareness is raised for single origin coffees the demand for Kona blends will not abate. The top down approach of making blends illegal would only address the symptoms and not the real issue. Why do Kona blends sell? the average consumer doesn't know the difference or doesn't care. The goal of the specialty coffee industry should be to educate and celebrate coffee, not to outlaw it.
I'd like to pipe in and say that I think Jay is 100% correct. With some 830 coffee farms in the state (5 islands, 10 regions), there's a huge range of coffee qualities. There are plenty of awesome coffees that any coffee-snob would be impressed with. Moreover, these coffees are ridiculously easy to get a hold of. You don't need a direct trade roaster to get them to your door, you just need a phone or internet connection and you can make the direct trade relationship yourself!
Even more impressive in Jay's post is the accurate assessment of the living wage. When you buy coffees grown in Hawaii and Puerto Rico (perhaps Jamaica?), you are paying a wage that allows the farmer to live the way you live. Isn't that truly fair trade?
Do I think the coffees should be organoleptically fantastic to justify paying that much for a luxury item? Absolutely. But like with any product anywhere in the world, you have to do a little legwork to find the ones that you most enjoy.
If you ever need suggestions, by the way, don't hesitate to ask!
I'll put my two cents in behind Jay's as well, on both fronts.
Pay a living wage, and know what you're buying. Folks have just bought into "Kona means 'good'" and that's mostly their own fault. It's a caveat emptor kinda world, and if you're not interested enough in your purchases to research the source, you get what you get. I'd be for a labeling law, a bit of 'truth in advertising' that suggests that anything that bears the Kona label must have the Kona content listed as a percentage, and the origin farm as well. That'd kneecap those wishing to capitalise on the name without doing the work to make the bean stand out. Ultimately helping those conscientious farmers and exposing the charlatans.
I, too, got a gift of a bag of JAMAICAN BLUE MOUNTAIN! with teeny print on the bottom of the back suggesting that it was a blend of many other coffees. It was sold out of AJ's here in Tucson, and they had absolutely no interest in making sure that they're clientele were made aware of the difference.
But making using a decent to great coffee unavailable to blend? That's a bit extreme.
I would like to add that I've changed my position and have become a proponent of Kona origin regulation over the years. Currently (or at least the last I've heard), the State of Hawaii regulates the amount of Kona in a blend to no less than ten percent. However, this law only applies to Kona coffees sold within the State of Hawaii. Companies taking the coffee outside of the islands do not have to meet any requirement to label a coffee "Kona Blend."
What does this mean? It means unscrupulous individuals and companies can merely take one Kona bean, drop it into a bag of coffee from any origin and call it a "Kona Blend."
I personally favor a denomination of origin system that specifies "Kona Blend" to signify no less than 33% pure Kona coffee of No2 Grade or better.
I don't think it should be illegal but roasters should have to state clearly the percentage of Kona that the blend contains. When I say clearly, I mean on the front of the bag and big enough to be read easily.
The current law stipulates that the blend must be a minimum of 10% Kona (or other Hawaii region). The law also stipulates that the percentage must be labeled on the package and there are governing the size of the font and verbage.
One of the essential pieces to the controversy is the appropriation of the word Kona when only 10% (as is almost always the case) of the product is of Kona coffee. No other government in the world (purportedly) allows a product of theirs to be labeled as such with such a small representation in the final product.
If you want to hear my thoughts on Hawaii's Truth in Labeling law, you can read about it on my blog site.
May I take my shot at this issue as a Kona coffee farmer? The world's coffee industry has an overall and increasing problem with counterfeit coffees. May that be the fake 'organic' or 'bird friendly ' sticker or the fake origin. I.e. there's much more Antigua coffee sold out of the famous Guatemalan growing region than there is actually being produced there. 100 % Colombian is often smuggled in, cheaper grown Ecuadorian or Peruvian coffee. Jamaican Blue Mountain Coffee is encountering HUGE issues with coffee fraud (I was honored when they had asked my humble opinion on their new website of the Jamaican Coffee Board, and that they installed the 'Counterfeiters Gallery'). The price difference btw a commodity and a specialty gourmet product are too tempting for reckless profiteers. And that is also true for Washington State Apples and Idaho Potatoes. Both boards encounter container loads coming from China with their protected brand labels on inferior goods. Not up to standards, maybe contaminated with pollutants, but always, always dirt cheap.
