Coffee from the Kona District of Hawaii has a outstanding reputation built on the integrity and hard work of its 600 coffee farmers. However, there are always a few individuals who damage the hard work of others. The quality and reputation of Kona Coffee is being abused by the “coffee crimes” of a few. Some of their activities are:
1. Fake Kona Coffee Reviews
If you search the internet for “Best Kona Coffee” you will find at the top of the search list several well written articles about Kona Coffee followed by a list of recommended “Best Kona Coffees.” The articles are a scam. The clue is that each of the recommended “Best Kona Coffees” has a button which takes the reader to the Amazon website. Instead of the best Kona coffees, the lists are the coffees that pay the most for customer referrrals. If you click the button and make a purchase the author of the list gets up to 20% of your purchase price from the seller. The lists should be titled “The Kona Coffee Sellers Who Pay Me the Most to Recommend Their Coffee!”
The coffees on the lists range from average to swill. None of these Kona coffees could stand up in a real coffee cupping competition.
Coffee consumers who want advice on the best Kona coffees should look for blind coffee tasting reports run by coffee professionals, such as Coffeereview.com.
These lists are crimes against Kona coffee because consumers believing that they have bought the “Best Kona Coffee” are being fooled.
2. Describing Kona Coffee as a Homogeneous Beverage
Coffee consumers and professionals generalize coffee by region. So you often hear “Ethiopian coffee is not very good” or “Ethiopian coffee is amazing.” Neither statement is correct. Some Ethiopian coffees are amazing and some are undrinkable. This generalization by origin may be unique to the coffee industry. We don’t drink Thunderbird and then say we don’t like American wines. However, coffee consumers and coffee professionals often try one Kona Coffee and then generalize their reaction to all Kona Coffees. In fact, there are amazing Kona Coffees and Kona Coffee swill that shouldn’t be fed to a pig – and everything in between.
The typical Kona Coffee from a supermarket or roaster is average speciality grade coffee. Kona farmers sell their average coffee to distributors or roasters. Judging all Kona Coffees by tasting beans bought from a coffee shop or a supermarket hurts the reputation of Kona Coffee. Kona farmers keep their high quality coffee beans to sell farm direct to the consumer.
Lumping all Kona coffees together is a “crime.”
3. Selling Black, Oily Roasted Kona Coffee
Some roasters are selling roasted Kona Coffee that is black and oily. Black, oily coffee looks great in magazine advertisements, but it tastes like it looks – burnt.
Just because the beans look good does not mean that they taste good. “It is a common misperception that shiny dark oily coffee is better than dull lighter oil-free coffee. In actuality the oily surface is caused by a degradation of the bean that allows oils to bleed through pores onto the bean surface. This degradation can be caused by age, a very dark roast, or both. These oils actually retain the complex aromas of the bean. So if these oils are allowed to escape, the coffee will quickly become bland tasting with a strong stale odor. Over time, these oils will actually coagulate on the surface of the bean to give the coffee an even more bitter, stale taste.” http://info.terroircoffee.com/myths/
All burnt coffee tastes the same. “At that point, the beans are heavily carbonized and one kind of bean more or less tastes like another.” Kummer, The Joy of Coffee p.44 There is no point in wasting good Kona Coffee, when all burnt coffees taste the same.
There are consumers who like burnt coffee. Also coffee shops that make coffee flavored drinks like burnt coffee because the burnt coffee flavor isn’t overpowered by the fat and sugar in the drink. Consumers who want over-roaasted coffee should buy a burnt Central American coffee and save money.
The traditional Kona Coffee taste profile is light, sweet and fruity with hints of spice or nuts. As Kona Coffee is roasted, it first picks up flavors of sweetness and fruit. As the roast progresses the sweetness and fruitiness decline and the coffee develops body. When the beans reach the black stage with oil on the outside, the only flavor left is a heavy burnt flavor.
