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Kona Coffee Part II:
What Works and What Doesn’t
By Alexis Rubinstein

Tea & Coffee Trade Journal surveys the machinery and processing equipment behind the Kona coffee farms as well as a controversial labeling issue surrounding the beans.

There is no single step in the coffee production process that is more important than the next. From seed to cup, the attention and choices of every involved individual can affect the end result. Kona coffee generally remains in the region for every step along the way, from pulping, processing and roasting to packaging and labeling. Perhaps this is because of the isolation of the island more than 2,000 miles off the coast of California, or maybe to promote and strengthen the local economy, but the outcome is still a coffee community of large and small farms alike all wanting to ensure the sustainability of Kona coffee.

Picking and Pulping
While the machinery used in processing coffee can alter taste profiles and therefore quality, the people behind the machine are the true basis of any company’s foundation. The plush 27.5-acre Captain Cook Coffee estate is blanketed by one-year-old trees which will be in production in the 2008/2009 coffee season. Steve McLaughlin was only too happy to speak of the hands that dug the soil and nurtured the coffee. “The farm was planted by George Yasuda, owner of the Tiare Lani Coffee Company,” McLaughlin informs. George was born and raised in Kona on their family farm. His main goal is to maintain the beauty of the earth by growing healthy trees and producing the best Kona coffee. George continues to look for better techniques in growing coffee, better cultivation methods, better fertilizers and is the premier consultant and developer of Kona coffee orchards.” Captain Cook Coffee Company’s general manager is Roger Kaiwi-Machen, who has been with the company for 11 years and served as a six-year board member and vice president of the Hawaii Coffee Association, as well as a board member for the Kona Coffee Council and Kona Coffee Cultural Festival. According to McLaughlin, “His expertise in all phases of wet and dry milling and farm labor management are the reasons why the Captain Cook Coffee Co. continues to play a major role in the Kona coffee industry.”

While other farms in the region may not be as sprawling in space or as populated in employees, their passion and dedication to their product is surely equaled. Pruning and picking are a deeply-rooted part of Kona coffee culture. These steps are a time for groups of people to come together, socialize and contribute to their local marketplace. On the Kanalani Ohana Farm, pruning takes place in January through March. “We harvest ohana (family) style. One farmer and three apprentices harvest four days a week for a half day. Typically, we harvest just over 60 days/year,” says Colheur Bondera. As for pruning, “We are trying to address the energy crisis by reducing our carbon footprint,” he explains. “Our coffee pulper is attached to an exercise bicycle.” Pauline McGrath of Buntin Bean Farm also “calls over the whole family and all the neighbors to help out with both pruning and picking. It’s a time to catch up with old friends, gossip but still get the job done.”

Bob Nelson of Lehuula Farms also found it critical to do as most he can with his coffee on the Lehuula Farm premises. “Around the first of January, the picking season ends,” describes Nelson of his cycle. “Around February, we begin to prune, cutting off the old growth and allowing new growth to take place. This is because this is where the fruit bearing verticals come from. In March, we fertilize and between April and August we remove unwanted growth and do weed control and grass maintenance. Sometime between the first of January and the middle of April the flowering occurs. There are usually approximately 210 days between flowering and when the fruit matures. Then, the first part of September picking begins.” Nelson also points out that their pruning method is unique in the sense that instead of pruning each tree that would have a series of verticals of different ages, they prune by row, allowing more even growth and maturation.

Processing in Paradise
While there is no denying that there is something special about the Kona grown coffee beans, green beans are only as good as the techniques used to process them. For this reason, farms in the area have dedicated time, research and money to ensure the best drying methods, mills and roasters to keep customers satisfied and feedback positive.

“The Hawaii Coffee Company has a new ecological wet mill that was produced by JM Estrada S.A. in Medillin, Colombia,” tells Jim Wayman. “Each pulping system can pulp the coffee cherry at a rate of 5,500 lbs/hour. There are two units on line that give them the capacity to pulp 11,000 lbs of coffee cherry/hour. The dry mill operation is the standard type of dry mill but with new dryers the capacity is over two million lbs/coffee season. The entire wet mill and dry mill are located within walking distance from the Hawaii Coffee Company Visitors Center and tour buses with visitors can not only purchase the Kona coffee but can see the entire milling operation.”

