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"Kona in a Cup": Everything you need to know about Kona coffee before you buy

Some Kona, however, is clearly worth the money. How does one achieve a superb Kona coffee? Roasting has a bit of an effect, says Steiman, who authored a tome on Island-grown beans, The Hawaii Coffee Book. So does the elevation at which the tree is grown, where it is grown, the soil, the climate and how healthy the tree is kept as it ages. But there’s no real guaranteed formula for success.

“Coffee has switched from a commodity crop in Hawaii to an artisan product. And some artisans are better than others,” says Steiman. “Those who are really passionate, like Hula Daddy, are going to have coffees that stand out and are really interesting. They have nuances that you think about, as you would an exceptional Scotch, or a chocolate or a cheese.”

Easton Smith, who works closely with farmers, agrees that not all 100 percent Kona coffees are created equal. But she doesn’t think the product is overpriced.

Kona_coffee_Hawaii_closer_look“Kona coffee comes from different areas within Kona, different elevations and farmers with varying experiences in growing and processing. You can have an excellent green [coffee] bean, and the roasting can make or break it,” says Easton Smith. “But, obviously, farmers are not making a lot of money here. I think Kona coffee is fairly priced based on production costs. It may even be a little low, believe it or not.”

One reason for the cost is the harvesting process.

“Coffees on Kauai, Maui and Molokai are all machine harvested,” says Easton Smith. “But here in Kona, because of the terrain, everything is hand-picked and a lot of it is small-scale processed.”
Still, says Smith, it’s not the price of 100 percent Kona coffee that most concerns her. If you want to know just how valuable the Kona label has become in the coffee world, look no further than the proliferation of so-called “Kona-blend” coffees. Since blends are much lower-priced than 100 percent Kona coffees, they’ve gained a strong popularity with consumers.

But a Kona blend is not a blend of various Kona coffees. Instead, it’s coffee from, well, almost anywhere. “If you’re having a Kona blend, it’s very likely you’re consuming 10 percent Kona coffee and a 90 percent mixture of Central and South American coffees,” says Easton Smith.

Hawai‘i state law requires blend producers to clearly label the percentage of Kona coffee mixed into every bag sold in the Islands. But federal law doesn’t extend the same protection.

“On the Mainland, you could probably sell anything as Kona blend and there’s no regulation,” said Easton Smith. “Anyone there could buy any coffee from South America or anywhere else and call it ‘Kona style’ or ‘Kona-style roast,’ because there’s no legal definition. They could call it ‘Kona blend’ and have one bean in the bag.”

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