Roasters destroying the subtle flavors of Kona Coffee by over-roasting are hurting the reputation of Kona Coffee.
4. Selling Kona Coffee Made With Under Ripe and Overripe Beans
In an era of high grade speciality coffee, ripeness makes a difference: “Green beans can produce a “grassy” or harsh flavor caused by picking and processing immature cherries.” Factors Influencing Cup Quality in Coffee http://agrilife.org/worldcoffee//files/2011/03/GCQRI-Lit-Review.pdf “Under ripe beans can produce green or grassy flavors in the brew; overripe beans can add a fermented or moldy taste.” http://www.ciaprochef.com/coffee/picking_processing.html “An ANACAFE study in Guatemala showed that even a minor percentage (0.5 to 3.5 percent) of green cherries can have a negative impact on the quality of the coffee. In blind tests, ANACAFE cuppers detected the presence of undesirable astringency in the cup as a result of non-discriminate picking techniques.” Willem Boot, Roast Magazine http://www.roastmagazine.com/resources/Roasting101_Articles/Green-Coffee/Roast_JanFeb07_WetDryEverything.pdf Only ripe, red beans produce superior speciality coffee!
In spite of this, a few farmers and millers use green, yellow and black beans in the Kona Coffee they sell.
Some Kona Coffee websites show photos of over-ripe and under-ripe beans being dumped into a pulper. Some millers claim that the pulper or the float tank will take out the bad beans. It isn’t true, pulpers and float tanks take out some under-ripes and over-ripes but they don’t get them all.
Selling Kona Coffee produced with under-ripe and over-ripe beans is a crime against Kona Coffee.
5. Selling Kona Coffee Beans that Have Fermented
Coffee cherries contain natural sugars. Picking coffee opens the cherries to the natural yeasts on the outside of the cherry. Yeasts convert sugar to alcohol and other organic chemicals. After the yeasts have done their job, natural enzymes convert the organic material in the cherries into acids like malic acid and acetic acid (vinegar). This fermentation process starts just as soon as the cherries are picked and it increases geometrically so long as there is organic material for the yeasts and enzymes to work on. “Once detached from the tree, coffee fruit senesces rapidly. Placed whole in sacks the temperature immediately begins to rise reaching 35 C (95 F) in about 12 (hours) and 45 C (113F) after about another 24 (hours). When coffee is pulped for fermentation this dramatic increase in temperature is not observed. The difference is attributable to a difference in oxygen supply – the spaces between the cherries facilitate gas exchange…..” http://www.coffee-ota.org/cd_hygiene/cnt/cnt_sp/sec_3/docs_3.1/Delays%20b4%20processing.pdf “…heat generated by fermentation of the pulp causes the bean to respire and ferment, resulting in weight loss and discolored, sour beans.The sour characteristic of fermented beans is one of the worst defects….Storage of cherries in bags or boxes for longer than 24 hours will result in fermentation in the cherry and deteriorated quality.” http://www.ctahr.hawaii.edu/fb/coffee/coffee_processing.html
Farmers use fermentation in controlled conditions to break down the mucilage on the beans and to create dry natural coffees. However, if the process is not controlled the result is sour, fermented tasting coffee.
Some farmers let their coffee cherries sit until they get enough coffee to pulp. Some mills buy cherries on roadside stands and let them sit for days before pulping. Farmers and millers who care about quality pulp their coffee as quickly as possible.
Selling sour, fermented tasting Kona Coffee hurts the reputation of Kona Coffee.
6. Selling Bug Coffee
The coffee borer beetle has become a serious pest in Kona. At best, a farmer has to live with losing about five percent of the crop, at worst (s)he loses all of it. But five percent for some farmers is the difference between profit and loss. A number of Kona Coffee farms have been driven out of business, partly or wholly, due to the borer beetle.