Captain Cook Coffee Co. is also fortunate enough to use the same ecological Estrada wet mill, necessary for the amount of coffee being processed by the company.

“The important characteristic of the equipment is that the pulper machines are free to calibrate the pulped coffee quality because the demucilager machine is localized in front of the criba (screening) machines. There is lower water consumption with this type of machine, making it environmentally friendly. Captain Cook Coffee Co. has three of these units, giving them the capacity to pulp 16,500 lbs/hour,” says McLaughlin. “Captain Cook Coffee Co. also has a sTate of the art dry mill,” he continues. “It is the first fully automated and computerized dry mill in the state of Hawaii. The unique feature of this system is that the green coffee moves through the system through a vacuum air flow method.”

By supervising the coffee from A to Z, the company has quality control abilities that wouldn’t be available with outsourced processing. Pele Plantations is just one of many Kona coffee estates that has found an immense importance in being involved in all aspects. “We wet process, tank ferment, sun dry, air roast, seal valve bags, roast to order and ship fresh,” states Gus Brocksen. “We don’t use any methods other than traditional in Kona. We start wet processing the same day cherry is picked, ferment overnight, dry on our “hoshidana” (Japanese for drying deck) to right moisture. We use a certified organic dry mill in Holualoa before bringing back the green for our roasting in two Sivetz electric roasters.”

While hulling and grading does not take place on the Lehuula Farm, Nelson does bring the beans back onto the grounds for roasting. “We not only roast our coffee but custom roast for other people as well,” says Nelson. “We use a fluid bed or hot air roaster, basically like a giant pop corn popper, where the beans are just being moved around by heated air. On Lehuula Farms we use a Sivetz brand, patented in Oregon years ago. We roast between six and 10 lbs. of green beans at a time for approximately 12 minutes, varying degrees for different roasts. We chose not to use a drum roaster because I believe they tend to add a smoky flavor. Our coffee on Lehuula Farms is not roasted until it is ordered.”

Truth in Labeling
Knowing now the work and commitment of Kona coffee farmers and employees of the estates, it is easy to understand their voice in the truth in labeling debate. Jim Wayman describes the background of the issue: “In 1992 the state of Hawaii passed laws requiring a minimum of 10% Kona coffee to be in a package allowed to use the phrase ‘Kona Blend Coffee’ on the identity statement. A statement was also required that said, ‘Contains not less than 10% Kona coffee.’” Wayman describes the intent of activists who have, throughout the years, fought to increase the minimum percentage of Kona coffee allowed to be in blends. However, no progress had been made with the Hawaii state legislature. Wayman, who is also president of the Hawaii Coffee Association states, “the association has presented a direction called ‘A Better Path for Hawaiian Coffee,’ which calls for a further tightening of truth and labeling laws and for mandatory certification of all Hawaiian coffee. As a result, the Hawaii State Legislature in 2007 called for the Hawaii Department of Agriculture to study means of better truth and labeling and mandatory certification and to report its findings to the legislature no later than December, 2008.”

“Our state allows a 10% blend of Kona and 90% foreign junk coffees to be labeled as a Kona blend,” says Brocksen. “It is not a blend of different Kona farms, and many unsuspecting buyers get sucked into buying, for cheap prices, for blends or as it is sometimes called ‘trinket coffee.’ Unfortunately price buyers will be the first to complain about the flavor, but they have to realize that you get what you pay for.” While other farmers and activists are looking for a large Kona coffee percentage increase, Brocksen doesn’t see this as a realistic solution. “This acute problem has been going on for at least two decades here in Hawaii,” he says. “As the blenders and counterfeiters have learned over the years, just a fanciful and deceptive label will dupe a coffee buyer as well as the 10% blend label. Some Kona coffee groups are advocating a huge jump in the percentage to around 75%. But what they are not considering is the immediate effect on the growers market. Other suggestions more likely to be accepted by the blenders is an increase to 30% Kona in a blend. This is more in line with Japan, Columbia and Jamaica standards of using the name with only 30%. Obviously an economic analysis of all effects needs to be done in order to more accurately predict the outcome of any percentage or labeling changes.”

