I recently had the opportunity to join Fire Roasted Coffee’s owner David Cook and manager Patrick Dunham on a coffee origin trip of Kona, Hawaii. Both were in my city of Portland, Oregon for the industry’s largest trade show and were flying to Hawaii from Portland when the show ended. How could I not jump on that opportunity?
Read: Touchdown in Kona Hawaii
Kona produces one of the world’s most vaunted coffees, costing roughly triple what other coffees cost. Fire Roasted already sells Kona coffee, but had two goals on this trip: first, to make direct contact with farmers in the area, and two, to learn more of the borer beetle that is decimating Kona’s coffee crops. The borer beetle was news to me, but as a coffee enthusiast (read: snob), I was blown away by what I learned. The beetle snuck onto crops across Kona undetected, actually mistaken as a harmless twig beetle. The result: half of Kona’s coffee crops have been destroyed with an impact of approximately $20 million on the local economy.
Our first stop was at Greenwell Farms, a third-generation coffee farm and one of the oldest on the island. If Kona coffee has a global reputation for quality, this is one family that has had an undeniable influence.
David and Patrick wanted to know how they could make arrangements to source green unroasted coffee beans from Greenwell. The answer was sobering: it would be March of 2013 before this farm, one of the largest in Hawaii, would have any green beans that they could supply. After satisfying local obligations as well as contracts already in place with other companies, there was simply no other coffee to sell. The borer beetle has hit all farms in the area, and the impact to one of this size is huge for the market.
When the cherry matures and hardens, the beetle drills its way into the cherry, destroying it from within, and destroying farmers’ crops. The two organizations are collaborating to provide instruction on how to protect crops from this threat, and promote field sanitation.
We moved on to Mountain Thunder, another Kona farmer that David and Patrick wanted to meet. The answers there were no less inspiring. Like all farmers, they too had been badly hit. One of the family that runs this farm even broke open a coffee cherry for us, so we could see the tiny borer beetle that had destroyed it. The beetle was almost literally as small as the head of a pin.
What does it all mean, and why should you be interested? If half of Kona’s capacity for coffee is not making it out of Kona, and since Kona is such a vaunted name in coffee, there are a number of repercussions.
First, “Kona blends”. Since everybody wants Kona but so many shop on price alone, if ever you see Kona advertised as anything other than “100% Kona”, don’t get too excited. It’s vague and for all I can tell, means there’s at least one Kona bean mixed in with who knows what else. This is how Jack in the Box can sell a Kona Blend coffee. Don’t be fooled. As the reduced supply of Kona coffee drives up prices to unreasonable levels, expect even more “Kona blend” coffees and expect them to get even worse as the actual Kona content decreases.
Second, if you want Kona in the next year, be prepared to pay for it. It’s supply and demand, and supply has been rocked.
Third, trust in your local roaster to be providing you with real Kona coffee. I expect imitators will flood the market as they did for equally-priced Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee. The difference however is that to a large extent from lack of control, Jamaica allowed such imitation to happen. The state of Hawaii takes its reputation for coffee seriously, so it will be difficult for imitators to pull the wool over our eyes, at least in the long run.