This doesn’t excuse the fact that some roasters are purposely buying bug infested and bug damaged beans, dark roasting them, grinding them and selling them as 100% Kona Coffee. Roasted beetles do not taste like Kona Coffee. “The taste of bug damaged coffee varies from bland to bitter.” Willem Boot, Roast Magazine http://www.roastmagazine.com/resources/Roasting101_Articles/Green-Coffee/Roast_JanFeb07_WetDryEverything.pdf
“Bug coffee” is hurting the reputation of Kona Coffee.
Consumers who do not want “coffee con carne” should buy whole bean coffee direct from the farmer.
7. Selling Past Crop Kona Coffee
Coffee does not age well. Wine is vintage, coffee is not. Coffee is either current crop or past crop. Depending on how it is stored, green coffee can become flat and uninteresting in just a few months. A major defect of coffee is a baggy taste from being stored in burlap bags for months.
Most stale coffees do not taste bad, they just taste flat and lifeless. Good Kona Coffees are neither flat nor lifeless. Consumers should ask for and insist on current crop Kona coffee.
A few farmers and distributors sell past crop Kona Coffee. They are hurting the Kona Coffee brand.
8. Selling Machine Dried Coffee
Kona Coffee has traditionally been dried on decks in the sun. However, many millers are introducing propane drying machines. In addition, a few farmers have created novel ways of drying including dehydrators and solar powered dryers.
Coffee drying machines work well for commercial coffee. They are fast and labor efficient. They have a place in speciality coffee but not at the start of the drying process.
Sun drying introduces changes in the organic chemicals in the coffee bean. Those changes are positive for the flavor of the roasted coffee. For example, “…many cherries lose their green color but do not turn completely red. These unripe cherries will pulp easily but are full of chlorophyll. This is readily seen in fresh wet washed parchment which shows up the color of the silverskin underneath. One solution is to sun dry the coffee …as ultraviolet light can bleach out the greenness in the silverskin. “ Factors Influencing Cup Quality in Coffee http://agrilife.org/worldcoffee//files/2011/03/GCQRI-Lit-Review.pdf “…both mechanical- and sun-drying impart a sweet juicy flavor characterized by orange citrus notes. However, the sundried coffee was heavier bodied with more intensity in its flavor.“ Lyman, Difference spectroscopy in the analysis of the effects of coffee cherry processing variables on the flavor of brewed coffee International Journal of Spectroscopy, Volume 2011, Article ID 815304; Mburu, J. K., “A Critical Appraisal of Coffee Drying in Kenya”, 2001: Proceeding of the 20th Association Scientifique du Café Colloquiem, Paris“..exposure to the sun for an accumulated 50 sunshine hours induces some very attractive quality attributes to the coffee via ultra violet ray of the sun radiation.”
As coffee dries the chemical changes slow down, at that point an option is to finish drying in a propane dryer. Finishing in a dryer is less labor intensive and produces a more consistent moisture content in the beans.
Large producers, who sell average or below coffee, don’t sun dry their Kona Coffee beans. Farmers who care about the quality and taste of their coffee sun dry their beans. Consumers who care about quality should buy farm direct and ask the farmer how the beans were dried.
9. Selling Kona Coffee Blends In Which You Cannot Taste the Kona.
A few coffee distributors are selling Kona Blends. The blends feature the word Kona on the package and sell for a premium price. The coffee tastes like average Central American speciality grade coffee because that is what it is. Hawaii distributors are required to have at least 10% Kona Coffee in their blends. Mainland distributors can put any amount of Kona coffee in their blends.
Coffee blending is an honorable craft. Taking two or more good coffees and making one great coffee is an art. However, taking an average speciality grade coffee and adding a coffee with a great reputation that no one can taste is a scam. Even professional cuppers cannot taste Kona Coffee in a 10% blend. So customers are paying a premium price for a bag that has the name Kona on it but are not getting any Kona taste in their coffee cup.