So having this discussion within the USA and Hawaii helps greatly. And not because the Hawaii State legislature often resembles a Third World Nation with all its ills of well-meant nepotism, laisséz faire style, single party doctrine et al. No, protecting brands and appellations is much bigger than Kona coffee. Much bigger than coffee even. A region needs protection to grow its best possible produce and be able to improve, promote and market it. Like Champagne from France, onions from Maui, Gorgonzola from Italy and Bourbon from Kentucky.
That in turn will help the agriculture, the local jobs, the real estate, the tourism and the local community overall. Kona is a coffee growing region comparable to few around the world. There are none of the real bad pesticides, fungicides and herbicides used, most coffees are subjected to. Everything is done by hand. No children are picking and missing school! The climate and soil is superior for coffee. Too bad that it is in the booooring USA and mostly tourists, and few baristas favor it therefore. Too bad that there's a group of rich semi retired gentleman farmers who pisses off the local corporate shenanigans, making a living of duping tourists. Too bad that the oldtimers always keep their mouth shut, if they get paid by the processors or not ( currently many processors are 3 - 6 month behind in their payments!). Too bad that US tourists can visit without passports our English speaking farms, and enjoy in the absence of guerillas, malaria pills, drug lords and biting critters the only coffee farms they most likely will ever see.
But one thing I know for a fact: That I collect really, really irked off customers, who had 10% Kona coffees, thinking that those would be 10 x 10% increments of various farms mixed together, being overall pure Kona. And that looks bad for Hawaii, the Kona coffee farmers, and the USA. As a marketer I know that there's one complaining customer for at least 10 quiet customers who simply leave.
As faulty as the study might be, the overall intent is correct. No market flood will follow--most Kona farmers don't have functioning websites or ever worked with a spread sheet to calculate profit & loss. That's fear mongering again, coming from the processors, and sorry, Shaun, you're just transmitting it because I heard it from them before. What has to happen is that a phase out plan for companies, shops, depending on wrongly labeled 10% Kona Blends, has to be established. Like them declaring on the label where the other 90% come from by 2012. Same type size, same place on the label. Nobody opposes blending!
The great macadamia nut industry in Hawaii is dead: The state had allowed machine harvested, cheap Australian Macnuts be called 'Hawaiian'. Farmers hacked 'em all down and planted coffee. Pineapples, sugar, the same. It's all in the appellation protection or the lack of it.
So what about those complaining Kona coffee farmers? They better clean up their own act too. 'Small' is not automatically good. They have to certify, get their coffee inspected, and be humble when it comes to farming. Small farms cut corners when it comes to quality, often without them even noticing. Many of them who scream the loudest have barely an acre of coffee to manage, and wouldn't be able to supply a single hotel for one luau with their Kona beans. A phase-out period of Kona blends would be for them a phase-in period of learning to organize their production.
The coffee will not be drunk as hot as it is brewed, as my grandma used to say. But the cup is certainly served!
There was a large item in todays West Hawaii Today newspaper (perhaps still available online) about the farmers vrs the "industry". Many of us farmers are not against blends, or even a Kona Blend. What we take objection to is using the name "Kona" to entice people to buy something that is not primarily Kona Coffee. That is just fraud.
The other day I went to a big warehouse store and bought a cranberry/peach juice. On the label, in smaller text, it states it is a blend of 4 juices. Only when you turn the bottle over and look closely at the ingerdients do you find that the MAIN ingredient, the one that is in greater volume than the rest is APPLE JUICE! HUH? This is the same problem we have with companies trading on our name with a product that is not primarily the one advertised on the label.
Recently, a new marketing tool for products was started here in the state, called "Made in Hawaii". Unfortunatley this does not mean grown, raised or anything except that more than 50% value was added in the state. Thus a company can import macadamia nuts from New Zealand, roast them here and say they are "Made in Hawaii". That is currently happening.
It is unfortunate that we allow people to mislead us about what we are buying and where it is really from.
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