Are Coffee Roasters Eroding the Pure Kona Coffee Brand? by Karen Paterson

Consumers tend to judge coffee by region rather than by grower. So, for example, a consumer will comment that they like or don’t like Jamaican coffee without differentiating that there are some excellent, some average and some poor Jamaican coffees. Oddly, this only happens in the coffee industry. Other gourmet beverages, such as beers and wines, are judged based on the grower or the bottler. Even many coffee professionals generalize coffees by region.The result is that a region’s coffees are often rated based on the worst coffee produced rather than the best. Kona coffee is no exception, a consumer or professional will try one Kona coffee and then generalize their experience to extol or defame all Kona coffees. The result is that the reputation of Kona coffee, even among professional coffee judges and roasters, is based upon a few good or bad experiences.

The Kona Coffee Farmers Association believes that coffee blenders using only 10% Kona coffee are exploiting the Kona brand name by selling inferior and overpriced coffee with the name Kona on the label. The KCFA has spent the past five years trying to convince consumers that the should not buy 10% Kona coffee blends. They have done an excellent job of consumer education. At the Hula Daddy Kona Coffee tasting room, tourists often ask us “Is this 100% Kona coffee?” The KCFA has also tried to convince the Hawaii Legislature to prohibit the sale of 10% Kona coffee blends.

The Hawaii Coffee Association and the Kona Coffee Council, which are both dominated by the big Hawaiian coffee roasters argue that the cannot sell the three million pounds of Kona coffee produced each year except by blending Kona coffee with coffees from Central America. Their argument seems somewhat incongruous , since essentially they are saying they cannot sell three million pounds of 100% Kona coffee but they can sell 30 million pounds of 10% Kona coffee blends with the name Kona on the package. They have battled the KCFA in the legislature each session to keep using the name Kona on 10% Kona blends. So far the roasters have won.

The KCFA is right that the coffee mills are using the Kona brand name to sell overpriced coffee. Since even coffee professionals cannot detect the taste of 10% Kona in a blend, the consumer, who buys a 10% Kona blend is really buying Central American coffee with a fair retail price of around $7.50 a pound. Ten percent Kona blends sell from $9 to $25 a pound. This means that the consumer is paying $1.50 to $17.50 a pound solely in exchange for the name Kona printed on the label.

However, the KCFA is wrong about the quality. Average 100% Kona coffees score in the mid-80’s in coffee cupping competitions. (There are also some outstanding Kona coffees that score at world class levels and some poor Kona coffees that are below speciality grade standards.) The cupping scores for Kona coffee 10% blends are equal to or above the cupping scores for average 100% Kona coffee. Here are few examples from Coffee Review:

Roaster Date Score 2011 Price/Lb
Paradise Roasters, Kona Blend December 2010 92 $23.93
Jim’s Burger Cafe, Kona Blend (Taiwan) October 2010 89 N/A
Green Mountain, Kona 10% Blend April 2007 87 $23.99
Millstone, Kona Blend January 2007 85 $17.28
Surf City, Kona Blend April 2006 91


If Kona coffee blends are scoring equal to or better than average 100% Kona coffee than the consumer is getting a good quality cup of coffee, albeit at a high price. If there is any erosion in the brand name Kona based on quality, it is not because of 10% Kona coffee blends.

If not the blenders then who? What about some of the low quality 100% Kona coffee sellers? If a roaster is selling 100% Kona coffee with low grade beans won’t the consumer judge all Kona coffees based upon that experience?

We decided to conduct an experiment to find out if some mills were eroding the Kona brand name by selling low quality 100% Kona coffee. We bought the lowest price 100% Kona coffee at Safeway, Walmart and Costco. (We were surrounded by tourists at each location checking the prices to find the cheapest 100% Kona coffee) We also bought the lowest price 10% Kona blend at Safeway and Walmart. We then set up a blind tasting with a certified coffee Q cupper. All of the coffees were brewed exactly the same way and all were tasted at the same time. In the Q cuppers opinion, the cupping scores were:

Brand Price/pound Cupping score
Brand A. 100% Kona Coffee* $29.00 70
Brand B, 100% Kona Coffee* $25.12 80
Brand C, 100% Kona Coffee* $19.79 78
Hawaiian Isles, Kona Classic 10% Blend $13.10 84
Royal Kona, Roy’s 10% Blend $9.68 82
*brand name redacted

Based on the Q cuppers opinion, only one of the low price 100% Kona coffees met speciality grade standards. (The Speciality Coffee Association of America sets a cupping score of 80 and above for speciality coffee.) The other two 100% Kona coffees were below speciality grade coffee standards. Both of the 10% blends scored better than the 100% Kona coffee and were less expensive.

The Kona Coffee Farmers Association has run afoul of the Law of Unintended Consequences. By driving price conscious consumers away from 10% Kona blends they are pushing them into low grade 100% Kona coffee. Consumers who taste poor quality 100% Kona coffee are likely to generalize that experience to all Kona coffee and refuse to buy any Kona coffee in the future. Educating consumers on 10% Kona coffee blends isn’t enough. Kona famers also need to educate consumers on recognizing poor quality Kona coffee, even if it has a 100% Kona coffee label.

Karen Jue Paterson is the owner of Hula Daddy Kona Coffee, a 33 acre coffee farm in Kona, Hawaii. She is a member of the Hawaii Coffee Associaiton, the Kona Coffee Council and the Kona Coffee Farmers Association. She is also the author of a number of articles on Kona Coffee including: Kona Coffee Farmers at a Crossroad How Typica is Your Kona Coffee?

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