The Kona Coffee Farmers Association makes clear that it “is not against blending.

Blending is a roaster’s art to produce just the flavor his customer wants. What the KCFA does object to is labeling of a 90% foreign coffee in a bag as a ‘Kona blend.’ It is inherently deceptive to use the ‘Kona’ name for 90% foreign grown coffee. It is a matter of common sense.” The KCFA even makes suggestions for those who still wish to have their Kona coffee blended with that of another origin: “buy 100% Kona and 100% of another quality coffee and do the blending yourself until you get what you prefer.”

While the packaging dilemmas are prevalent in Hawaii, they affect more than the island’s economy and tourist trade. The issue is also at hand throughout the U.S. and Internationally, with Kona coffee buyers worldwide unable to regulate what is really in their bag of beans. “The bigger concern for the coffee industry is that there is no truth in labeling protection for Hawaiian coffees outside of the state of Hawaii,” explains Wayman. “On the Mainland U.S., any retailer can display the words Kona coffee on a bag with no controls whatsoever over how much Hawaiian coffee is actually in the bag. This is an unethical and unfair use of our Hawaiian coffee trade names and is something we as industry would like to see addressed by the U.S. congress or the USDA.” Recognizing this problem is worsened outside of the state, Brocksen recommends either “buying from a trusted and knowledgeable mainland roaster who has certified documentation from the Hawaii DOA, or get it direct from Kona from a vertically integrated operation such as ours or one of my ‘friendly competitors.’”

But what could be the reasoning for depriving the Kona coffee farmers of their due credit and the consumers of their knowledge? While there has been no official answer to this question, there has been individual opinions and speculations that can perhaps provide the industry with a fuller understanding. According to Wayman, “The primary reason the industry is opposed to raising the minimum content to 75% is the uncertainty as to what this would do to demand for the product. Raising the blend quotient to 75% effectively raises the retail price of an eight-oz bag of Kona blend coffee from $5.00 for a bag of 10% blend to $9.00 for an eight-oz bag of 75% Kona blend. This compares to $11.00 for a seven-oz bag of 100% Kona.”

Certification Crisis
The mandatory certification of Kona coffee is a way to ensure quality and defend the reputation of their superior product. However, the certification process is seemingly not something every farm agrees with or conforms to, causing another island coffee controversy. “The Hawaiian Coffee Association has taken a position that all coffee grown in Hawaii should be certified for quality and authenticity by the state of Hawaii,” tells Wayman. “The state of Hawaii currently has laws that require Hawaiian coffee to be certified, but current rules do not go far enough due to a loophole offered for small farmers. The loophole allows farmers who do not move their green coffee out of the Kona growing district to avoid certification. Those farmers who do not certify can roast the coffee and then sell it out of the district. This has spawned an interest in internet sales business for many small farmers who grow, process, roast and market their products online. This practice minimizes quality control and allows consumers to purchase undocumented poor quality coffee.”

McLaughlin also is most concerned with the certification of Kona and other Hawaiian grown coffees. “Since the famous Kona Kai scandal of 1996, Captain Cook Coffee Co. spearheaded the movement with the State of Hawaii Agriculture Department to have all green coffee certified for quality and authenticity. The industry suffered greatly because of Kona Kai and it has taken many years to reassure the consumer that what they purchase is 100% state certified Kona green coffee. We believe as an industry that we have accomplished this, but there are still issues. In 1996, there was a group of very small Kona farmers who approached the State of Hawaii Agriculture Department and insisted that the cost to have their coffee certified would be too high. They said that their coffee was being sold to the tourists who would drive by their farms and purchase their coffee. These sales were only supposed to be on the Big Island. That was before e-commerce came into the picture. Today, 90% or more of their sales are generated to a worldwide market and some of these coffees are not certified.”

Of course, there are two sides to every story, and certification can be costly to the smaller farms of Kona. Just as with the truth in labeling debate, mandatory certification must be examined from both sides, for all farms no matter the size or consumer base. With time and research, the Kona coffee industry and its farmers can only hope that the state legislation will do what’s right for this small coffee community with such a big passion for coffee.


Tea & Coffee - June, 2008
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