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Hetzel: Another flawed Kona coffee labeling bill nears approval

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Andrew Hetzel | Cafemakers Founder

State legislators in Honolulu have again taken a stumble aimed at protecting the Kona origin name on in-state sold retail roasted coffee packages. Kona, the coffee farming origin best known for its high price, non-distinct flavor and a zealous farming community has been embattled on the issue of labeling for nearly 30 years.

A new bill approved by the Agriculture committee of the Hawaii Senate on Thursday is intended to prohibit the deceptive use of the word “Kona,” on package labels, except as it may appear in trademarked brand names.

If passed, the law would be enforceable only within the State of Hawaii.

Farming groups argue that vague language in the bill does little to clarify the meaning of “Kona coffee” and imposes tougher labeling restrictions on independent farmers in Kona, while overlooking the sometimes questionable blending practices of marketers that happen to posses the word “Kona” in their trademarked brand names.

Even in the event of the bill’s passage and signing into law, the Agriculture Department Chairman himself admits that sufficient resources do not exist to enforce its provisions.

In my opinion, this latest attempt to prop up the ailing “100% Kona coffee golden goose” again falls far short of taking any real steps that will improve future prospects for the beleaguered origin.

As I commented last year when a similar bill was introduced (and ultimately failed), labeling addresses only symptoms of a much larger value issue in Kona. There are some truly exceptional coffees in Kona, but those coffees are an exception — unless substantive action is taken to improve the average quality, flavor and subsequent value of coffees grown in Kona, I see no market (Japanese tourist or otherwise) will continue to pay such high prices for what is typically an inconsistent and mediocre product.

Steps must be taken to

1) raise the overall quality of coffee produced, roasted and brewed in Kona (while simultaneously working to lower labor and other production costs)

2) develop an objective system of grading that accurately communicates value to consumers

3) expand research, breeding and processing options to create new and desirable flavor profiles or characteristics that will attract modern commercial specialty coffee buyers — and consequent new global market opportunities.

Until then, Kona coffee must be resigned to take the same shelf as Kopi Luwak in the coffee world: a high-priced holiday novelty, but without the shock value.

(Andrew Hetzel is a Big Island-based coffee industry expert/consultant and founder of Cafemakers. He also writes the Coffee Strategies blog.)

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5 Responses to “Hetzel: Another flawed Kona coffee labeling bill nears approval”

  1. spare us Andrew. You do not know what you are talking about imho Who pays your bills? New coffee- are you nuts we love our coffee so get over that!

  2. Andrew says:

    Just stumbled on this company advertising on the SCAE homepage:

    All the ‘great’ coffee origins are listed; Greenwell’s sandwiched prominently between Galapagos and Kopi Luwak. In the big world that surrounds our little rock, Kona coffee has become a gimmick. You don’t have to listen to me, in fact, don’t. Take a trip somewhere -anywhere- and see it for yourself.

  3. Joachim says:

    Well, the 3 efforts you mention are needed in any coffee growing region. So they apply to the Kona region as well. But your attitude whenever an occasion arises to bitch about Kona coffee, its farmers, and their customers strikes me as a bit odd. After all, we live on one island called Hawai’i.

    Non-distinct flavor? Zealous farmers? High price? So a different flavor for Kona coffee, humble farmers, and below labor prices are what would sway you to accept Kona coffee.

    Maybe we farmers don’t bother with your ‘cupping’ authority and supposed market insights as well? Your behavior shows that you are not running a coffee consulting business for a living, but purely as a hobby.

  4. Andrew says:

    Of the 3,000 metric tons (or so) of coffee that I will buy this year oh behalf of my clients at between (I’m speculating here) $2.75 – $3.10 / lb green at today’s prices from Brazil, El Salvador, Indonesia, India, Guatemala, etc., practically all will be on-par or better in objectively graded quality and consistency than the average coffee purchased in Kona at …what $9 avg., some as high as $15?

    Why do you think that labeling is an issue in the first place? When one can buy washed centrals at ‘c’ market price that taste practically no different than what is being grown in Kona for ‘c x 3’, then who in their right mind will buy from Kona? Of course blending and mislabeling becomes attractive.

    The local industry and its products are simply not sustainable unless radical action is taken to lower and/or justify that cost premium or it will continue to be absorbed by foreign competition. Remember, invasive species win for a reason: they adapt.

    Sure, golf courses and resorts are pretty too, but I think that agriculture is a much better options for stability and the longterm economic survival of this island if they can find a way to make farming competitive. Pineapples gone, sugar cane gone, mac nuts failing, papaya struggling, coffee… get the picture?

    My arguments are presented to help you succeed because I don’t believe that you are currently on that path. With or without Kona coffee, me and my business will continue to do just fine — 100% of my revenues come from coffee roasting operations outside of Hawaii, but it will be a sad loss of a once great region.

  5. Joachim says:

    It’s all about labeling: People might say that they bought a wine because of Norman Parkers rating of it. But in reality they bought it because the label looked pretty. And if they had a great evening with friends, and the wine was somehow decent, they will buy it again because of that.

    It’s all about price: The best coffee in the world given away for free will not gain much respect. Price determines perception. That’s why peaberry is sold at a higher price. That’s why Kona coffee got to be more expensive.

    It’s all about location: Which US tourist will drag a family to i.e. Panama, battling malaria, military patrols, corruption, poverty, a foreign language, 220 v outlets to experience a coffee farm? If Kona coffee is being served during one’s honeymoon in HAwaii, it’s a sweet memory which will last as long as the marriage does. A one hour farm tour, a bit of coffee talk, some personal chat will go a long way. We have customers who have spend thousands in repeat purchases. Our longest customer has purchased from our farm for close to a quarter century. 5 pounds. Every month. You’ll do the math. It’s not just coffee folks experience here: It’s paradise, it’s vacation, sun, surf, togetherness, being part of it, happiness to take home in the shape of Kona coffee beans.

    It’s all about taste: And that’s not yours. Or mine. But the customers. Some pour heaps of coffee mate into a cup. Some a gallon of cream. Some want to have it lukewarm. Some want to have a medium roast and a dark roast split 1:3. With Splenda. Some swear on cat shit with coffee, albeit with the fancy name Kopi Luvak attached. Some want to have advice for how to brew a perfect coffee. And do it different from whatever you tell them anyways. When they say they love your coffee, they really mean it and buy it.

    It’s NOT about ratings: Yes, there’s a tiny, insecure fraction of people which wants to know the annual cupping contest winner, and reads religiously cupping results of various coffee shows. This, and let me be very clear, is not a profitable market segment which would make a small farm sustainable! They are gone with next years winner, because they don’t trust their own taste buds. The magazines, events, and websites catering to this mindset are self-serving, and trying to simulate activity around otherwise boring sales shows.

    If a curious customer meets a genuine farmer, there is always chemistry. As long as people all around the world dream of Hawaii, Hawaiian products can sell themselves. And sadly they are being faked therefore. Kona coffee farmers would gladly adhere to the most rigorous quality controls, if our state government would stop tolerating the abuse of it’s good regional names, aka 10% Kona Blends (containing what, 90% chicory?!), Hawaiian Mac nuts (supposed 51% value added by packing Australian mac nuts here in Hawaii), South Asian acacia wood sold as genuine Hawaiian Koa–the list goes on, the profits leave the island in each case.

    It’s about respect. Respect of the limited resources, the history we have here in the islands, the few people who still work with their hands and backs. Respect for the names and regions which have to support future generations. Farming makes you humble. And gaining this humility is what makes one succeed in farming. Try it one day and let’s see what wage you’ll set against it.


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