Categorized | Agriculture, Opinions

Kona coffee needs a quality grading system

Andrew Hetzel/Special to

On Friday, Jan. 30, I had the opportunity to give a short presentation to a small group of farmers at the annual Kona Coffee Farmers Association expo. I used the short speaking time (30 minutes) to make an appeal for something badly needed in Kona, a method of objectively grading the quality of coffee in our origin.

Andrew Hetzel

Andrew Hetzel

Whereas in many regions of the world, coffees are cupped regularly and systematically evaluated by the producer 1) for their own internal quality improvements, 2) to communicate flavor profile with buyers, and 3) to objectively promote cup quality, in Kona, the process is largely left to chance.


Hawaii’s coffee grading system currently monitors only the number of faults in each green sample and screen size of the bean; no consideration whatsoever is given to the resulting flavor.

Since the Big Island’s coffee industry and stratospheric price quote largely hinges on the Kona district’s origin brand legacy, we need to take steps to make continual improvements to the flavor and consistency of every small grower’s estate (about 800 in Kona) in order to ensure its longevity.

High prices are not sustainable without underlying product quality; professionals within the coffee industry already believe that most coffees originating in Kona are not a good value in comparison with other world origins, it is only a matter of time until the average consumer shares that belief.

A battle over product labeling and blending percentages has paralyzed Kona’s coffee growers for well over 20 years, but the conflict avoids the true issue at hand: brand integrity.

The argument posed by the small farming community is that by diluting a pure Kona coffee product, you are damaging the reputation of the brand — but that argument is only half correct and makes the false assumption that 100% Kona is always 100% good quality. This is, unfortunately, not always the case.

Nor is it the case that foreign coffees used in blending always damage the resulting product’s flavor; it has been my experience that less expensive origins used in Kona blending (to produce those 10% blends you see on store shelves) can be an improvement.

Blending or not blending, the underlying problem is that the most of Kona’s coffees are not performing up to their price level; if they were, consumers would not accept an inexpensive alternative that carries the Kona name.

Like it or not, the coffees of Hawaii are in jeopardy as ballooning land, labor and operating costs combined with increasingly skilled world competition turn our origin into an aging and overpriced novelty.

The feedback from Friday’s session was overwhelmingly positive, which gave me a good feeling that perhaps Kona is ready to move forward, but one or two in attendance seemed skeptical.

One particularly skeptical farmer posed the charged question, “if coffee cupping is so important, then why couldn’t coffee cuppers tell the difference between that and a cheap substitute?”

The question references the infamous Kona Kai scandal, where Kona coffee was fraudulently substituted with inexpensive coffee from Costa Rica and Panama — no one noticed. The criminals were ultimately caught when someone stumbled on the shipping containers.

My response to the skeptic: “I believe that the bigger problem is that there was nothing so unique about the Kona coffee for anyone to notice that it had been switched. If no one notices when it’s gone, then why is it needed?”

(Andrew Hetzel is the founder of Cafemakers, a coffee industry business consultancy based in Waimea. Cafemakers provides management, brand and process consulting services for coffee retailers, roasters and producers worldwide. Hetzel’s industry advice has been featured in BusinessWeek, Nations Restaurant News, Associated Press syndicated content and numerous trade publications. Contact Hetzel at or

4 Responses to “Kona coffee needs a quality grading system”

  1. parv says:

    I liked the retort near the end.

    Will anything (even start of the beginning of grading) come out of this? In near future?

  2. alani says:

    The tacit endorsement by a West Hawaii coffee consultant for use of the “Kona” name on packages containing 90% foreign coffee is extremely disappointing. Because the market is awash with deceptively labeled Kona blends, Kona coffee is underpriced, not overpriced. Top quality Kona coffee on average sells for 30% less than Jamaica Blue Mountain because Jamaica (unlike the State of Hawaii) prevents the fraudulent use of the “Jamaica” name on 10% coffee blends.

  3. “The tacit endorsement by a West Hawaii coffee consultant for use of the “Kona” name on packages containing 90% foreign coffee is extremely disappointing.”

    “Because the market is awash with deceptively labeled Kona blends, Kona coffee is underpriced, not overpriced.”

    These arguments are the sad death rattle of a decaying industry that pins its hopes on idealized legacy rather than modern reality. I wrote another article on this same topic back in October:

    As we learned in Detroit, you should be careful to not mistake ignorance for pride.

  4. Alani’s comment is expected but sad. Mr. Hetzels position as a coffee lover, Big Island resident, independent coffee marketing consultant makes him a valuable commentator on those issues. He foremost would know that any biased or short sighted opinion would endanger his own business as an increasingly recognized coffee consultant. I get more out of his comments knowing that he is critical and advice coffee farmers to listen carefully to what he observes.

    The current Kona coffee industry has more than one leg to stand on, and much more than one clear and present danger (‘10% Kona Blend’ discussion). Labor law violations (incl. child labor), labeling law violations, workers housing violations, USDA organic certification rules violations, tax fraud, health law violations, immigration law violations, are huge issues for Kona coffee farms if the State of Hawaii would not turn a semi blind eye on our Kona coffee ‘culture’. And it is more ‘culture’ than ‘agriculture’ when retirees or rich mainlanders finance their 2 acres of coffee in Kona. It is still illegal to house your woofers in tents. Or let Marshallese children pick coffee with their parents. Or have a moisture reading of 13%+ on your greens and still send them out roasted with mycotoxic mold all over. Because the farms are small, it is neither real profit bearing nor a hobby. Most coffee land parcels leased or originally sold by Kamehameha Schools were always meant to be only supplemental income for sugarcane workers – never a full agricultural enterprise! They still function that way for the snowbird farmers, retirees, or whose spouse works on the mainland. But they don’t contribute much to the local tax income and get therefore little attention from the government. The profit can only come when the marketing is handled well and cost efficient.

    Too many think that monetary flood gates would open if we would abolish Kona blends. As a matter of fact, those are the ones who pay taxes to the government because of a well documented paper trail- not us small farmers! Kona coffee farmers don’t even tell each other how much they spend on Google Adwords alone! So why would the government listen? The problems for Kona coffee have not changed much since the 1890’s: Fake Kona, expensive labor, lack of quality control, shipping costs. Increasingly I believe they are here to stay.

    But have to be mastered individually.

    There are many positive branding issues for Kona coffee: Associations of holidays, honeymoon, and paradise in Hawaii. Mainland protection and American safety to travel to. Small farms and healthy sustainability. Great aroma and taste. Natural beauty. Nice people. Fun in the sun. Exotic. This is strong stuff. Any Kona Blend makes advertising for this. Most of my customers had tasted Kona Blends involuntarily. Some were angry, some were used to be betrayed. Consumers are very smart. They understand Kona coffee’s advantages of ‘handpicking’, they understand soil quality, micro climate, nutrient management and also why most of us can work harder in such a pleasant surrounding. An enthusiastic farmer is the best sales vehicle to a tourist. Make that 500 – 800 Kona coffee farmers, and there’s a movement.

    Andrew is right: Denial is the first step to self destruction (GM). Humility to improve quality will be rewarded in the long run (Toyota). Go get your green certified with the Dept of Ag in Captain Cook. At least for origin. It’s just $40 bucks and it helps you to convince your customers that you sell genuine Kona. Make your sales traceable so you have a say with the government.


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