Kona Coffee: A Brand Worth Protecting

Kona Coffee: A Brand Worth Protecting

Hands holding Kona coffee cherry

Kona Coffee is known worldwide as a high-quality specialty coffee with distinct characteristics of the region in which it is grown. Why does it not receive protected status under current Hawaii labeling laws?

As it stands, any brand can claim to be "Kona Coffee" with as little as 10% of beans sourced from Kona. Visitors to the Big Island pick up a bag of this "Kona Coffee" and wonder – "What's the big deal? Doesn't taste special to me". Well, no wonder. These so-called Kona blends mix in less expensive beans imported from other regions then passed off as "Kona coffee" to unsuspecting tourists or shoppers on Amazon looking for a great deal on "Kona coffee."

This inauthenticity is a disservice to consumers and local coffee farmers who go to great expense and care to produce the real thing. It dilutes the brand's value and tarnishes the reputation of Kona coffee overall. It's deceptive, dishonest, and unfair.

Now making its way through the Hawaii legislature, HB1517 is a bill to rectify this long-standing injustice, though it only gets half the job done. The new bill, if it passes, will require blends – if they want to use the word Kona – to include at least 51% of beans from that region. Labels will have to detail what other beans are included and in what percentages.

Even though it doesn't go far enough to be genuinely fair, HB1517 has near-universal support among authentic Kona coffee farmers. Who doesn't support it? Large coffee importers (many on the mainland) and retailers who want to claim they serve "Kona coffee" without having to pay for the real deal. Who gets left holding the burlap bag? The local farmers with less political heft and more to lose.

Lawyers are stepping in where legislators have previously failed. Recently, there was a settlement from a lawsuit brought against retailers including Albertsons, Safeway, Kroger, and Hawaiian Isles Kona Coffee Co, Ltd. All were selling mislabeled Kona coffee. Perhaps lawsuits and monetary damages – and the unwelcome publicity that comes with them – will deter the continued deception or at least provide a measure to promote complete labeling information.

Protected designation of origin (PDO) identifies products that are produced, processed, and prepared in a specific geographical area, using the recognized know-how of local producers and ingredients from that region – think "Idaho potatoes," "Florida orange juice," or "Napa Valley wine." Why doesn't Hawaii value "Kona coffee" in this same way?

The Kona Coffee Belt is a tiny strip of land on the western side of the Big Island of Hawaii. Just a few miles wide and only 30 miles long, the area has ideal conditions for growing excellent Arabica coffee, with a mild, tropical climate and mineral-rich, volcanic soil. The Kona Typica variety has a well-earned reputation for excellence.

Genuine 100% Kona Coffee can only be grown in this specific Kona coffee belt region and must contain, as the name implies, 100% Kona-grown coffee. The resulting signature 100% Kona Coffee is known for its rich, aromatic flavor with minimal bitterness or aftertaste, appealing to coffee aficionados around the world. It is considered a premium gourmet product and is prized by coffee lovers everywhere. As such, 100% Kona Coffee commands some of the highest prices in the world.

One of the few specialty coffees grown in the United States, Kona Coffee supports many small, family-run farms. Unlike in many other coffee-growing regions, farmworkers receive a living wage.

Recently, Representative Nicole Lowen wrote a convincing essay on this issue. She represents the Kona district in the Hawaii House of Representatives and understands Kona blends' damage to local farmers.

Kona coffee – authentic 100% Kona coffee – is a gourmet specialty product. It is produced in a tiny geographic area and is limited in quantity. Its rarity makes it all the more valuable. Unlike many other coffee-producing regions, Kona does not produce a mass commodity intended for mass consumption. It is a unique product that directly reflects the distinct characteristics of the area in which it is grown. Kona Coffee is a brand worth protecting.

In the meantime, Kona coffee fans should look for 100% Kona coffee on the label of brands they support. Only then can they be confident they are getting the real thing.