Fooling customers into buying a Kona Coffee blend, in which, they cannot taste the Kona, hurts the reputation of good Kona Coffees.
10. Selling Counterfeit Kona Coffee
An old joke in Kona is that Kona produces three million pounds of coffee a year and five million pounds of Kona Coffee are sold worldwide. A recent class action lawsuit claims it isn’t five million, it is twenty million pounds of coffee labeled “Kona” that are being fraudulently sold on the world market.
There are always people who are willing to cheat to make a buck. In Hawaii, we have distributors who 1) buy coffee from other regions than Kona and then sell it as Kona, 2) take below grade coffee and sell it as quality grade Kona, and/or 3) grind Kona coffee and sell it as higher grade or peaberry coffee. Outside of Hawaii, there are distributors, roasters and big box stores who are selling coffee with fake Kona labels.
The Napa wine industry had the same problem. Big distributors were bottling low grade wine and selling it as Napa wine. Napa vintners got the State of California to agree to a federal Napa appellation which gave them federal criminal law protection against fraudulent Napa wine. Kona growers have been unable to get criminal protection for their coffee because the large coffee distributors control the Hawaii legislature.
Selling counterfeit Kona Coffee is a crime which hurts legitimate coffee farmers.
“Never waver from quality, even when you don’t see how you can afford to keep it up. When you compromise, you become a commodity and then you die.” Gary Hirshberg, CEO, Stonyfield Farm
Hula Daddy Kona Coffee LLC is a boutique farm in Kona, Hawaii that grows, processes and roasts its own current crop coffee beans. We grow 7 different varieties of coffee and process them using 4 different methods. We roast date every bag of our coffee. Hula Daddy Kona Coffee does not sell coffee cherry or green coffee beans to anyone.
In 2019, Hula Daddy won First, Fourth and Fifth places in the Kona Coffee Competition. In 2018, Forbes Magazine picked Hula Daddy as one of the Top 12 Coffee Roasters in the United States. Also in 2018, Coffee Review selected Hula Daddy out of the thousands of coffees it tastes every year as the Number 1 Coffee of 2018. In 2017, we came in Second in the Hawaii Cupping Competition and in the Kona Coffee Cupping Competition. In 2017, Laura’s Reserve SL-28 received 97 points from Coffee Review and was Number 2 in the Top Coffees of 2017. In December 2016, Coffee Review rated our Laura’s Reserve SL-28 as Number 3 in the Top Coffees of 2016
This is a great article and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I agree with nearly all of it and I was on the seat of my chair while reading it! Keep up the great reading material!
However, I have issue with the point about drying coffee in the sun or mechanically. I feel the evidence you provide against dryers is not very strong and unjustifiably accusatory.
The first quote, taken from the CGQRI review, says nothing about the quality of the cup, only that the appearance of the seeds can change due to exposure to UV light. Moreover, there is no citation for that information, which, particularly for a review article, is sketchy.
The spectroscopy article is quite interesting, especially since I’d not seen it yet (thanks for the heads-up)! I have an issue with it, though, as the cupping methodology is not described. More importantly, it clearly wasn’t done in a scientific manner as we’re lead to believe it was done to industry standard led by the Batdorf and Bronson team. This hardly permits conclusions and must be relegated to anecdotal evidence.
That said, there is plenty of anecdotal and some scientific evidence suggesting mechanically drying coffee above 50 C is detrimental to cup quality. Note, this was the case for the coffee in this study. So, if the data generated by the cuppers is an accurate representation of the population (i.e., it is “true”), then it is important to note it is true only for the drying temperatures they used.
I applaud your exploration of the issue. However, it is one that we know little about. I urge caution with how you discuss it.
