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

Easton Smith supports new federal labeling laws to protect the Kona coffee name, and also to increase the minimum Kona coffee requirement for Kona blends. That said, she also believes Kona blends have a place in retail.

 “I think if we ban blends, we’d probably see a huge drop in the price of cherry, which would be devastating for the farmers,” says Easton Smith. “I think there are some good blends out there. But at 10 percent, you’re hardly getting any of the Kona characteristics.”

For consumers, however, the difference between a blend and a 100 percent Kona coffee can be a $12-per-pound versus a $30-per-pound question.

Kona_coffee_Hawaii_closer_lookSays Steiman: “There is a difference, and it’s up to the person drinking the coffee to discover that difference. At the end of the day, it may not be important enough to you to spend for the difference. But I’d rather have the consumer make that educated choice than to not.”

To that end, Steiman offers some tips for Kona-coffee fans who are searching for exceptional beans, whether buying from a roaster or farm in Kona, or buying online.

“If you’re [in Hawaii], buy from a reputable roaster. Make sure it’s not roasted too dark. Make sure it’s been a week or two since it was roasted,” says Steiman. If you’re searching the Web for Kona coffee, take some time to learn about the farmers or roasters.

“What’s unique about our coffee industry from most any in the world is that you can have phone or e-mail conversations with the farmers, and get to know them and know their story,” says Steiman. “If I couldn’t sample the coffee, I’d much rather buy from somebody who’s willing to teach me or talk to me.”

There are exceptional coffees in Kona. You just have to look for them. I find another one on the eve of my last day in town—an intense, yet smooth and nutty medium roast from The Kona Coffee & Tea Co. The next morning, Malia Bolton, director of operations, drives me up the slopes of Hualalai to her family’s 122-acre farm, 2,500 feet above sea level.

The Bolton family began growing coffee on just 20 acres in 1997 when Malia was a sophomore in high school. The plan was to sell their coffee to bulk buyers. But when the trees matured, the Boltons began experimenting with roasting. In 2003, their coffee took first place in the Gevalia Kona Coffee Cupping Competition, which annually selects the best bean on the belt.

The Boltons moved quickly to open a retail operation for their newly award-winning coffees. After graduating from college, Malia joined the family business and now has an award-winning organic offshoot crop of her own, Malia Ohana, growing on 8.5 acres in south Kona.

Kona Coffee & Tea Co. took first place at the Gevalia cupping competition again last year, this time in a category for larger farms.

Malia stops the pickup at the family farm’s highest elevation so I can survey its rows of coffee trees, heavy with amber cherries.

“It’s hard work, and you really have to want to do it. The land’s not going to do it on its own,” she says. “You have to be out here day in and day out.

“But I like working with my family, working with other growers and being home again. It’s really a friendly industry, not a cutthroat one. People are willing to help each other. There are people that encourage me, give me advice. I feel that love.

“Plus, I really love doing this.”

That love turns out coffee that’s more than worthy of Kona’s reputation.

Photos: Ripe Kona coffee cherries (pg. 1), Kona Coffee & Tea Co.'s Malia Bolton (pg. 5) by Kirk Lee Aeder; Hula Daddy Kona coffee retail shop and visitor center (pg. 2) Kona Coffee & Tea Co. coffee farm (pg. 3), raw and roasted Kona coffee beans (pg. 4) by Derek Paiva


Kona_coffee_Hawaii_closer_look(Want to learn more about all Hawaii-grown coffees? Grab a copy of "The Hawaii Coffee Book: A Gourmet's Guide from Kona to Kauai,"  from HAWAII Magazine sister company Watermark Publishing, in bookstores or by clicking here.)

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