Thanks for the fun read,
Thank you for pointing out the issues with sun vs. mechanical drying. If you find any more research please pass it on. Karen
Shawn Check out Mburu, J. K. “A Critical Appraisal of Coffee Drying in Kenya” Coffee Reseach Foundation which says “..exposure to the sun for an accumulated 50 sunshine hours induces some very attractive quality attributes to the coffee via ultra violet ray of the sun radiation.” He cites to Wootton, A E. Verkade F.A. and H.W. Mitchell (1968) The Sun-dying of Arabica Coffee Kenya coffee, August 1968: 261-271
Karen, great article. Kona or rather 100% Kona is my favorite coffee on the planet. I can definitely tell yours from other brands and I’m so happy you take the 100% so seriously and then take the bean to the next level of excellence. Look forward to hearing more news on the subject. Keep up the good work. I’m going to double my next order. Life is too short to drink bad or bug infested coffee! Mahalo, Vicki
Your newsletter has always made for great reading. Now you have added this fantastic blog!
You not only sell great Kona coffee, but you also educate us about coffee and the coffee making process.
I went to Hula Daddy Coffee about a month ago. Once I took my first sip, I knew I was hooked…
Wow what a great article! I just learned more in 5min than I’ve ever known about coffee in my entire life! I can’t afford it now but after reading the passion in your post I plan on saving money to buy some coffee from you guys. It’s good to see someone so truly passionate about what they do. Hopefully some day I can get a job where I can experience that. Thanks again from the frozen tundra of North Dakota!!
kona extra fancy coffee
Great read and thanks for the useful info! So that’s why pure Kona extra fancy coffee is so rare and difficult to find. The Kona Coffee Farmers Association has been watching Safeway closely for these changes.
Thanks for opening my eyes with this great article. Truth is it’s hard to find people who take pride in their work anymore.
Thanks for reposting this article. It was a great read the first time and this times as well. My son and I visited you about 2 years ago and it was a highlight of our trip. We saw the passion you all have for the art of coffee growing and roasting – and we left with a bag of amazing Kona sweet. My son has even gotten into roasting for his personal use.
Here is my dilemma. We love your coffee, Full stop. However, at the price point, there is no way financially that I could make a pot in my Mocamaster daily. So, as great as your coffee is, it has to be a rare treat – kind of like buying an ounce of fine Caspian sea caviar. I do it very rarely, but it’s a special treat.
I fully understand why you have to charge what you do. The visit really helped me to understand the amount of labor and cost of property and that your margins are probably pretty thin.
So I will end with a question – since cost is a factor for me, should I just enjoy fine Kona coffee like yours occasionally as a rare treat, or are there legitimate Kona coffee farmers/roasters that perhaps use less fastidious methods (perhaps more automated) that still provide great Kona at a more approachable price for daily use?
Thanks and we hope to see you again soon.
Aloha Harry The best coffee in the world is the one you like. So we can’t tell you what coffee to drink. We suggest you check out some of the Kona ratings on coffee review and the hawaii and kona coffee contests. They will tell you who has put the time and effort into creating top quality Kona coffee. Then you have to try them and choose for yourself. Mahalo Karen
I bought a bag of whole bean Kona coffee from a farm in Hawaii, not your farm. It taste like dirt, twigs and leaves, why?
Well the obvious answer is that is what was in the bag. However, we also find that brewing techniques can cause some of those flavors. Clean your brewer by brewing white vinegar in it. Also check your brew water temperature to see if it is close to 200 f. Then try the coffee again. If it still tastes like dirt, twigs and leaves congratulate yourself on an amazing abilty to taste flavors.
Maybe I should look into becoming a coffee taste tester, lol. I doubt it’s my AeroPress or my stainless steel French Press. I clean them often. I do my best to get my water to 195-200 f before pouring it in the press. The bag of Kona beans has been sitting for about a year now; in a ziploc bag that I compress around the coffee bag to remove as much air as possible before sealing it. I have been using some of the Kona beans mixed in with my beans I grind for coffee and really enjoy the taste. Adds a kind of buttery flavor to my brew. At least this way I won’t have to buy expensive bags of Kona as often.